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Nike Designers Speak on Finding their (React) Element

Date: September 12 2018

By: Rob Marfell

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Sneakers are a bit like coffee: people get maniacal about origin stories and production but the cream always rises to the top. That said, few rise as quickly as Nike’s React Element 87.

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The knobbly-soled runner has given scrollers cause to pause since it stepped onto Undercover’s Ready to Wear runway in March. A few colourways have glanced shelves since, but nowhere near enough to quench the thirst of a growing army of fans. And with Jun Takahashi’s colab looming, punters are as parched as ever.

We wanted to know more about the sneaker, so, just as you nag your busy barista when you want to know what went into your brew, we hit up React Element 87 designers Nate Jobe and Darryl Matthews to learn about the grind behind the shoe.

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‘We knew we had a banger, but we never knew it would be received in this way,’ says Matthews, the design lead of footwear innovation special projects. That hint of uncertainty is understandable. There isn’t much out there like the Element 87. With filament-thin uppers from the Zoom Fly, exposed panelling from ‘The Ten’, and React cushioning from its Epic predecessor, the components proved successful on their own. However, they’re disparate parts, so putting them together involves the kind of lateral, and possibly twisted, thinking we have to thank for honeyed bacon.

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When asked how these new performance aspects were hurtled into the lifestyle sphere, Matthews says they were trimming the fat by burrowing through midsoles. ‘We were already experimenting with eliminating excess material weight from existing foams. When we discovered a generative formula, it was only then we considered the new performance Nike React foam compound.’ As Beaverton explain in their ‘Behind the Design’ feature, designers got their groove on by taking to midsoles with drills. They used pressure maps gleaned from wear-testing to pinpoint unnecessary surplus and then bore it out. From there, Matthews used the excavated foam to make an algorithmically-patterned React sole unit. As he puts it, ‘it was the perfect marriage of both technologies.’

The two-day sketching process that followed involved investigating obscure combinations. Matthews assures his considerations were in line with everything Nike do best: giving wearers ‘all day, everyday comfort with the technical attributes of a performance shoe,’ and packaging it in a manner that was ‘physically and visually lightweight’. But when looking at his sketches, it’s obvious he was cooking something unique. One of his notes decrees to ‘keep eye stay facing edge loose’, and another suggests doubling the lateral Swoosh so that it cradles a contrasting minion. While not all ingredients made it through to the final recipe, those that did pamper tastes in a bizarre way that sneakerheads just can’t seem to get enough of.

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With the potpourri-hued Undercover colab nearly here, the big name behind the next React Element 87 is unclear. Will it stick to its high-fashion beginnings? To answer that, senior design director of footwear innovation projects, Nate Jobe, steps in. ‘We love to partner with our Nike family from time to time to introduce new projects. It creates an unexpected moment for the consumer where Nike innovation meets culture. Stay tuned…'

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