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The best Nike collab of all time ??
Talkin' ACG, Mars Yards, Kanye & going MACH 3+ DESIGN MODE w/ ex-NIKE designer Nathan VanHook
What’s up & welcome to the BBSP CLA$$IFIED INNER $ANCTUM !! We have biometrically verified yr elite-tier status … please, enjoy …
Here at Blackbird Spyplane — the no. 1 source across all media for “unbeatable recon” on dope under-the-radar joints — we CONSTANTLY discuss matters of ELITE TRADECRAFT with BEHIND-THE-SCENES DESIGN WIZARDS …
For today’s ‘sletter ?? We hit up the young DESIGN VISIONARY Nathan VanHook, best known for his 12-year stint at Nike, where (among other things) he helped Kanye West design the Air Yeezy 2 and whipped up a bunch of PHAT ACG PIECES — including Blackbird Spyplane’s No. 1 FOOT-GORP-GEM of 2020, the Mountain Fly …
Nathan gave us KILOBYTES of rare intel & insight into how those joints and a bunch of other DOPE S**T actually got made …
Blackbird Spyplane: The first sneaker that made me actually think about sneaker design — versus just saying, “Oh that looks dope” — was Christian Tresser’s original all-silver Air Max ‘97. I was like 15 and now that sneaker looks “totally normal” but at first sight it really weirded me out. I tried to figure out why, and noticed that it wasn’t structured around panels, like I was used to seeing with sneakers, but around this principle of tight concentric circles. And then the all-silver reflective and mesh materials on top of the full-foot air bed created this stack of maximalism on maximalism… Do you have a similar “lightning strikes” moment when it comes to sneaker design?
Nathan VanHook: “Yeah, I remember as a kid seeing the Huarache and saying, What is this? It looked different than anything else Nike made. The ACG Mowabb (below left), too — that was another Tinker Hatfield shoe with no swoosh on it that felt different than anything else. Nike was the first company pushing those neon accents and that different energy. My first, like, ‘nice’ pair of sneakers was the Bo Jackson Trainer SC’s (below right) with the neon orange. I used to read every new East Bay Catalog, and what I liked was how something new might look weird to you at first, then slowly you’d like it more.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Yes ! I love that, whether it’s in sneakers or art or music: You encounter something boundary-scrambling that you don’t have the proper context to process, and it trips yr aesthetic defenses at first, maybe registers as bizarre or even ugly — before winning you over.
Nathan VanHook: “I remember that happening to me with the Jordan 9s, and with the Air Max 95s. Those looked like this alien thing, then you see them on people and before long you say, ‘Okay, that’s amazing.’”
Blackbird Spyplane: We asked you to send over pictures of things you cherish, and you led with a VERY VIBEY DESIGN WORKSHOP tableau — Micron pen, Mitutoyo calipers, a MURDERED OUT black-on-black Leatherman Surge, a beautiful Japanese cutting board and scissors. What do you use these for?
Nathan VanHook: “To me, as a designer, you can’t ask somebody else to fabricate something you designed unless you know how to make it yourself. You have to understand how things are put together, you can’t just put things up for interpretation. So I like to produce a crude version of everything I design first, and these are the tools I use to do that work.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You got on a lot of people’s radars for your work with Kanye, helping him to design the Air Yeezy 2. Why is Kanye good at sneaker design?
Nathan VanHook: “His eye for detail is so uncanny — that shoe was all about details: engravings in the strap, initials in the sock liner, every detail was thought out. That’s his mega power, and the great thing is that he takes risks — the shoe has reptilian fins on the back! That was something he loved from the beginning. So yeah, he’s got a great eye, he takes risks, and he surrounds himself with the best.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You did a lot of cool work in the past few years with Nike’s ACG line, coinciding with a huge resurgence in fashion-adjacent neo-GORP. From yr perspective, why is outdoor gear so popping right now?
Nathan VanHook: “To me these things have always been big — I’ve been going to Japan for over 10 years and outdoor culture has always been huge there, and it’s the same in the Pacific Northwest or Colorado. I think it’s resonating with people lately because if you buy something, you want to make sure it works — in the ‘90s everyone was wearing North Face because you buy it and you know it works: It keeps you warm. So the resurgence or popularity of Arc’teryx and ACG is because, it works — Gore-Tex, you know you’re going to be not-wet in it. There’s a sense of authenticity to it. It’s function, not fashion — fashion, or style, to me, is how you put it all together.”
Blackbird Spyplane: There might be some recency bias to this but our favorite shoe you worked on at Nike is the ACG Mountain Fly. We’ve shouted it out in the newsletter before, and Erin has been STOMPING around the East Bay in a pair. There’s something tank-like about the design, the way the treads curl up over the front…
Nathan VanHook: “Yeah so for that shoe the idea was to build a concept for the winter — obviously in the winter season you need water protection, especially up in the Pacific Northwest. That’s when the rain really starts. So it was about building something lightweight, like a jacket, that would go over the internal lace system, then that neoprene bootie keeps the debris out, and underfoot you have a carbon fiber plate.
“For the soles, yeah, the idea was this tank-like traction that’s exaggerated but gives you extra protection on your toes. So everything’s super functional — to the point that, it gets darker earlier in the day, so we added all these extra reflective details. And all of the design language is based off grids — there are grid textures throughout, the reflective material is gridded, the ripstop is based on grids, similar to, like, rebar. There’s a subtle idea about like ‘getting off the grid,’ and I also just love keeping everything in the same design language.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Switching over to things u didn’t work on but love — you sent a picture of your Nike x Marc Newson Zvezdochkas, a.k.a. the ZDocs, and called them the “best collaboration ever.” Why?
Nathan VanHook: “I went to college for product design from ‘99 to 2003 and Marc Newson was this incredible figure — he did everything so differently from everyone else, he’s such a hands-on maker, pushing form more than anyone, and to me that’s why that’s the best collaboration: Because it brought a different level of thinking to the table. A great collab is something you wouldn’t do on your own, and he brought this idea of modularity, with these interlocking components. And remember, this was before Crocs were a thing. Shoes didn’t look like this!”
Blackbird Spyplane: The other sneaker you singled out as “the second-best collaboration ever” is the Tom Sachs Mars Yard — whereas the Zdocs are a more fundamental reimagining of what a sneaker is and how it’s constructed, Sachs is playing around with classic forms but swapping in fabrics like Vectran, which was used to cut parachutes for the Mars Excursion Rover.…
Nathan VanHook: “I like the Mars Yards and the Zdocs because they both embody the artists behind them — Newson is about these fluid forms, whether it’s a chair or a doorstop, and I like Tom Sachs because his hand is in everything he makes. His physicality is in all the products. It doesn’t feel like something manufactured, but something handmade.
“I like that he kept everything so natural on these, even with that space-age material on the 1.0 and that very NASA-vibed red on the swoosh. And what I like is that the Vectran they used on the vamp started to abrade with use, and so for version 2.0 he changed it to a breathable mesh. He didn’t say, Let me create a whole new shoe to solve this problem, no, he just fixed that one part. That’s great design — you’re not just throwing everything out, it’s just evolving. So what’s great is his restraint: He has a design language and he doesn’t change it up for the sake of changing it up. You see it and you know it’s from him. And that’s true of Marc Newson too.”
-For more of our BIG-GAS DESIGNER SpyConversations check out our interviews with Emily Bode, Elijah and Alix from Online Ceramics, Sonya Sombreuil of Come Tees, Ellen Van Dusen of Dusen Dusen, and Taka Kasuga of Arc’teryx Veilance.
-The full Blackbird Spyplane Interview Archive is here