Nike Air Lounge London: get to know the Nike Air VaporMax - The Drop Date

Nike Air Lounge London: get to know the Nike Air VaporMax



With excitement mounting ahead of the NIKE AIR VAPORMAX launch, we headed down to an invite-only space on Soho’s Greek Street — decorated externally by an indiscreet pair of oversized Swoosh logos — where Nike offered an unexpected preview of their March 26th Air Max offerings. The much-discussed Atmos Air Max 1 reissue was part of a Perspex-enclosed showcase of impending takes on old favourites, but the speculation regarding those Sportswear offerings is a discussion for another time.

Behind a second door was a showcase of Air VaporMax colourways (including some impending special projects that can’t be mentioned at time of writing) and an opportunity to try on the shoe in its lace-up form. As well as being the 30th anniversary of the aforementioned original chapter, Nike’s fourth Air Max Day celebration will be the first to debut a new real-deal performance iteration of the technology. Extremely light and not one for anyone looking to resurrect baggy denim any time soon, the VaporMax is a comfortable wear that brings back the uncompromised approach to looks that made a brace of earlier installments immortal. That experimental attitude and the emphasis on visibility are the only elements of this unique shoe that hark to past triumphs — the rest of this runner is focused on forward.

Surrounded by the Instagram-friendly lighting and inflatable decor, Nike Running International Product Development Manager Rory Fraser took some time out to talk VaporMax with Gary Warnett for The Drop Date.


What was the original VaporMax brief?

It was literally five words: maximise the experience of air. It’s easy to say but difficult to do. Essentially, a lot of early sketches were just the foot landing on an air bag and that’s it — strapping it with some string. It evolved from that. The more I see this shoe and talk to designers and engineers and understand all the way back to the very, very beginning, it’s incredible that they had the persistence and the brains to create something like this.

Obviously there are visual differences, but what does the VaporMax do that its predecessors didn’t?

As always, we like to add a few benefits. The main benefit is that it’s incredibly lightweight. You remove any of those layers that were adding weight — a lot of this is through the lens of running specifically. It also allows it to be incredibly flexible. We feel like we’ve just taken this to a brand new level. You can practically bend this in half [bends shoe] and it just moves with the foot really, really well.



How many iterations of the VaporMax have there been since it was originally briefed?

I think it’s been nearly six years since the pen went to paper. It’s been through multiple iterations since then through certain things — making sure that it sits exactly where it sits today. We actually went through 30 iterations of upper. It didn’t necessarily start with Flyknit. We wanted something that worked with the bag so you get that maximised sensation underneath your forefoot, but it’s something that moves with that bag as well. You couldn’t have something that was stiff. It definitely wasn’t one and done.

Was Flyknit always part of the plan? Going on that time scale, it hadn’t gone to market when the VaporMax project began.

When we talk about this shoe it might seem obvious that it has a Flyknit upper, but as you say, when it was first being created, Flyknit was very early. It wasn’t necessarily on the first versions of the shoe. We played with a lot of things and Flyknit evolved…the shoe evolved and we landed on this. It’s a good match.


Matching such a statement sole with an upper that complements it must be a significant challenge.

It’s very true. You’re probably going to see some things this year that take this into a whole new space.

Behind apparent simplicity there are probably a LOT of complications. How tricky was it to bring this concept to production?

Speaking to a lot of engineers and people who have been working on this shoe, there were a lot of different challenges in place. Really, you had to deconstruct how we make shoes in general — not just Air Max. If you look at a “traditional” Air Max, an air bag is made to fit between the outsole and the foam. This one doesn’t have that. There were multiple different times during the production that were a real headache, where someone could have said, “Let’s just put a layer of foam between it!” to make it easier for us, but it’s really a testament to the creative team that worked on this and said, “You know what? No.” They knew that there was a goal in sight and they had to get it right, so they ended up with something like this. When you’re forced to think outside the box you have to expand the parameters of design and construction. It’s something that people are pretty pumped about.


How important is it to keep an athlete in mind during the process? I don’t necessarily associate Air Max with athletes these days.

