Material Matters: Hybrids, Frankenstein's Footwear
The word ‘hybrid’ causes contention in the sneaker world – the splicing and dicing of multiple styles is often said to occur to the detriment of the OG. Many will question the brand’s motivation behind such sacrilegious designs, as if it were their duty to protect the purity of celebrated silhouettes. But where do we draw the line between hybridising and design progression? It’s only natural to chop and change. Everything is a remix.
In the latter half of the 2000s, hybrids threatened to take over the world. Nike’s Air Max 360 and Free sole technology became the standard for all lifestyle releases. Sneakerheads who grew up coveting the Air Max 90 lashed out when their beloved became the recipient of a 360 sole, while the Free Hybrid Boot rubbed all but the most open minded the wrong way. Anyone able to detach themselves from the need to make comparisons could see that these designs presented new aesthetics and improved comfort – think about it: brands wouldn’t be doing this kind of thing for no good reason.
A traditional view of footwear will see a pair of shoes as an ever-evolving thing. Back in the olden days, a worn sole would be replaced, a busted boot would be patched – the idea of mixing and matching components was perfectly natural. When companies such as Converse and Keds began selling shoes specifically for basketball in the early 20th century, they came into the game with this same mentality. Although they didn’t have decades of archival styles to draw from, year after year they made changes to components of their designs – small upgrades – and would leave the rest of the shoe unchanged.
It’s a matter of technological economy. Early Converse sneakers could be purchased with both All Star moulded soles or traditional crepe soles. An original shoe with an updated sole – and the idea wasn’t restricted to basketball. Tennis player Robert Haillet began using a flat gum-soled adidas shoe in the early 60s, before Stan Smith popularised a cupsole version with the same upper; later, Wilhelm Bungert opted for an additional shell-toe, but in the end they were all just variations of the adidas Tennis.
Of course, the simple upgrades that constituted early technological progression aren’t the exact same thing as the modern sneaker hybrid – but, when you look at it from a historical perspective, it makes sense to work with what you’ve got. It wasn’t the quest to create something new that drove the hybrid to its present status; rather, it was the need to reinvigorate something that already existed – why let a good thing die off?
The early 90s marked a transitional period for the hybrid sneaker. Nike’s Air Max technology had cost a bundle of R&D dollars, but it was becoming a huge success, and so the big wigs decided it was too good to restrict to singular silhouettes. In 1993, Nike released a hybrid that featured an Air Max 1 upper and Air Max 90 sole. The design didn’t take off though, and the Swoosh realised hybrids would always be outsold by retros; however, they weren’t going to let one flop mar their vision of a hybrid-filled future.
In the late 90s, Jordan Brand had grown so big that it came time for them to split from their parent company, Nike. The challenge for Jay Brand was that their credibility relied almost entirely on old signature sneakers for a player on the verge of retiring for the second time.How could they utilise their back catalogue, keep long-term fans happy and engage new customers at the same time? In 2006, they decided to release one of the most ambitious hybrid sneakers ever – the Spiz’ike. A mash-up of the Air Jordan 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 20, the design was a tribute to the relationship between Michael Jordan and Spike Lee. Although it didn’t please every OG Jordan head, it sure did cause a stir, which ensured the pure retro designs remained on top of people’s wish lists.
That same year Nike unveiled a massive step in the evolution of Air: the Air Max 360. The all-Air sole unit was the realised vision that the line had been working towards for decades, so as a nod to the technology’s heritage, Nike went nuts with hybrid models, slapping the new sole tech on some of the most sacred OG designs. Overall, they were received relatively well, but Air Max heads could see them for what they were: hybrids. The brand still offered retro releases, but the hybrids came complete with the comfort of the latest tech and a fresh perspective. With the success of the big bubble sole swaps, designers dipped into the brand’s arsenal of innovation and took the Free sole through a similar heavy-hitting run of hybrids, like the many Huarache iterations that popped up at one point.
With their blend of technological progression and stylistic nostalgia, remixed sneakers introduce classics to unfamiliar eyes. Every brand has dipped their toe box in the hybrid hype: New Balance’s subtle 997.5, Saucony’s Shadow 5500 and just about anything with a BOOST sole. Some shoes blur the line and borrow elements from multiple heritage sources to produce a wholly unrecognisable product such as the Nike LunarCharge or New Balance 247. Other times, it’s just a bit of fun – take the latest Air Max 97 Plus and Air Max Plus 97 sole swap for example.
These days we're spoiled. When a company unveils their latest piece of technology, we expect a whole new design to accompany it and demand nothing but one-to-one retro remakes of all-out old favourites. But why shouldn’t we look back at the classics through the lens of functional progression at the same time? As far as we’re concerned, pushing the envelope of design and production is rarely a bad thing. Hybrids have their place in the grand ecosystem of the sneakersphere – now, when are we going to some ACG VaporMax?
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Reservations on Elevation, Fables of The Forgotten and Big Baller Brand.