Exclusive: The Future of Nike Air Max with Designers Juliana Sagat and Dylan Raasch
The celebrations surrounding the 30th anniversary of the Air Max 90 are no doubt at the core of Nike’s 2020 vision. Nodding to the past and championing the future, the launch of four unique Air-infused creations have kicked festivities with a bona fide bang. Featuring the all-new Air Max 2090, Air Max 90 FlyEase, Air Max Verona, and an electrifying take on 2020’s AM90, the contemporary capsule reinterprets classic elements of the silhouette for a new generation of sneaker fiends – in particular, the women that will shape the future of Air.
Following a recent showcase event in London, we caught up with two of the Air-ficionados behind the design – Dylan Raasch and Juliana Sagat – for an in-depth glance Air Max’s latest chapter.
As Nike’s senior creative director, Raasch has already been a key figure in landmark moments for the brand. However, the addition of Sagat, previously of French fashion house Isabel Marant, has no doubt breathed fresh Air into the Team Swoosh design ranks.
Keeping It Fresh
How do you manage the expectation of bringing in a new silhouette or a new colourway?
Dylan Raasch: Obviously the expectations are always high when we bring in new silhouettes, but I think it starts out with making sure we have a diverse collection of what we want to bring in – size, colour, and all that stuff. Everyone expects it to be a never-before-seen thing.
We start with something called the ‘STL’ or creative launches, and we work together. The full team brainstorms and it happens organically in terms of everyone throwing out ideas. So it’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s up’. We’ll start riffing off of that, and I think it happens naturally. I guess it’s the level of quality we want to see next. It just happens organically, and it comes to the surface. So that’s how it starts, and we’ve just been going that way for the past 30 years since Air Max has started.
What do you do at Nike to ensure that you’re evolving as designers and as a team and, most importantly, that you’re putting out things that excite the community?
DR: I think it’s just being part of our group. We can check ourselves. We throw something out there, and if someone gets excited, you can tell there’s something about that idea that resonates with people. We obviously talk to a lot of people, and just see what’s working and what’s not. Every time we start a new season we set the bar and go, ‘Okay, we’ve done this with...’ When it was the 270, we got to, ‘What do we need to do to up it every time?’ So regardless of what bag we’re using, it can’t have been done before. And the second thing is it has to move the needle in terms of an aesthetic or a style. And that’s where I think the team genius comes into it. Everybody will weigh in if it feels fresh or not. I think those two things are the big areas. We make sure it stays fresh.
A New Perspective
What do you feel you've brought in to Nike?
Juliana Sagat: I still have a different point of view because my way to design is so, so different. I’m not overthinking anything. I’m just like, ‘Oh, it feels right, so I’m just going to go for it and I will figure the rest out later’.
I want to talk more about being a female in the industry. I’d love to know what you think are the important factors that Nike as a brand need to consider moving forward.
JS: I’m surrounded by so many talented women. It’s very inspiring. And I think it’s going to improve. You’re going to see more female designers bringing their perceptive to the space.
What's about further evolution in the space?
DR: I think since we started the team, things have evolved. We have a lot of people on the team that are very good at being methodical industrial designers. But there was a point when we realised we were missing something. And when I saw her work, I’m like, ‘This is what we need’.
You hired Juliana, Dylan?
DR: Yes. I saw her work and I’m like, ‘We need to get this woman on the team’. Because I think when I saw how she sees things – it was amazing. The way she was putting things together, because it’s different than how I grew up designing. I would sit there and sketch things. She puts things together in a very different way. I thought it was an amazing way, and just her style element to it. So I think when you look at the team of Air Max, you’ve got to make sure you’re looking at the whole thing. I think in the past, we got too compartmentalised, where it’s like, ‘This is all you have, industrial designer’. It’s like, ‘No, you’ve got to have a bigger picture’.
‘You want to stay authentic to what it was originally, because if you start losing that, you will disappear.’
The Future of Air
Can you talk us through some of the new products? Let’s kick it off with the ‘Volt’ colourway of the Air Max 90.
JS: Yeah, I was very excited to work on this project because this is a shoe from 30 years ago. We were like, ‘Okay, how can we bring it back?’ It was a long journey, and there was lots of detail around it.
How much did you take from that original release for what we see today?
DR: It’s one to one. Obviously some of the vendors change, but we make sure that every single thing down to the stuff you can’t see is the exact same stuff. That’s why there’s only one of those samples, because we unfortunately had to cut the other one in half. It’s one of the things you had to sacrifice to make it evolve. You realise that to get that toe shape you have to get the elastic differently, you actually have to hold the rubber flat. That pulls the toe down a little bit more. So there’s all these things that you don’t know until you tear it apart.
But it gave us the ability to see what the actual foam thickness was, the exact same material down to the warp and weft of it, and everything. So I think it was just precise and having that sample was the best thing. But the big thing is, we’re realising that all those original ones are starting to deteriorate, so we’re losing our heritage. That’s why we have to make it one for one with even the arch cookie. It’s like everything has to be there.
Is it true that the toe box was the way it was because of the manufacturing techniques 30 years ago?
DR: Yeah, it’s weird because to get that shape, it has to be toe lasted, which is actually less efficient, and harder to do. And then when you mould the rubber down, it allows the mould to be cheaper. So we actually did all these things to make it better, but then you go back and you’re like, ‘Well, that’s not really what it looked like’.