When you design through the lens of performance you push the boundary as opposed to creating something that’s just nice to wear around. As a result of that, we just work with a lot of runners to hear where they need more support, more comfort, more cushioning and less cushioning. So as a result of that, that’s where the design has ended up. It’s about removing the things that they don’t need. Through a very talented team of designers at Nike we can use those insights and make a shoe that performs incredibly well. If you want to wear it on a runway or with jeans, we are more than happy to let you do that!

I tend to look at a shoe like this as a piece of technology instead of an article of clothing. If you look at the Samsung debacle and the speed bad news travels in the digital space, a defect can be a disaster. How was the shoe tested to prevent that kind of thing?

Six years of testing is what it took to be honest. We had multiple different types of people. We had some people from the very beginning all the way through the process and we had a lot of our elite athletes test it too. We understood from there how it could be used as a tool in their toolbox and what kind if things they could use it for, whether it was for long or easy runs or whatever. We also have this large pool of people who test product for us across the world and we shared this with them and had them run in it. There were definitely some things that came back in the early sessions where it wasn’t performing as well as it could do in terms of the bag popping, which is why we went through this extensive process to ensure that what I have in my hands today is exactly where it needs to be.


Are those Air Max units made in the USA?

Yes. It’s made in Portland too. Many of them are made just behind where the campus is. Air is such a hot commodity for us and it’s something that’s synonymous with us. Having a facility so close allows us to work directly with engineers and the factories to make sure that we can keep things under wraps and allow things to surprise people. The levels of innovation they’re working on there are pretty remarkable and they’ve been working with it a long, long time.

It’s unusual in that a lot of American-made shoes use sole units made elsewhere — this turns that on its head. Is there a specific Air Max runner you talk about internally at Nike?

One of the most exciting things about this shoe is how it opens up a whole new world for Air Max. I’m not gonna put anyone in a box and say who needs to wear it or tell people what they like, because it’s done to personal preference, but there’s maybe been some people who were Nike fans before but never necessarily bought into the Air Max phenomenon, but also Nike fans who are not necessarily runners but for whom product never necessarily spoke to them. I think we have something so new, unique and so different that it’s going to bring a whole new consumer into the sport who might not have thought about it before.

Are there multiple different PSIs within that new Air Max unit?

These are two different bags. There are different PSIs in the chambers. It’s slightly softer in the forefoot and slightly firmer in the heel, so you get that firmer ride then a transition into the forefoot.


How much weight did the VaporMax shed over previous installments in the Air Max franchise?

We’ve taken away a significant amount of weight to the point where it’s barely recognisable as an Air Max shoe. That’s one of the reasons we’re so excited about it. One of the reasons that we go back to Air Max is that robust feel and this takes it into a whole new space. Air is always going to stand for something incredibly disruptive and with the weight, the look and that performance, it does everything we wanted it to do.

We used to compare a running shoe innovation to a “traditional” running shoe, but over the last decade it seems like that has been eliminated. What are you defining as a “normal” running product nowadays?

I think it’s an interesting question — to even ask that question indicates how far we’ve come. It’s definitely not just split shorts any more! Now, runners come from all different backgrounds, ages and genders. I think we’ve gone through multiple waves of runners — the jogging boom then the jogging boom 2.0, now we’re talking a lot at Nike being about 2017 being the year of running redefined. What does all that stuff mean? What kind of shoe can meet those audiences? We’ve got a lot of shoes coming that, combined with this one, will talk to that idea of running’s redefinition by the end of the year. It’ll be interesting to sit down at the start of 2018 and see where everything has landed and, hopefully, there’ll be a whole new bunch of runners out there who would never really have thought about the sport.


Even behind something so contemporary — something that seems to be the anthesis of retro — I can see that this shoe is the answer to something Nike has been chipping away at since the start.

It’s like when you see interviews with a director like James Cameron and he’ll mention that he wanted to make a certain thing 20 years ago but the technology didn’t exist. It’s something we’ve been talking about doing for a long time. We’re creating those technologies that didn’t exist.



Organising the Chaos

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