Michael Phelps climbed the podium six times at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London while wearing a pair of bright-yellow Nike Flyknit Trainers to debut to the world. There wasn’t a bigger stage for Nike to presents its new knitted sneakers, until Kanye West decided to wear a different version of the sneaker three months later on the streets of the same city.
The “Black/White” Nike Flyknit trainer, which re-releases today, five years after its initial run, was a shoe that shifted the public’s obsession with sneakers. Sneaker “culture” had tailed off around 2009, in part due to the recession in America and a shift to more practical, everyday footwear choices. Nike SB Dunks and Air Force 1s, which had been the center of the scene, started to feel old, and people were looking for something new. Something they could wear without thinking about it too much. And the Flyknit Trainer was that shoe. It just took Kanye’s co-sign to let everyone know it was cool.
“Let’s trace back any major trend at that time, and the genesis is Kanye,” says Lawrence Schlossman, who is currently the Brand Director at Grailed and served as Four Pins’ Editor-in-Chief in 2012. “It was just a GR tech shoe, but I was like, ‘How is he wearing it? Skinny stacked jeans from the Kanye x APC collection.’ When a sneaker comes out, you’re just looking at product images. Nike’s not going to be like, ‘Here’s how to wear the shoe and make it look cool.’ But you have someone like Kanye, who’s maybe less concerned with that shit. He gave it a new lens to view the shoe through. That’s why that Flyknit Trainer is so hype.”
The re-release of the Flyknit Trainer is interesting, to say the least. It’s the sister shoe to the wildly popular Flyknit Racer, but was inexplicably shelved by Nike in 2014. The Racer would go onto become one of Nike’s most popular shoes over the past half decade, while the Trainer would fade into the brand’s archive and be worn by those who were lucky enough to get a pair a few years ago.
“The shoes were not so popular back in 2012,” remembers Pierre-Emmanuel Zamane, who runs a Facebook group, Flyknit France Club. “It was purely a demonstration of new Nike technology. The sneakers hit outlets here in France, but one day that guy named Kanye West decided to wear them, and the hype magic happened. I remember getting a pair for 50€ at a Nike Outlet. That’s insane.”
The sneaker resonated beyond the male-dominated sneaker subculture, piquing the interest of women, too, in part thanks to the growing athleisure trend that favored athletic shoes that could be worn in a fashionable yet athletic manner. “In the women's community, Flyknit definitely shifted the way women looked at shoes. They became more interested (or at least aware of) technology. It was pivotal in the athleisure world because it was actually a shoe that could go from performance to fashion,” says lifestyle blogger and influencer Anna Bediones, who has written for Complex and Finish Line in the past and done brand work with Nike and Jordan Brand. “I loved the Flyknit Trainer when I first saw it. I almost felt like I had the unpopular opinion because of how the Racer took off, and at the time, I could only choose one. I remember it vividly: there were two pairs left, a ‘Black/White’ Racer and a ‘Multi’ Trainer, and I picked the Trainer. Those ‘Multis’ eventually hit the outlets.”
It also changed the way guys looked at sneakers, and Kanye’s influence can’t be underestimated when it comes to the appeal of the Flyknit Trainers. Even for guys who were focused more on wearing American-made boots and shoes. “When they came out, I just walked in and bought a pair, and thought they were going to sell out immediately, because there was a new context around the shoe, thanks to Kanye, the lifestyle guru of all lifestyle gurus,” Schlossman says. “Who else could take a Nike performance product and wear it casually? Dudes were like, “Oh shit, I can wear this to the bar. I’m not even going to wear it to work out in. It just looks sick with this fit, because I just saw 25 pictures of Kanye wearing it in a month. That synergy appealed to a lot of cool guys who were dabbling in sneakers but were more accustomed to wearing boots and hardbottoms, or even more classic shoes, like Sambas or Stan Smiths. Without Kanye and that happening, I don’t think this shoe gets re-released. But because of him, there’s a mythical quality about this shoe.”
The re-release of the shoe does more than solidify its status as a modern-day classic of footwear design, it’s also giving people a chance to rediscover the shoe without paying outrageous resale prices. “Before the announcement of the new release deadstock pairs was at 350-400€ on the market so definitely people would prefer to pay $150 and get what they want,” Zamane says.
Flyknit technology might only be five years old, but it’s changed the way the sneaker industry works. The fact that we’re still talking about it, and anticipating old sneakers that feature the then-new technology, is proof of its staying power, even if people forget about Phelps wearing the shoes as he dominated the Olympics. It’s something Nike knew would happen from the start, even if the brand was going out on a limb. “We could see the amazing potential right away. It was clear that we were rewriting the rules of performance engineering. When we saw the leap that could be made by using Flyknit instead of cut and sew, it was like comparing airbrush to collage,” Nike CEO Mark Parker said in a 2015 interview. “It was the beginning of an innovation that has transformed our whole company, and what’s so exciting is that, even now, we are just starting to uncover the infinite possibilities of Flyknit.”
There’s a certain type of irony in Nike re-releasing a sneaker that was made famous by Kanye, who infamously left the brand to head to Adidas in late 2013 to make his own sock-like shoes, but it only makes the tale of the Flyknit Trainer all that more interesting. And now people will get a chance to buy that piece of history again.