Nike's latest innovation is one that they'll be hoping makes history.
Last year, Nike and a group of elite marathon runners set out to put their names in the history books by running a marathon in under two hours for the first time ever. 2016 Olympic gold medallist Eliud Kipchoge came closest, running the 26.2 miles in 2:00:25.
The Kenyan was 25 seconds away from immortality. The slimmest of margins. Knowing that sport is all about marginal gains, Nike went back to the drawing board to find the latest innovation that could push Eliud ever closer to the 120 minute mark. The Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite Flyprint is the result.
The new running shoe features the first ever 3D-printed upper in performance footwear, shaving six per cent of the weight from the shoes that Eliud wore last year. The development is the first sign that 3D printing has the potential to push sportswear further and faster than has ever previously been possible.
We caught up with Senior Footwear Director at Nike Running, Brett Schoolmeester, to get the inside track on the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite Flyprint.
COMPLEX: This is a release that’s been kept under very tight wraps by Nike. Give us the lowdown on what’s so special about Flyprint?
Brett Schoolmeester: We came so close with Breaking 2 last year – Eliud ran 2:00:25 – but not resting on our laurels we challenged ourselves to improve right away. We know that weight is the enemy of going fast, so we wanted to take weight off the shoe but not touch the midsole because we knew that was working really well. We zeroed in one the upper – how could we make this a lighter weight? We’ve been using 3D printing for a long time at Nike on various projects – we used 3D printed plates in Rio and also made a combine boot that was so successful in the NFL it was banned! We’ve been using it to make uppers but mostly for visuals but some time last summer we figured there’s more potential here than just creating prototypes of templates of what’s to come in 2020...we felt we could make a performance upper. In December 2017, we came with a rough sample and concluded that we can make a lighter-weight upper with this technology and move really fast. We can design something, print it and test it all in a single day...and we landed on Flyprint. The most important thing to note here is that this isn’t a 3D-printed upper for the sake of it, it was the absolute best solution to take weight off. It’s 6% lighter than the shoe from Breaking 2 last year – we took 11 grams off – and that’s all in the upper, the midsole is the exact same.
What’s the feedback been like from Eliud? It sounded like this project moved so quickly, did you still have time to work with him on refining this design and making sure it’s a shoe that does actually work on marathon days?
We showed Flyprint to Eliud in the early days, sure. Coming off the Berlin marathon last year – when he ran a great time but it was a wet day – he said the old shoe got heavier because it absorbed water. He looked at the Flyprint and while his team were concerned because they said this upper will let water in, Eliud had the foresight to see that it will actually let water out and won’t absorb anything. The 11 gram difference between Flyknit and Flyprint could get even bigger towards the end of a race. Eliud feels super confident in this shoe and he’ll be wearing it in the London Marathon.
How advantageous have you found the 3D printing process when it comes to things like efficiency and making changes quickly?
It’s been massive. Getting to a finish this quickly is totally new territory. We made six different versions of the shoe, we printed hundreds of versions of the upper and designed thousands. To move that quickly is a huge advantage and it potentially brings about an entirely new product cycle, we can get innovations to athletes so much quicker and help them break records.
3D printing doesn’t feel as new as it once did but I still think it’s not taken wholly seriously by most people – I guess so many still treat it as a novelty. Do you feel like we’re now reaching a point with 3D printing where it has legitimate advantages and isn’t just a plaything for brands or PR?
Absolutely. I won’t speak for how other people are using it but I do feel for most releases in this area that I’ve seen, the selling point is that it’s 3D printed...that’s not our message here, our message is that we’ve made a better shoe. If it was a cut and sew cloth fabric that made a better shoe, that’s what we’d use but this time it wasn’t. We should always be making things that are better.
It’s such a visually striking shoe – what’s the technical process behind getting this mesh effect with 3D printing?
So with that we’ve printed multiple layers down on top of each other to create that effect and the right structure, which is what also gives it that amazing colour range.
How much can you tell us about the visual inspirations behind this release?
Colour should always enhance the shoe and we wanted it to look fast and also showcase the rich detail of this production process, especially for something as special as this. This colourway is inspired by Eliud’s training environment in Kenya, he trains on a lot of beautiful red clay roads surrounded by grass and trees...it’s a very organic environment. We wanted the shoe to reflect how beautiful Eliud’s natural space is.
Eliud Kipchoge will race his next marathon on April 22 in London wearing his Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite Flyprint. That weekend, a limited run of the shoes will be sold in London through the Nike App.