The way Nike won the Cultural Marathon

For this year’s 50th anniversary, Nike could do a lot more. It could do what many fashion brands do and had a series of huge parties in multiple capitals around the world with special guests like LeBron James and Billy Hilsa and Naomi Osaka and Travis Scott, all of whom work with the brand. It could issue a limited edition coffee-table tome full of glossy photos of sneakers behaving like art. It can make “50s and gorgeous” merchandise (or something).

But Nike did nothing of the sort. In fact, the only anniversary thing it has done so far is to roll out the old Spike Lee character Mars Blackman, to portray a new “music” called “Sen It All” and to suggest that, in fact, we are not Heaven which could be something of truth. – If you learn one thing in both sports and fashion, it is that there is always someone behind you – and something of a humble boast.

Because even after half a century, the fact remains that if the Goldman Sachs was once described as a “vampire squid” in the face of humanity, Nike has become part of the underlying core system of culture. And not just sneaker culture.

Named after the Greek goddess of victory, Nike has not become the world’s most expensive clothing brand (more than double the price of Adidas, its closest sportswear rival and ahead of Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel). 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.

Robert Goldman, co-author of “Nike Culture: The Sign of the Soch” and an Emeritus Professor at Lewis & Clark College, said: Which can be read by the public.

An undated photo provided by Nike shows a Nike tennis shoe (Nike via New York Times)

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

Its founding father: Phil Knight, a former runner at the University of Oregon and his college instructor Bill Bowerman, who famously made a new running sole by pouring rubber into his wife’s waffle iron. It has a music: “Just Do It”, introduced in 1988. Most likely, it has a symbol.

To do it

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

John Hoque, Nike’s chief design officer who has been with the company for 30 years, was a protg when he wrote a letter to Knight offering a new shoe design and received a note and a pair of waffle instructors in return. (There is a picture of him wearing shoes while playing tennis in his office at Nike headquarters in Portland, Oregon.)

Virgil Abloh, the late off-white and Louis Vuitton designer who applied a Warholian method to sneakers to renew Nike’s most famous shoes, talked about sleeping with a pair of Jordan 5s at the end of the bed “as if I could see it in the morning” when Eun was growing up. Ahn, a designer at Japanese streetwear brand Ambush who has been working with Nike since 2018, says Nike is the first shoe he bought with his own money and now has a full storage room.

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

In 1992, Knight gave an interview to Harvard Business Review in which he stated that one of Nike’s biggest successes was – not the Waffle Soul or Air Force 1 or Air Jordan or Flyknit (these were important, of course) but – the realization that they weren’t just selling sneakers. .

Created by Caroline Davidson, a recent graphic design graduate of Portland State University and trademarked in 1971, the shake was considered a consent for Nike’s wings, but also a subconscious reference to a check mark. And although it was originally treated with some skepticism by Knight, who thought it was “a big comma,” according to Goldman, it was transformed, he said, “from a kind of meaningless smoke” into a symbol swollen with association.

(After Nike turned it into a poster child for corporate ignorance in 1998 due to reports of unsafe working conditions at its subcontractor factory in Asia, as well as child labor allegations, and activists forced the label to be labeled “swooshticka”. There was some public remorse, but the brand eventually got stuck in its shake.)

For this reason, Nike embraced heroism in the form of its first and most notable partner, Michael Jordan, giving him control over his own brand in a way that no sports star has ever had before; Since they have famously bought athletes and teams (more than 10,000 in the last count) and cut their specialties into sports – from running and basketball to tennis, soccer, ice hockey and skateboarding; And because they named the buildings on their campus after Serena Williams and James, they did something else: they attracted an entire universe of non-sports subcultures.

And subcultures have created sneakerheads. Shaking became their secret symptom.

OG Sneakerhead

It is possible that the first public sneakerhead was actually a goggle-eyed New York Knicks fan, Mars Blackman, who played Lee and a Brooklyn cycling cap in Lee’s 1986 film “She’s Gotta Have It”.

His character obsession with Airs, which he wore to bed, caught the eye of Nike’s ad gurus, who asked Indy Lee to make some ads with Jordan. It was a pairing that went beyond sports and movies to create a new kind of franchise.

“They realized something was going on,” said Fraser Cook, a former DJ and hairdresser who co-founded a footpath with one of London’s first cult sneaker stores. Jordan Plus Lee led the urban community, and urban communities were giving birth to hip-hop, and hip-hop culture was on its way to becoming a “major subculture”, complete with Nike as part of the dress code. Suddenly sneaker executives began to think like social anthropologists.

Cook met Mark Parker, then CEO of Nike, in 2003, when Parker and a few other colleagues were on a secret underground tour of London (Cool Level, not the subway system). Shortly afterwards, Nike offered him a job as an Edge Ambassador, romance that was bubbling up and spreading it into a world of excitement.

“My job was to work with outsiders,” says Cook, who now has a very broad (and constantly changing) title of Senior Director, Global Special Project and Catalyst Brand Management.

Since then, he has been responsible for bringing many names that are not part of the sport with their own followers: Comme des Garçons, Riccardo Tisci (starting when he was in Givenchy), Dior’s Kim Jones, Abloh (long ago he was Louis Vuitton’s eyelid), Chitos Abe of Sakai. (There’s a kind of arms race between sneaker brands for fashion partners, as the lines between different parts of “clothing” get mushy and mushy.) Catalyst brand management also leads relationships with other unconventional Nike partners such as Travis Scott, Drake and Hilsa.

The point is “not the item but the design of the idea,” Hok said. When artist Tom Shass signed on more than a decade ago, he said he wanted to create a sturdy bronze skateboard ramp. (It didn’t go very well, but it did lead to an expedition to match Mars Yard’s shoes and Nike and Moon shots.) .

There is no end line

“It’s cleverly aligned with almost every crucial cultural moment and person,” says Brahma Watchter, head of Sotheby’s Streetwear and Modern Collection. It can toggle from Nyjah Huston to “Forrest Gump”; “Lost in Translation” from Mia Hamm; Kobe Bryant at “The Breakfast Club”; “Back to the Future” from Osaka.

From the Met Gala, courtesy of Williams, who wore a pair of Chartreuse Nike x off-white “Air” Jordans with her flower-sprinkled yellow Versace gown to co-host in 2019, putting Nike in the same position as Anna Winter’s Manolos, during the national anthem In front of Colin Kepernick after kneeling.

Jordan’s first airline has a through line from Jordan, which was banned from basketball courts for not complying with the NBA dress code. At the time, Knight told the Harvard Business Review that the ban was “great! We actually welcome the kind of publicity that stands against our establishment, unless we know we’re on the right side of the issue.”

Ironically, Nike is pretty much established at the moment. This, the Watchtower says, is “part of our heritage.”

That’s why all of Sotheby’s shoes have been sold since the decision to create a sneaker division in 2020 and hold regular auctions – now eight to 10 a year – about 95% Nikes. So Nike has sold the most expensive shoes at auction. (This will be the Nike Air Yeezy prototype from Kanye West, which Yay wore to the 2008 Grammy and which was purchased in 2021 for 1.8 million.) And why the Nike has a permanent collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nike has become, Goldman says, “a consumer product that somehow seems to challenge the notion of consumerism.” That makes it terribly close to “modern conditions,” he said.

This article was originally published in the New York Times.

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