March 1, 2017

Material Matters: the Resurrection of the adidas Tubular

The mind of a sneaker designer exists in a temporal limbo – creating for the future with constant reference to the past. It’s up to them to integrate cutting edge know-how into new styles while staying one step ahead of present trends. From time to time concepts can stray a little too far into the future, resulting in ideas that the world is not yet ready for – such are the perils of the visionary. The adidas Tubular was one such idea, but fortunately it got a shot at redemption.

You’re probably familiar with the modern-day sole design that belonging to the Tubular range. It appeared on the Y-3 Qasa in early 2013, before appearing in the adidas mainline just over a year later. A discovery deep within the adidas archive had motivated adidas Originals’ VP of global design  Nic Galway to revive the Tubular name, as well as the ambitious design ideals that kicked off the project almost three decades earlier.

The concept behind the design was born from the ongoing quest for superior cushioning that could give athletes that little extra kick that might shave a fraction of a second from their best times. In 1990, adidas designers began creating prototypes inspired by car tyres that featured inflatable rubber air bags with valves. They were cobbled together using parts from the Equipment series, with a Torsion bar and some industrial looking connectors. At the time, the fledgling line was called adidas Radical and it required an external pump attachment to inflate the sole unit.

The adidas Y-3 Qasa, 2013

The adidas Y-3 Qasa, 2013

In less than two years, the prototypes evolved into incredibly complex pieces of engineering – then in ’92 adidas took the unusual step of releasing a beta version of the Radical to the public. It was the only model of Radical to ever be made available and was limited to 500 pairs – it seems as though adidas were testing the waters to see how the public would react. The futuristic concept was also known as the X-29 and had four separate air chambers on the sole that could be adjusted using an integrated pump – they even had a digital LCD pressure gauge. It was an era of over-the-top tech, but even by today’s standards it’s impressive. The midsole was made from high-performance Pebax plastics, while the air chambers were made from poured rubber.

Those first 500 were recieved well, and just a year later the Tubular line launched, utilising all of the tech the Radical prototypes had pioneered. The Tubular 2 came with an external pump that could be attached to a valve on the side of the shoe. It was offered as the lightweight option, without the inbuilt mechanics, but only had two adjustable air bags in the heel and a forefoot that was cushioned with EVA foam. On the bulkier side of things the Tubular 4 had an integrated pump on the side and four separate air chambers, clearly based off the beta version of the previous year.

Only one more model in the range would release during the 90s, a cross trainer called the Tubular 2 XTR, which also featured an external pump. After that, the technical beast was relegated to a shelf in the archive. Designers worked on one more prototype, an advanced version of the Tubular 4, but were forced to concede to the fact that the technology they needed to manufacture the shoe didn’t exist yet. In essence, they were thinking too far ahead, the Tube was the future but the collective mindset was yet to catch up.

The pump that was built into the Tubular 4

The pump that was built into the Tubular 4

Before long, all except for a few crusty old sneakerheads had forgot the tyre-inspired shoe. But all was not lost, two decades after its disappearance designer Nic Galway was wandering the archives at Three Stripe central when he happened upon the OG Radical. He’d been dreaming of ways to use the brand’s heritage to take customers on a new journey and the old runners were just the thing. It wasn’t so much the technical features that got him thinking, but more the concept that the designers had been working with – the prototypes and the thought processes they illustrated.

In 2013 the market wasn’t oriented around technical silhouettes like it had been in the mid-90s, so Galway decided to strip back the Tubular to its core. He wasn’t just thinking about aesthetics but also looking to make the production process simpler in order to keep the shelf price down and avoid some of the issues that the original had encountered. The design he came up with was comprised of two densities of moulded EVA, in a tube-like shape that was wrapped around the sole – combining targeted support and cushioning. Instead of focussing on the engineering, the sole reimagined the concept with new methods of production. It was made in a way that wasn’t previously possible, but stood up to the vision that the designers had in the 90s. The idea resonated with Y-3 designer Yohji Yamamoto, so he and Galway came up with the Qasa – not strictly a Tubular but a hugely successful silhouette nonetheless.

Nic Galway

Nic Galway

The Tubular line made its triumphant return in 2014, equipped with new EVA foam sole. The design process had focussed on the overall form of the shoe, with materials chosen to fit the sculpted last and contribute to a dynamic look. The first design featured an upper based on the popular ZX range, which allowed an introduction of new ideas to be accessible via familiarity. Despite the ZX connection, it was the bulbous sole that really captured the public’s eye.

Soon adidas redesigned the upper of the new Tubular to mimic the OG versions. There’s never been a one-to-one retro but the influence is clear, for example the Tubular 2 has heavily influenced the Tubular 93. More recent additions to the line incorporate elements of the old designs into ultra-modern concepts – like the Tubular Doom which pairs an old-school lacing structure with cutting edge knitted construction.

The second gen Tubular range now makes up a huge portion of the adidas Originals offering, with a wide variety of styles, as well as multiple variations of the tube-shaped EVA sole. Not every forgotten shoe design gets a second chance at life, but some are too good to pass by. You just have to wait a little while for the world to catch up.

Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Laceless ClosuresNike’s Tuned Air and Future Fabrics.

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