The best collaborations are spectacular creative collisions that transcend the status quo, creating a unified product that adds up to a sum far greater than its collective parts. In the footwear world, a fresh coat of paint on a beloved classic just doesn’t cut it these days. Long before these co-branded product marriages hogged our daily newsfeeds, adidas and innovation giant 3M pioneered the concept by joining forces in the 1970s to produce the Nite Jogger. A cult classic since day one, the Nite Jogger was the first sneaker to flaunt cutting-edge 3M™ Scotchlite™ Reflective Material as a safety feature for after-dark runners. Now, more than four decades later, adidas have reconnected with 3M to once again push the high-vis concept to the outer limits. We recently hit up 3M’s St. Paul, Minnesota HQ for an insider’s look at the past, present and future of reflective footwear.
Reflecting on adidas and 3M’s Nite Jogger Heritage
Date: October 03 2019
The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company – now officially known as 3M – was founded in 1902 to harvest the minerals used in grinding wheels. The original business venture didn’t quite work out as planned, but 3M quickly regrouped and, by the 1930s, the firm had diversified with the creation of waterproof sandpaper and their invention of Scotch™ brand masking and cellophane tapes.
Innovation has been at the core of the company since the earliest days. Employees are encouraged to experiment outside their job jurisdiction, resulting in groundbreaking products such as magnetic recorders and even the world’s first synthetic turf. With nearly six per cent of their +$33 billion in sales revenue invested back into R&D every year, it’s no surprise to learn that 3M was officially granted their 100,000th patent in 2014. And just think about how many Post-it® Notes have been sold over the years! However, for knowledgeable sneakerheads, the 3M name is most synonymous with one key product.
Like many of 3M’s innovations, 3M™ Scotchlite™ Reflective Material was born out of hard work and perseverance. As the story goes, a reflective substance was initially developed in the 1930s to enhance visibility on Minnesota roads.
After applying it to a local highway as a test, the team returned a few days later to find the material had blown away and landed on a fence post. That mishap inspired a total rethink, with brilliant results.
Released with the familiar Scotch name, Scotchlite was introduced to the world via traffic signs that lit up at night when headlights bounced back. The silver material was also sold in adhesive pads for use on bikes, boats, snowmobiles, mobile homes, and just about anything else that could benefit from visibility after dark. By 1948, Scotchlite was featured on a range of letterman jackets, baseball caps, raincoats, and even dog leads splashed with the distinctive reflective panelling.
The potential applications for Scotchlite started to take shape through the 1950s as 3M developed garments and equipment that emphasised the safety of workers. Police, fire fighters, road workers, miners and roughnecks have all benefited from the high-vis vests and traffic control devices developed by 3M. Working safely at night is no joke when your life is on the line.
As the 1970s rolled around, 3M introduced yet another innovation. By bonding retroreflective lenses – essentially clusters of tiny glass beads – to a heat-activated adhesive tape, 3M had worked out how to apply reflectivity to just about any flexible surface.
The technology couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The jogging boom was inspiring wannabe marathon runners all over North America and Europe to hit the roads in huge numbers, while the burgeoning interest in performance footwear at ever escalating price points emboldened brands like adidas to invest in their own R&D departments. Tech-heavy design concepts and quasi-scientific terminology infiltrated catalogue descriptions as amateur runners demanded the most advanced sneakers that money could buy.
The adidas team in France is officially credited with developing the idea of a ‘road runner conceived for the after dark jogger.’ Christened the ‘Nite Jogger’ for obvious reasons, the streamlined design made use of ‘phosphorescent heel stripes’ to up the high-vis ante. Sold under the tagline, ‘the shoe to be seen in,’ the Nite Jogger concept took runner safety to a new dimension.
The model itself was pitched as a tough shoe built specifically for life on the road. Knobbly ‘traction’ soles delivered grip underfoot, while the ghilly lacing system used plastic D-rings to lock the feet in place. Rather than basic mesh, the upper was made from cangoran, a durable synthetic developed to replace kangaroo leather. Gold adidas branding on the tongue was a classy touch that completed the performance package.
The Nite Jogger was a sales success and remained in the adidas line-up for several years. In 1980, the formula was tweaked slightly with updated toe bumpers and the addition of herringbone soles. By 1983, seven years after it debuted, the Nite Jogger had become a Scandinavian-exclusive due to its popularity in the region. However, by the end of that same year, the model pretty much disappeared from adidas catalogues, and the Nite Jogger was quietly retired until further notice.
