Nike’s 36-Year Quest For The Transparent Sole

A pair of platinum-colored Nike running shoes seem to levitate above a pedestal in the middle of a circular room. The left and right sneakers point outward, each poised at 45 degrees. Spotlights give them an ethereal glow and, here and there, illuminate strands of silvery suspension filament strung from the ceiling in a “V.” The walls, floor, ceiling, and pedestal are all white, save for a deep blue circle painted above. Were a choir to file in and begin singing hallelujahs, it wouldn’t seem out of place. Instead, there is Brett Holts, Nike Inc.’s vice president for running footwear, surrounded by about a dozen reporters and photographers.

We are in Steve Prefontaine Hall, a glass-roofed exhibition space at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., on a rainy morning in February. Geese honk on a pond outside. Holts is holding a shoe identical to the ones dangling beside him: the VaporMax, whose distinguishing feature is a sole resembling bubble wrap. There’s no foam, no rubber—just clear, tubular, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) bags filled with air (nitrogen, to be precise). “This innovation is going to take us a big leap forward in the marketplace with runners,” Holts says. Figuring out how to make the VaporMax took seven years, he explains.

Back when Nike started on the shoe, the company dominated the American sneaker market so thoroughly that its rivals seemed to have surrendered. Others sold shoes, but only Nike sold cool. With LeBron James and Michael Jordan, a brand man since 1984, under contract, the company set the trends in basketball shoes, and basketball set the trends in the broader market. In 2010, according to Sporting Goods Intelligence Inc., Nike accounted for 40 percent of the U.S. athletic footwear market; five years later the number was 46 percent.

Recently, though, Nike’s rivals have reawakened. James now competes for the NBA spotlight with Stephen Curry, the reigning league MVP, who jumped from Nike to Under Armour Inc. in 2013, helping to triple the upstart brand’s annual footwear sales in three years. And even Jordan can’t command the buzz of hip-hop artist Kanye West and his signature Adidas shoe, the Yeezy, which has supplanted the Air Jordan as the prime status symbol among sneakerheads. West had been Nike’s biggest non-athlete endorser until he left in 2013, citing Adidas’s willingness to pay him royalties Nike wouldn’t. By the time his first Adidas shoe came out, in February 2015, consumers were also flocking to the company’s classic Stan Smith and Superstar low-tops and its new Boost running line. The following year, Adidas AG’s U.S. footwear market share increased almost 83 percent, according to NPD Group Inc.

Read more at Bloomberg.