August 21 2014

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Can’t Kick the Swoosh: A One-on-One With Nike CEO Mark Parker



Clad in his signature blazer, light blue shirt, dark jeans, and black sneakers embellished with gleaming white swooshes, Nike CEO Mark Parker took the stage in Barcelona last week like the Steve Jobs of sports gear. A crowd including just about every soccer journalist in the world, along with a smattering of international fashion and lifestyle media, had gathered in the Spanish city, where football is worshiped with religious fanaticism, to see Parker introduce Nike’s latest project: the Magista football boot. (That’s a soccer cleat to you, Yankees.) The new shoes will be worn by more than seventy players during the World Cup in Brazil this June.

The Magista’s radical design features a knit upper with a collar that covers the ankle. Not the most exciting footwear development for those who aren’t concerned with ball control, but as with any Nike announcement, it offered an occasion to consider how the sportswear giant will continue to keep a foothold in style.

Many Nike innovations—Free, Flyknit, Lunar—find a second life in the fashion world. For Parker, who got his start at Nike in 1979 working as a footwear designer, that’s an unintended side effect of the process. Even so, it was impossible to escape the swoosh during the Fall ’14 shows, as everyone from Susie Bubble to My Theresa’s Veronika Heilbrunner mixed Nikes with their high-styled fashion week looks. And then, of course, there’s Riccardo Tisci, whose admiration for the brand has manifested in a much-buzzed-about range of collaborative kicks. Here, Parker talks to about authenticity, the sport-fashion crossover, and what it means to be an innovator.

“Innovation” is a word that gets thrown around a lot when you talk to people at Nike. From a design perspective, what does the word mean to you?
Well, it is a word that I think, just in the general vernacular, gets thrown around too much and abused. I’m not speaking about Nike necessarily—just in general.

For us it actually means creating a product that is truly new and better, so it’s about improving. We’re a performance-based company; we strive to help athletes get better and realize their potential. But “better” is a key word.

We take input from everyone, so the innovation process at Nike is driven by being incredibly observant; by the relationship we have with athletes; and by the deep, personal connections we have. We don’t just think about what athletes need to perform but what they need as individuals, as people with opinions. It’s not just about performance but aesthetics, too. So all of that gets factored in along with the latest in technologies, materials, components, and processes to improve.

You mentioned aesthetics. Often the big Nike innovations trickle down into the Nike Sportswear line, or they wind up being used by people who aren’t just concerned about performance but about fashion and style. At what point does that enter the equation?
Along the way. In many cases, after the fact. We don’t set out to try to be fashionable. That’s a by-product or a result. That’s fine. But we’re driven by trying to solve problems, and those problems are primarily functional problems.

We do, as I said, take into account the aesthetic, because that’s really important as an athlete—how do you look? When you look at yourself in the mirror, you want to look like you’re fast, you want to look like you’re strong, you want to look like you’re expressive, you have your own personal style. That’s part of the process, but it’s not like we’re sitting there saying, “We need to create something that is driven by trying to be fashionable.”

I think the authenticity and the uniqueness that comes from solving problems—the form that follows the function—is what makes us interesting from a fashion standpoint.

Nike Street Style

You look at street style during fashion week, or the front row at big fashion shows, and a lot of people are wearing Nike or other performance-oriented sneakers. Why do you think that is?
Well, like I said, I think there’s an authenticity, a purity. I was just chatting with somebody about relationships that we’ve had or discussions with different fashion designers who wanted to work with Nike. And one of the things that’s sort of an undercurrent and that causes Nike’s appeal is the fact that we’re real, that we’re authentic. They may not be—and in many cases they’re not—athletes and they’re not buying that product to perform, but they like the fact that this is real and it’s authentic and it’s coming from that.

And, you know, other people authenticate that, legitimize it, in one world. Sport and fashion and music and art, for that matter, they overlap. So those worlds constantly affect each other—I think that’s one of the reasons why sport and the aesthetic of sport is quite appealing to the fashion world.

The collaboration with Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci is a recent example of Nike’s crossover into the fashion world, but otherwise there are limited fashion designer collaborations with Nike. I wonder if you could talk about why that’s the case, and if there will be more in the future.
Well, a lot of those collaborations are really driven from putting ourselves in a position to be exposed to different points of view. I love actually putting different creative people together, people who have unique points of view, sometimes very personal. And then that exchange of ideas that those perspectives, the mash-ups, whether it’s individuals or cultures, I think is where some truly unique ideas come from.

I firmly believe that great ideas can come from everywhere. How observant are you? How good is your peripheral vision? How open are you to influences? We like to put ourselves in a position to actually collaborate, connect.

I’m not driven by an interest in creating a collection that’s ongoing, that’s a division of Nike based on a fashion designer. The people we collaborate with first and foremost are the athletes—that’s always been the case since Day One. I find creative people, whether it’s somebody coming from the fashion world—it could be music, it could be art—we work with people in the movie business: costume designers. Really great ideas just come from that interchange. So it’s part of the process.

Does it ever surprise you which of Nike’s many innovations really take hold and are embraced by a larger swath of the culture beyond just performance athletes?
I don’t have some magic ability to project things that will become popular in a broad sense or not. I think my intuition, particularly from being around this for a long time, is pretty good. But there are surprises here and there about things that actually start from maybe a smaller niche-type product and move into something that’s a bit more mainstream. I mean, that’s part of the excitement of what we do.

You don’t know. People have a choice, and then somebody picks something up, they put it together—it could be outside of the sports world—they put it together in the fashion sense and all of a sudden, boom: They’ve authenticated that product in a different way than an athlete does. So that’s great. Come on down! It’s all a part of it.

Photos: Tommy Ton