nike paris innovation story

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By John Kim

  • Lebron James Innovation Center

    Nike Mia Hamm building (Left), LeBron James Innovation Center (Right) Nike

History has proven that Nike’s innovations truly change the way the industry moves and how people approach footwear. And despite the rising competition in the space, Nike continues to be the only brand that is burdened with enforcing evolution. It just comes with the territory of being the best, and its why it’s a truly a thrilling occasion when the Swoosh gives us a small glimpse at what they’re cooking up. In Paris, though, Nike flipped that script and thrust it in our faces.
Nike invited Urlfreeze News to witness On Air in person. Despite the red-eye flight, we were immediately perked up upon seeing the larger-than-life orange statues of LeBron James, Kylian M’Bappe, Sha’Carri Richardson, and other Nike athletes outside the Palais Brongniart. The space had been completely transformed into a time-line of Air history, beginning immediately with a display of nearly five decades of Air evolution starting from the Air Tailwind in 1979. The next area focused on the cultural impact of Air Max, with various collaborations over the last two-plus decades and iconic in-line hits on display. The next room housed The Blueprint Pack and Olympic kits, showcasing a fresh collection of athlete performance footwear ahead of the Olympics. The Pegasus Premium, which unexpectedly stole the show to my huge satisfaction was in its own room themed after a futuristic running track ensconced by audio of footsteps and chatter of actual runners.

  • nike palais brongiart

    Palais Brongniart Nike

The only other item on the schedule of significance was the On Air presentation, which was on the agenda for the next day. Not much was shared about this particular portion of the trip, but the invited crowd was considerably larger as it involved a lot of global media and national Paris-based outlets. After a light champagne hour we were led into a dark theater with bleacher seating and a elongated stage; a gigantic media display repeated screensaver-like visuals in icy blue, with “AIR” making intermittent appearances. Travis Scott, Dawn Staley, Futura, Yoon AMBUSH, Converse athlete Alexis Sablone, Clint of Corteiz, and many more VIPs and athletes were in attendance suggesting something big was about to pop. In the shot below, the aforementioned VIPs are sitting just rows ahead of us.

  • Nike On Air

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Then, it began. The display switched to a mosaic of athlete soundbites, sports highlights, and other animations of Nike iconography until an ethereal silhouette of what appeared to be about a dozen beings appeared. The screen slowly lifted upwards, revealing a full roster of Nike’s Olympic athletes and legends donning upcoming footwear and apparel in a nostalgic choose-your-fighter interface against some dark beats. Each athlete, when summoned to the spotlight, performed a unique action just like the ones you see in the video games (think Chun-Li of Street Fighter jumping for joy and giving the peace sign). They were playful and confident; some were downright spine-tingling.

  • Nike On Air Paris Athletes 3

    Athletes on the On Air stage Urlfreeze News

After all the athletes were introduced, the screen descended and the mood shifted drastically as the colors on the gigantic monitor switched from a soothing blue to an urgent red. After a few minutes, the screen lifted up again, revealing eight of the more marquee names from the previous group dressed in futuristic garb — think athletic sportswear with a gentle touch of The Fifth Element. Another cue was taken as the athletes shifted positions to fit more individuals on stage, including Nike snowboarding athlete Chloe Kim and none another than tennis legend Serena Williams.

  • nike on air paris athletes 2

    Athletes on the On Air stage Nike

Then they returned to the stage behind the descending screen once again for what we thought was yet another wardrobe change, but once the curtain was lifted again, we were surprised by a first look at physical A.I.R. prototypes. A full line-up of thirteen xenomorph-like iterations of Air were on display on individual podiums. Immediately (and unexpectedly) Nike invited the crowd to the stage; the lack of organization and clear instructions added to the excitement (you can see them all here).

  • nike on air 2

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Seeing the A.I.R. prototypes on a screen or through Instagram videos do not do them justice. There’s no real need to be wordy about it: they’re just pretty damn cool. Some of the prototypes were odd, some even looked painful to wear, and some made no damn sense. But that insanity is what makes it Nike, and this unhinged vision is ultimately what has defined them since Bill Bowerman melted some rubber on a waffle iron.
The concept of A.I. designed 3-D printed shoes isn’t new. But making them wearable, attractive, and functionally better than what’s out now is where Nike has to shine. Many likened these prototypes to concept cars — a visualization of possibility. But most concept cars never actually go into production and become a distant memory. Those that do, can go on to be legendary.
Of the various coverage of On Air you saw on Urlfreeze News, the content that got the most engagement by far was a grainy seven-second video of the crazy shoes on Sha’Carri Richardson’s feet. From where I was sitting, the gigantic Air unit at the heel was impossible to miss, as was the anatomically designed leg sleeve that reached above knee. It represents a current iteration of an A.I.R. prototype, made fully functional.

  • Nike Shacarri Richardson Air Max

    Sha’Carri Richardson in Nike Air Max prototype sneaker Urlfreeze News

The Wemby prototype, which the sneaker community was invested in given Nike’s impeccable debut of his Alien logo on April 8th, had a gigantic Air unit with a pixelated pattern akin to the bismuth stone he wore around his neck on the night he officially joined the NBA. The exterior had these funky brain-like etchings that are not unlike the anatomical carvings you see in theoretical designs of alien space-ships a la H.R. Giger. Knowing Nike’s M.O. of infusing personal details into footwear, the actual Nike x Victor Wembanyama signature shoe should carry those same elements.

  • nike wemby prototype air

    Victor Wembanyama’s A.I.R Prototype Urlfreeze News

With the boom of Artificial Intelligence and quickly generated visuals, the human element has never been more important. And that’s where Nike comes in. Based on an official press release, we can summarize that the A.I.R. prototypes are a combination of A.I., Nike designer insight, athlete insight, and data from the Nike Sports Research Lab. Three of those ingredients alone built the brand to what it is today; harnessing the strength and randomness of A.I. should only unlock new pathways of design.
Events of this magnitude don’t happen often, but Nike’s been on a roll because if innovating is the Nike bread, then creating brand awareness is their silky butter. Nike knows how to put on a show, and the recent On Air event in Paris was just the latest in a series of brand outings that flex those muscles of pageantry. Just a few weekends ago, Dynamic Land opened its doors to Air Max fanatics across the globe, giving event-goers first looks at the Air Max Dn while having some light fun in a carnival-like setting.

  • Nike Events 2024

    Future Forum (February 2020); World Basketball Festival (September 2023); Dynamic Land (March 2024), On Air (April 2024) Urlfreeze News

Last September, Nike revived their World Basketball Festival (it last appeared in 2016 in Chicago) by building a regulation hardwood basketball court on the Lincoln Center promenade and creating one of the best group photos in recent memory. Going back a few years to the last scheduled Olympic Games in 2020, Nike combined sport and fashion in a similar manner with the Future Forum in New York City, unveiling Olympic apparel and innovations while honoring the recently passed Kobe Bryant in an emotionally tense presentation (the Tokyo Games would be postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19).
This is a bold statement given just how much Nike has accomplished, but On Air represents a new chapter. We’re stuck in a world of now-ness, and it’s time for something new.

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