The Modern Era
With only sporadic sightings via random vintage collections and obscure Japanese auction sites, the OG Nite Jogger would remain a dormant delicacy. Complete with fluoro pop panels in original-spec solar orange or black onyx – not to mention those trademark Scotchlite reflective overlays – the Nite Jogger was finally refreshed in 2015 as a 1:1 retro trainer.
Fast-forward to late-2018 and the Nite Jogger appellation was revived once again with a ground-up rebuild that served as a modern interpretation of the post-dark running concept. Clad in a lightweight combination of ripstop textiles, suede and mesh, the new-gen design was a radical visual departure from the OG model. Modern-day comfort was added with the introduction of moulded heel counters and BOOST cushioning, a substantial upgrade from the dual-density EVA midsoles that were so ubiquitous in the 1970s.
Style-wise, the new Nite Jogger’s freshly-cut jib and wavy panels aligned the model with contemporary adidas siblings such as the Yung-1, Temper Run, and Yung-96 Chasm, while collaborations with White Mountaineering, Sneakersnstuff and size? added extra veneers of hype. But it was the 3M reflectivity that tied the two editions together, once again defining the Nite Jogger concept.
80 Years and Counting
This year, 3M and adidas are celebrating their long-term relationship. The double-label initiative not only commemorates 80 years of 3M reflectivity, it’s also a clear nod to what made the original Nite Jogger collaboration so unique in the first place.
While the OG model was the first sneaker to sport 3M’s new reflective material, the 2019 colab is defined by another 3M innovation. As all sneaker nerds know, silver is the most common form of Scotchlite simply because it offers brighter reflectivity than any other colour in the footwear market.
With the introduction of 3M’s new Carbon Black tech, the retroreflective material generates almost the same level of light bounce-back as the original silver Scotchlite, but cloaks it in a badass black finish that still stands up to rigorous testing in 3M’s lab. Vintage 3M logos on the insoles and heel stripes infuse extra layers of archival detailing.
As Dr. Shri Niwas, Ph.D senior division scientist and Scotchlite Reflective Material expert at 3M, explained during our visit to 3M HQ in St. Paul, developing black reflective was relatively straightforward, but making it shine bright enough was impossible until the arrival of Carbon Black. Given it’s also stretchy, stain-resistant and durable, the new technology is outstanding for footwear applications.
The crown jewel of this endeavour is the ‘Prototype’ edition. The one-off Nite Jogger is not only decked-out in Carbon Black, it also features an experimental white version of the same material on the 3M medial logo. On top of that, a semi-translucent reflective illuminates the Three Stripes branding, a bold feature that Vijay Rajamani, the Scotchlite Lab Manager, calls the next-generation of reflective technology. As if that wasn’t enough reflectivity for one shoe, there’s also a layer attached to the sole that lights up the outline of the tread pattern.
According to our 3M operatives, the concept isn’t quite ready for commercial production just yet, but the possibilities are a tantalising glimpse into the future of 3M at adidas. An all-white-all-over Nite Jogger would pop like crazy, while translucent creations would go far beyond the current limits of reflective footwear. As Rajamani pointed out, logos and other micro design details could also be added beneath the translucent reflective overlays, though he emphasised that the technology is purpose-built to help keep wearers as visible – and therefore as safe – as possible.
‘What we have learned and standardised in the occupational world, we’re also trying to bring that into the sneaker world, but we have to make sure we don’t compromise the essential reasons we developed Scotchlite,’ explained Rajamani. ‘Things get dirty in real life – shoes especially – so if you have a sneaker with low reflectivity that gets dirty, the brightness will diminish and the safety functionality will be reduced.’
Ultimately, the Nite Jogger prototype might be just the tip of an enormous reflective berg on the horizon. Dr. Niwas showed us another top secret project that could show up on sneakers someday, but right afterwards he waved a weird ‘Men in Black’ chrome pen in our direction and our memory of the conversation was instantly erased. Regardless, you can rest assured the 3M team is hard at work in their lab tinkering with their decades-old technology, continually trying to one-up themselves. And thanks to the timeless cool of adidas and their unique sporting pedigree, the Nite Jogger will always be ‘the shoe to be seen in.’ Seems we still ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!