How Nike Won the Cultural Marathon

For its 50th anniversary this year, Nike could have done a lot of things. It could have done many fashion brands and had a series of enormous parties in multiple capitals around the world with special guests like LeBron James and Billie Eilish and Naomi Osaka and Travis Scott, all of whom work with the brand. It could be a limited-edition coffee-table tome full of glossy photos of sneakers treated like art. It could have been created “50 and Fabulous” merch (or something).

But Nike has done none of that. In fact, the only sort of anniversary thing it has done thus far is roll out the old Spike Lee character Mars Blackmon, to better illustrate a new “anthem” called “Seen It All,” and suggest that, actually, we have not ‘t. Which may be the truth of something – if there’s one thing you learn in both sports and fashion, it’s that there’s always someone coming up behind you – and also something of a humble brag.

Because after half a century there is no escaping the fact that if Goldman Sachs was once described as a “vampire squid” on the face of humanity, Nike has become part of the root system that underlies the culture. And not just sneaker culture.

Nike, named for the Greek goddess of victory, has become not only the most valuable apparel brand in the world (worth more than twice as much as Adidas, its closest sportswear rival, and ahead of Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel). It is part of the movies we watch, the songs we listen to, the museums we frequent, the business we do; part of how we think about who we are and how we got here.

It is, said Robert Goldman, co-author of “Nike Culture: The Sign of the Swoosh” and professor emeritus at Lewis & Clark College, “An emblem of individuality, an age where individuality has become rampant” that also happens be the one that can read by the masses.

Forget Niketown. To a certain extent we are all citizens of Nikeland now.

It has its founding fathers: Phil Knight, a former University of Oregon runner, and Bill Bowerman, his college coach, who famously poured rubber into his wife’s waffle iron to make a new running sole. It has an anthem: “Just Do It,” introduced in 1988. Most of all, maybe, it has an emblem.

That puts it closer in history to brands such as Coke, IBM, Disney and McDonald’s than any athletic or even fashionable name. The only other brand to leap so effectively and completely from commodity to identity in the last half-century is Apple.

Which is why, as Nike reacts to its golden anniversary, it’s worth considering how the swoosh became the branding earwig of the millennium, tunneling into our brains to colonize our imaginations. It’s a story about sports, sure, and marketing, and the luck of being a sports company when the rise of Casual Fridays and a global pandemic drove into the world of sneakers and Lycra.

But even more, it’s a story about how we construct the myths of ourselves.

Ask many people who work at Nike or with Nike why they wanted to join the company, and many of them will start by telling you about their childhood.

John Hoke, chief design officer of Nike, who has been with the company for 30 years, was a preteen when he wrote a letter to Mr. Knight is offering a new shoe design, and got a note and a pair of waffle trainers to return to. (He has a picture of himself wearing the shoes while playing tennis at his office at Nike HQ in Portland, Ore.)

Virgil Abloh, the late Off-White and Louis Vuitton designer whose reinvention of Nike’s most famous shoes applied to sneakers, used to talk about sleeping with a pair of Jordan 5s “at the end of the bed so I could see it. in the morning “when he was growing up. Yoon Ahn, the designer behind the Japanese streetwear brand Ambush who has been working with Nike since 2018, said that Nikes was the first pair of shoes she bought with her own money. She now has a storage room full of them.

This is a reflection of the way the company has woven itself into the social memory bank.

In 1992, Mr. Knight gave an interview to Harvard Business Review in which he said one of Nike’s biggest breakthroughs was – not the waffle sole or the Air Force 1 or the Air Jordan or Flyknit (those were important, of course) but – the realization that they were not ‘ t just selling sneakers.

Created by Carolyn Davidson, a recent graphic design graduate of Portland State University, and trademarked in 1971, the swoosh was supposed to be a nod to Nike’s wings, but also a subconscious reference to a check mark. And while it was originally treated with some suspicion by Mr. Knight, who thought it looked like “a big comma,” according to Mr. Goldman, it has morphed, he said, “from a sort of meaningless smudge” into an emblem with swollen associations.

(Nike briefly considered burying the swoosh in 1998 after reports of unsafe working conditions in Asia as well as allegations of child labor made in it. The uproar did lead to some public penitence on the part of Nike executives and new business practices, however, the brand eventually stuck with its swoosh.

That’s why, as Nike embraced the heroic form of Michael Jordan, its first and most important partner, giving him control over his own brand in a way no sports star had before; As they famously bought up athletes and teams (more than 10,000 at last count) and sliced ​​and diced their specialties in sports – running and basketball into tennis, soccer, ice hockey and skateboarding; And as they named the buildings on their campus after Serena Williams and LeBron James, they did something else: They wooed an entire universe of non-sport subcultures.

And subcultures created sneakerheads. The swoosh became their not-so-secret sign.

It’s possible that the first public sneakerhead was actually the goggle-eyed Knicks fan Mars Blackmon, played by Spike Lee in Air Jordans and a Brooklyn cycling cap, Mr. Lee’s 1986 film “She’s Gotta Have It.”

The character’s obsession with his airs, which he wore in bed, caught the eye of Nike’s ad gurus, who asked the indie Lee to make some commercials with Mr. Jordan. It was a pairing that transcended sport and film to create a new kind of franchise.

