Long before futuristic product categories like NikeLab and ISPA existed, there was the Nike Alpha Project. The short-lived but impactful line of shoes, apparel and accessories took an uncompromising athlete approach to performance products, which undeniably influenced today’s futuristic footwear vision. By adopting new ideas and non-traditional forms – all branded with a cryptic row of five dots – this ephemeral enterprise left its mark on the world.
By the mid 1990s, just about all major athletic footwear brands were engaged in the visi-tech rat race. Nike were riding high on Air for almost a decade at this point, but there was more to be done than just cushioning.
With a new millennium looming – not to mention Sydney 2000 – the Swoosh launched the Alpha Project on January 1, 1999 with marketing material hyper-focused on an athlete-first approach to design. ‘Behind every Alpha product is how it came to be. And more importantly, how it came to make an athlete be just that bit better.’ Everything was subject to innovation, from ankle openings to wristwatch ergonomics, and branded with a row of five dots. Despite this earnest and seemingly serious ethos, Nike also had fun with the concept.
Retrospectively, it seemed like the Alpha Project was simply an excuse for Nike to throw a bunch of money at Michael Bay to direct some over-the-top, albeit fairly funny ,TV spots to launch it. French director Michel Gondry also got in on the action with a couple of memorable commercials. Nike athletes, chiefly Gary Payton, gave the product athletic provenance. The print ads were also irreverent and occasionally cheeky.
Thankfully, the products were as good as the marketing. Bear in mind that back in the 1990s and 2000s, most new Swoosh designs were intended for athletic use. Of course, some sneakerheads and influential figures like Hiroshi Fujiwara quickly adopted these performance shoes for casual use – the latter selecting the Zoom Seismic for 2001’s ‘Monotone Pack’. The Air Presto – famous for its t-shirt sizing – also proved a street favourite.
The End of Alpha
Long-term intentions for the Alpha Project weren’t fully realised, as its creative director, Michael Morrow, left Nike in 2000 – right as things were getting interesting product side. His departure didn’t affect the project however, as some of its best designs emerged soon after. Some of the last significant models arrived in 2004, such as the Zoom Huarache 2K4, which went down as one of Nike’s all-time greatest basketball shoes. And it clearly influenced a new generation of designers.
Over on the NikeTalk forum in the mid 2000s, Jason Petrie adopted the username ‘ALPHAPROJECT’ in honour of the program, even mocking up sketches of sneakers that could’ve existed in the line. His reverence clearly paid off, eventually landing the enviable task of designing the current LeBron signature line.
For the most part, the Alpha Project is something of a footnote in Nike’s history, despite it spawning some of their most memorable middle history designs. It’s infrequently mentioned in official press – it wasn’t even referenced in the Air Presto’s history feature. Despite its oral history and fragmented archive, certain elements live on.
Some Alpha Project designs have made regular reappearances in the now retro Nike catalogue. Early 2000s running is seeing a comeback, a move preempted by the Air Presto’s popularity and regular collaborations. Nike Shox was another running innovation, but it quickly found prevalence in the basketball world via Vince Carter and the Shox BB4. It’s since delineated somewhat from the Alpha Project and exists as its own retro line, complete with a different shoebox to the grey and silver version used for other models. More recently, the Air Kukini returned to shelves, complete with five-dot branding.
However, there are plenty of deeper cuts that older heads have been wanting a bringback for years. The Zoom Citizen, Zoom Drive and Zoom Seismic are just three models conspicuously absent from Nike’s periodic reissues. Nike have been tantalisingly close with hybrid models that teased these archival designs, such as the Chalapuka, Spirimic, Haven Air Max 97 and EXP X-14. The resurgence of Y2K aesthetics has in turn helped shine a spotlight on once-obscure models like the Air Max Craze, another design that seemingly was ahead of the curve 20 years on.
It doesn’t seem like Nike will resume the Alpha Project (nobody has ever said it's officially ended – but perhaps that's wishful thinking) as it’s since been succeeded by the increasingly experimental ISPA series and adventurous tech-driven collaborations with the likes of Tom Sachs and ACRONYM. However, it’s indisputable that the Alpha Project walked so these endeavours could run.