That’s a really weird trade off. But you want to stay authentic to what it was originally, because if you start losing that, you will disappear. But I think that shape is becoming a thing. So you can’t take it away. We’ve done this before and we didn’t do it right. And you find out real quick that people are unhappy.
Let’s talk about the Air Max 90 FlyEase, the Verona, the 2090, and the AM90 colourways. Those models apply very exciting technology and innovation for Nike.
DR: Yeah, the FlyEase has been two years in progress. We started out just trying to perfect the FlyEase system, that bat cage. We did tons of iterations of how your foot slides in, different materials, things like the direct depths and height of it. So we spent a lot of time doing that, and figuring out how the back collar actually fits onto it and gets that shoehorn shape so your foot slides in perfectly. So there’s a lot of testing. I think when it came down to which shoe it went on, we had it on a different shoe initially and then it became the shoe was all about that, where we were afraid people would think that was the FlyEase, the whole thing. Whereas now, having it on the 90, you can see exactly what the FlyEase element of it and what the icon is. So this new element is a way to flip that and see how it feels and fits without any other distractions.
What was your role with the FlyEase? Were you involved with that process?
DR: That was mostly Tinker and Tobie (Hatfield), because I think that’s Tinker’s baby, and his brother was working the FlyEase. It was a good colab there. If they’re going to make it the way they want to make it, you know that’s the way it needs to be, because it’s his shoe originally.
What’s the dynamic between the two of them creating something like this?
DR: It’s interesting. I’ve worked with Tobie quite a bit and he’s like the innovator, so he works on projects. He even did a lot of the Nike Free work and stuff like that. So he was working on that system. And obviously, Tinker has created so many icons that I think putting them together is a pretty amazing mix. Most people aren’t familiar with Tobie, but I think bringing him into this — credit’s given where it’s due.
What are some of the changes we can see from the first women's-exclusive Verona to 2020 iteration?
DR: Well, it was more of the story elements we were taking from the OG. I don’t think we took anything one for one from it. It was just more like that was the first one of the Air Max shoes. How do you create another one for the modern day? So I think there were elements we had to look at, as well as listening to what women wanted.
JS: What is really new as well is a ‘square-y’ back feel. We wanted to just create a maximum attitude for her while also providing a comfortable shoe, but still very stylish and presenting.
Why is it important for Nike to bring out this shoe, with as you say, attitude?
JS: Well, I just feel that now people want sneakers that express themselves. You also feel more confident when you feel like you’re wearing some cool sneakers. Our focus is going to be on her. Colour is super important because, again, it just gives it this impression.
What did you take for the 2090?
DR: We always like planning an Air Max around what the future’s going to be. So the 2090 was a little bit of a brainstorm with the team. It’s going like, ‘Hey, if we like flat out about 100 years, what would that be?’ Obviously when we were doing that in the exploration phase, it was much more out there than what it ended up being, for technological and price-point reasons. But I think when we brought it back, it had to be something that was digestible and affordable.
I think it got us in a nice spot to see how design evolves over time. We’re seeing that things also simplify and streamline as you start taking away these things that were actually not necessary in the beginning. So it was a cool exercise because I think it informed us on how we could look forward even farther. And I think we’ll be seeing some other models coming out in the near future that went more in that direction.
‘We weren’t just trying to go big for big’s sake. I think now what we’re going to be trying to do in the future is figure out how we actuate the bags differently.’
The Bulk of the Bubble
Have Air units changed? Have they developed in size? Have they shrunk?
DR: When we realised that a lot of people in the cities were doing so much walking or miles putting on their shoes, as much as runners, we realised we need to start looking at it just like we do with the performance product. So NSRL [Nike Sport Research Lab] will actually get people to run on a treadmill and do slow motion. We did the same thing. We went to New York and gauged people’s movement, how far they’re going, and where. And when we realised that they were putting so much pressure on their heels, we said, ‘Well, if they’re doing that, the best way to resolve that is to make the airbag bigger’.
So, I think we started with a 270. And then we were able to actually improve our innovation and get even bigger. But we actually realised that once we did that, we made the bag and tested it, it did exactly what we were expecting it to: take all that impact out. So that insight of the bags being bigger, it’s actually a real thing. We weren’t just trying to go big for big’s sake. I think now what we’re going to be trying to do in the future is figure out how we actuate the bags differently. I think that’s all I can say right now.
It’s going to get very interesting, because I think what we’re realising now is that size has a lot to do with it, but actually how you actuate the bag is even more important. So you’ll see in the future things starting to change and evolve to get even more technical. I think now we’re starting to refine our insights and see what we can get really particular about in terms of the shape of the bag, and what we can put around the bag. So things are going to evolve that way.
It seems that each iteration increases in size, so how do you maintain stability?
DR: That was a big issue, because we started with the 270 and we had to get to a good spot where the stability was. When we got to the 720 we actually found out where the limits were of stability. We ended up with 42mm at one point, and it was just like ... we couldn’t get the stability for it. So we started going back down until we got that perfect balance of stability and cushioning. So it was something that actually came up in the testing. We’re continuing to work on stability because it’s a weird trade-off. It goes into the actuation of how you get stability in another way too. So that’d be something else.
And there’s other elements regarding what goes around the bag, the clips and stuff. There are things that help stability that you might not think. It’s like, we need to soften up the clip a little bit to give it a little bit more flex in X, Y direction. So there are things like that. We’ve been moving into the next generational system with that.
Want more big-bubbled goodness? Be sure to check out our exclusive look at 2020’s latest Air Max creations.