Material Matters: The Technological Triumphs Of Nike ACG
The recent announcement of Nike’s new ACG.KMTR.07 model marks a change in direction for the ‘All Conditions’ line. In the past, the focus of the Swoosh’s ACG sub-label was the great outdoors, with each shoe engineered to withstand the whims of Mother Nature. These days our increasingly digital existence ties us to urban environments, and the conditions encountered in our day-to-day lives have changed. The new breed of city-traversing nomads will face all manner of terrains and hazards that nature never imagined. Despite the apparent shift in intention, it doesn’t look like the innovation will stop – and with a technological tale as rich as ACG’s we’d be remiss not to take a look back at a few of its more memorable moments.
To tell the story of ACG, you need to look past its official 1989 debut to the late-70s – when the world was crying out for something new. The outdoors industry was focussed on heavy mountaineering boots and beefy waterproofed leather hikers. When a photo emerged of two climbers kicking around the K2 base camp in the Himalayas wearing Nike LDVs, it triggered a lightbulb realisation – people needed lightweight athletic style shoes in the outdoors. With that simple idea, the seeds of what would become the ACG line were sewn. In 1981 Nike released an adventure-oriented collection of shoes that made use of a new material, Gore-Tex, which was super light, breathable and waterproof – the holy trinity of performance fabric functionality. Gore-Tex was produced with something called ‘expanded TPFE’, a kind of plastic membrane that has pores too small for water molecules to enter but big enough for vapour molecules to exit.
The Nike Lava Dome was perhaps the most successful shoe in the early line-up, introducing the world to the concept of an adventure sneaker. The combination of leather and textile panels kept the shoe tough in areas of stress and stripped it back where flexibility was needed. The chunky sole, inspired by the waffle tread of the LDV, was perfect for gripping on loose terrain. When the ACG line finally did debut in ’89 it unveiled the Son of Lava Dome, Lava High and Half-Dome. Like their predecessor, these shoes had layered EVA midsole and included an early example of something that’s now all over the sneaker world – an integrated plastic component that joined the laces to the midsole for support. As far as stability was concerned, this was a revelation.
It didn’t take long before the fledgling category was tackling new terrain, with the amphibious Aqua Sock releasing later in its first year. Neoprene, a foamed rubber sandwiched between layers of woven fabric, had been around for a couple of decades by this point – but it was the minds behind ACG that started it on its ascent to sneaker ubiquity. In 1990 they used the material in the rather conservatively designed Aqua Boot, but it was Tinker Hatfield’s 1994 design for the Air Mowabb that really set the scene for neoprene. The Mowabb’s (named phonetically for Utah’s Moab Desert) high cut sock is one of the earliest examples of the bootie style that’s become prevalent in the sneaker world, and it still looks fresh some two decades after its release.
1992 brought the trail running Air Revaderchi that, in addition to carrying an awesome name, had a revolutionary a lacing system made from various dynamic components. The top lace holes connected to a strap that pulled the heel support in and locked the foot down – another new concept. Of course, you don’t want to be tackling tricky terrain with a slick sole, so the runner had a tread pattern designed to function much like a mountain bike’s tyre – channelling mud out the sides to avoid clogging the grip. Working beyond the sole patterns, Nike was pushing innovation through the composition of the rubber itself – shoes like the aptly named Water Cat had midsoles composed of Sticky Rubber, a mixture that would stop slipping in the wet. Then there were environmental initiatives designed to keep hiking hippies happy, like the 1998 Regrind boot that used recycled rubber from old Nike shoes to help folk tread lightly on the earth.
Supportive synthetic-web lacing systems became common throughout the range, seen on shoes such as the Terra Tor, Pocket Knife and Takao. In 2003 the Zoom Tallac Lite was the world’s lightest hiking boot, and its popularity quickly grew thanks to its striking design. The boot’s moulded cage was inspired by the structure of bat wings and the upper used ripstop fabric, a move regarded as crazy by some people in Nike’s marketing department. Luckily the conservative parties relented and now the fabric has become the backbone of many lightweight styles. The material was originally designed to make parachutes and owes its strength to a woven lattice of thick yarns that stop tears from running along the grain.
In 2010 the Lunar Macleay came with a seamlessly formed leather upper that utilised Nike’s Vac Tec, a process which didn’t hit wider lifestyle ranges until a year later. The technology used suction to mould a single piece of leather into shape, producing a structure without unnecessary bulk and free of weak spots. Since then, ACG has occasionally popped back into the limelight with builds like the Lupinek from 2015 and a number of notable retro models – but it seemed to have taken the back seat in Nike’s leading edge of innovation. That is, until now.
The new ACG.07.KMTR is the first piece of footwear to emerge from Errolson Hugh’s work with Nike – with the exception of collaborations between Nike and his own label ACRONYM. Even this early in the relationship it’s evident that the imaginative streak that characterises the line will continue. The new model utilises a unique closure system of toggles and clips, while the multi-purpose durability can be seen with the use of ripstop fabric and a gusseted tongue.
It’s an exciting time for any existing ‘All Conditions Gear’ fan, and anyone unfamiliar with the line is likely to become a convert. The combination of ACG innovation with contemporary aesthetics and modern world sensibilities is sure to produce some ground-breaking new styles. We can’t wait to see what’s next!,
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 ‘The Shoes of Tomorrow’ today, How Good is Too Good? and adidas Tubular.