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blood, sweat, and rubber: nike on mercer street


Richard Clarke really likes the word “innovate.” In conversation, the global creative director of Nike Sportswear scatters the verb like a bee spreading pollen, as he tries to get to the essence of the brand he’s worked for these past dozen years. This, he emphasizes again and again, is what Nike does: Nike innovates. “The brand is constantly on a journey toward perfection,” Clarke notes. “From the first shoe Bill Bowerman ever made, the goal of Nike has been to innovate new solutions for athletes. Back in 1967, runners wore track spikes. But you can’t run long distances in spikes. Bill Bowerman saw a problem, so he innovated a solution—the Cortez.” And the rest, as they say, is history: The first cushioned running shoe, the Cortez launched not just a brand, and a new category of footwear, but an entire fitness revolution. Now, the Cortez is one of eight “Icon” styles by Nike that are being relaunched and re-innovated under the auspices of Nike Sportswear, a distinct division within Nike that made its debut this spring in Beijing. Pop-up Nike Sportswear shops have opened in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and cities throughout Europe; tomorrow, the first and only permanent Nike Sportswear store opens on Mercer Street, in Soho. Here, Clarke talks to about the compromises of sporting style, meaningful retail, and looking to Nike’s past in order to innovate Nike Sportswear’s future.
Can I admit to some confusion? What distinguishes Nike Sportwear from just, you know, Nike?

From the most utilitarian standpoint, the difference is that Nike Sportswear is dedicated to eight styles: the Icons. We wanted to create a space where breakthrough products like the Air Force 1 or the Eugene Track Jacket could be remixed, and brought up-to-date technologically. And more generally, we think of Nike Sportswear as a range that honors personal style—for many athletes, there’s an aesthetic sacrifice that comes with playing sports, either because you’re required to put on a uniform, or because the most functional shoe or shirt or what-have-you is just not to your taste. Nike Sportswear gives consumers the opportunity to carry a personal sense of style into the realm of athletics.
I think I might still be confused. Let’s start with the concept of “remix.” From a consumer perspective, what does that mean?

Take the Air Max 90: When that shoe was released, it was the most advanced running shoe around. A lot of people wound up wearing it just because they liked the way it looked, but its design was inspired by a leap forward in technology. That’s always been Nike’s brief—innovation first. We serve athletes. Now, some people still identify with the Air Max 90, they like the shoe, they feel an emotional connection to it. But in the past 18 years, Nike has continued to innovate, and the Air Max 90 is, technologically, a shoe that’s way behind. Nike Sportswear’s Air Max 90 looks like the iconic Air Max 90, but in terms of how the shoe works, it’s brand-new. We’ve worked the latest innovation into a classic body. And then, of course, consumers can remix that shoe themselves: We’re doing a bespoke program at the Mercer Street store that allows people to customize the colors and so on of all our Icon styles.
Thank you, much clearer. But you touched on something interesting in that explanation, which is the fact that a lot of Nike’s classic styles are classic, in part, because they wound up making a fashion statement. Is style vs. innovation a false opposition?

Nike Sportswear is founded on the idea that style and innovation needn’t be opposed. To some degree, we’re just acknowledging the fact that consumers adapt our products to their own needs. They cherry-pick. They wear extraordinarily high-tech running shoes just to walk around in, because those shoes are comfortable. And they identify with products in ways we didn’t foresee—like, the Nike Dunk, a basketball shoe, was embraced by skateboarders. Nike Sportswear’s attitude is, yes, do that. Make your own meanings. And while you’re at it, come into our store, and make your own shoe.
I know that the Nike Sportswear boutique is the only place the full range of Nike Sportswear products will be available, but what does that mean, beyond the eight Icon styles?

The New York store is going to be the home of a number of products available there and nowhere else—the 21 Mercer Nike LunaRacer and 21 Mercer Flywire Windrunner, for example. And then we’ll be offering a selection of products that Nike has introduced into other markets, but not in the United States.
The store is launching with a block party tonight. Any particular reason you’ve decided to concentrate the opening fanfare outside the store, instead of inside it?

We really want the Nike Sportswear store to belong to the community. I mean, that goes to the values of the brand, this idea that our products can be vehicles of expression for the people who use them, and that we embrace that expression, and look to it for inspiration. The design of the store reflects that idea, too. We sourced materials locally, grabbing whatever we could from old gymnasiums that were being torn down. It’s as though the Nike Sportswear store itself was built on the sweat and blood of athletes; for every strip of wood, there’s a story. Make your own story: That’s the point.


Photo: Courtesy of Nike Sportswear