“They realized something was going on,” said Fraser Cooke, a former DJ and hairdresser who co-founded FootPatrol, one of the early cult sneaker stores in London. Jordan plus Lee led urban communities, and urban communities were birthing hip-hop, and hip-hop culture was on its way to being “the dominant subculture,” complete with Nikes as part of the dress code. Suddenly sneaker executives started to think like social anthropologists.

Mr. Cooke met Mark Parker, then Nike’s chief executive, in 2003, when Mr. Parker and a few other colleagues were on a covert tour of London’s underground (the substrata’s cool, not the subway system). Shortly thereafter, they offered him a job as a crescent to the edge of an ambassador, romancing what was bubbling up and dousing it in the world.

“My job was to work with outsiders,” said Mr. Cooke, who now has the very elaborate (and constantly changing) title of senior director, global special projects and catalyst brand management.

Since then, he’s been responsible for bringing in a host of edgy, not-part-of-sports names with his own followings: Comme des Garçons, Riccardo Tisci (when he was at Givenchy), Kim Jones of Dior Abloh (long before he was a twinkle in Louis Vuitton’s eye), Chitose Abe of Sacai. (There is also an arms race of sorts going on between fashion partners for sneaker brands, as lines between different segments of “apparel” get mushier and mushier.) Catalyst brand management also spearheads relationships with other nontraditional Nike partners like Travis Scott, Drake and Billie Eilish. General Chat Chat Lounge

The point is to design “not items but ideas,” Mr. Hoke said. When the artist Tom Sachs signed on more than a decade ago, he said he wanted to build a solid bronze skateboard ramp. (That didn’t go over well, but it led to the Mars Yard shoe and a foray into melding Nikes and the moon shot.) Which is why outsiders of this particular group are called catalysts rather than collaborators, collaborators who have become a dime. A dozen – and pretty starkly – transactional rather than theoretical.

“They created that merging of worlds that pulled in the masses,” said Ariana Peters, one of the owners of the Chicks with Kicks sneaker collection. With more than 6,000 pairs, it is one of the largest private sneaker collections in the world – and 75 percent of it is Nikes.

That merging, said Megan Rapinoe, the soccer player-activist who has been with Nike since she graduated in 2009 but is now introducing a newly branded line of her own under the Aegis of Nike, “is everything.”

“The real power is in the cultural piece,” Ms. Rapinoe said. “It’s all on the runway and in the tunnel before games. It ‘s all on the courtside and the red carpet. With the media and social media the way it is, everyone knows the whole vibe all the time. “

“It’s ingeniously aligned with almost every super-important cultural moment and person,” said Brahm Wachter, head of streetwear and modern collectibles at Sotheby’s. It can toggle from “Forrest Gump” to Nyjah Huston; Mia Hamm to “Lost in Translation”; Kobe Bryant to “The Breakfast Club”; Naomi Osaka to “Back to the Future.”

From the Met Gala, courtesy of Serena Williams, who wore a pair of chartreuse Nike x Off-White “Air” Jordans with her flower-sprinkled yellow Versace gown to co-host 2019, putting Nike on the same footing as Anna Wintour’s Manolos. , to fronting Colin Kaepernick after he took a knee during the National Anthem.

There is a throughline to that from Michael Jordan’s first Air Jordans, who were banned from the basketball court for not adhering to the NBA dress code. At the time, Mr. Knight told the Harvard Business Review the ban “was great! We actually welcome the kind of publicity that pits us against the establishment, as long as we know the right side of the issue. “

The irony is, of course, that at this point Nike is pretty much the establishment. It is, Mr. Wachter said, “part of our heritage.”

That is why all of the footwear Sotheby’s has sold since it decided in 2020 to create a sneaker category and hold regular auctions – now eight to 10 a year – is about 95 percent of the stock made up of Nikes. Why the most expensive shoe ever sold at auction is a Nike. (That would be Kanye West’s Nike Air Yeezy prototypes, which we wore at the 2008 Grammys and which were purchased in 2021 for $ 1.8 million.) Why there are Nikes in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And it has meant that despite some potential damning missteps, including the sweatshop scandal of the 1990s, repeated allegations of unsafe factory conditions, as well as recent revelations about Nike’s treatment of female athletes, especially pregnant female athletes, and discrimination against Female employees (resulting in a pending lawsuit) Nike has managed to maintain its dominant position in the global psyche. This is the critical deflection of Nike superstars like Kanye West (now deeply entrenched in Adidas after leaving Nike in a huff in 2013), Allyson Felix and Simone Biles. And its occasional attempts to squash the little guy, by throwing his weight around and suing such upstarts as MSCHF (they settled) and StockX.

It is a balancing act that is almost unique in consumer culture: grow into a gigantic publicly listed brand with more than 73,000 employees and revenues of $ 44.6 billion for fiscal 2021 and maintain an aura of niche.

It is both the elephant in the room and the prairie dog; The outfitter is not just the entire team but almost the entire league – and the lone runner in the wilderness. It’s no accident that Mr. Sachs’ new General Purpose Shoe, released in early June and transcendently normcore, means as a repudiation of the need to buy a new sneaker every week, a strange proposition for a company built on selling sneakers. But it is one that, like its purchase of the virtual sneaker company RTFKT, may suggest where the company is going next. (That shoe sold out almost immediately, and therefore is well on its way to being a collector’s item, is part of the paradox.)

Nike has become, Mr. Goldman said, “A consumer product that somehow appears to challenge the idea of ​​consumerism.” That makes it awfully close, he said, to “the modern condition.”

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