These 4 Nike Sneakers Are Why the Swoosh Won 2017
The Nike Air Vapormax, Zoom Vaporfly 4%, LeBron 15, and Off-White x Air Jordan 1 got the brand its mojo back.
For decades, Nike dominated the United States athletic footwear market. “Dominated” might not be strong enough a word: thanks to 50 years of ad campaigns like “It’s gotta be the shoes!”, game-changing technology from Air to Shox, and an authentic connection with actual people buying their shoes, in 2014 the Swoosh owned 48% of the market—a margin so big it seemed like no brand could even begin to threaten their reign. But that’s exactly what happened. That same year, Adidas poached Kanye West, started re-issuing its most iconic sneakers, and developed its own game-changing tech. The result? In 2016 and 2017, it’s been eating away at Nike’s market share.
Earlier this year, sneaker industry analysts heralded a potential changing of the guard. In June of 2017, Adidas’s share jumped to 11.3%, leap-frogging a sluggish, oversaturated Jordan Brand. Kanye West’s Yeezy Boost line caused (and continues to cause) online frenzies, and Adidas Originals’ NMD sneakers became a staple for hype-friendly teens and sneaker-conscious regular bros alike. For the first time, Nike seemed to be lagging behind Adidas in the category customers seemed to care about more with each passing day: Fashion collaborations.. The Swoosh had worked with former Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci, German techwear brand Acronym, and even tennis legend Roger Federer, but these were easy to perceive as one-off designer interpretations of existing Nike kicks—unlike the full-fledged partnerships Adidas established with Kanye West, Pharrell, or even Raf Simons, each of which has designed their own Adidas sneaker from scratch. For much of the last three years, Adidas felt like the brand with its finger on the pulse, while Nike seemed to be fighting uphill to get its core products—running and basketball sneakers—into the hands of customers.
As 2017 comes to a close, the tides are turning once again. Only this time, they’re in Nike’s favor. At the time of this writing, Nike’s stock was up $11 over the past three months, while Adidas’s was down approximately $25. For the first time in years, Q2 of 2017 saw Adidas’s classics (Stan Smith, Superstar, Gazelle) have flat sales figures. Nike’s mojo, for the moment, seems to coming back, thanks in large part due to four sneakers that each helped the brand in a different way: The Zoom VaporFly 4%, Nike Air VaporMax, LeBron 15, and Off-White x Nike Air Jordan 1. The Three Stripes is still a bigger threat than ever to Nike’s dominance, but there’s no doubt that 2017 belonged to the Swoosh. Here’s why.
The Air Apparent
Nike Air VaporMax
Nike Air Max is the tech that made Nike a world leader. The original Air Max sneaker released in 1987, but the VaporMax, which dropped in March, was the most radical improvement to the Air Max series in years. The usual Air Max formula is to just, well, add more Air to the sole. But with the VaporMax, Nike completely replaced the midsole with nothing but Air. The shoe delivers the most pound for pound Air of any Nike sneaker ever—and looks like it’s from a dystopian future where sneakers still somehow matter, in the coolest way possible.
The VaporMax’s contribution to Nike’s big year mostly lies in its fashion appeal. Virgil Abloh remixed the kicks for his “The Ten” collaboration with Nike (a lot more on that later), while Commes Ges Garçons made a laceless version Nike couldn’t keep in stock for more than a few minutes. But even the non-collab versions have been favorites amongst wearers of ultra-trendy cropped, baggy pants, as well as regular guys looking for their next pair of new wave kicks.
On a mass market level—where the real money is—VaporMax sales are probably less than stellar. The sneaker is currently on sale on most sites, which, according to sneaker analyst Matt Powell (and known Yeezy truther) doesn’t bode well for the style’s long-term success. And as a running shoe, it has mixed reviews. (The website runrepeat.com ranks it the 335th best running shoe around right now.) So, in terms of getting Nike back on its feet in the running sneaker game, VaporMax is not the answer. But as the next evolution of Nike’s legacy of forward-thinking, covetable design? They did more than enough to take some of the heat away from Adidas’s Ultra Boost and NMD lines—shoes that have experienced enormous success, but have also been in the market for over 18 months.
Ultimately, the VaporMax indicates that Nike is still not afraid to take a big chance. For fashion-leaning fans—increasingly important in the hype-driven sneaker world—the VaporMax was one of the first genuinely excitiny all-new Nike sneakers in years. =
This Sneaker’s Got Sole
Nike Zoom VaporFly 4%
Nike’s famous commercials always implied that buying a pair of their sneakers would make you run faster and jump higher, but they never came out and said how high or how fast you’d really go. But in 2017, Nike introduced a sneaker that promised to make you faster—and told you just how much faster in its name. The Nike Zoom VaporFly 4% is essentially a race day shoe, meaning they’re not intended to hold up to daily wear. And at $250, they’re a bold proposition from Nike. But it also represents truly game-changing tech for runners in its Zoom X sole and carbon fiber plate insert—tech that came just seconds away from shattering an previously unbreakable boundary earlier this year: For an event Nike pushed hard on Twitter as #Breaking2 (done, in part, to promote these exact sneakers), Eliud Kipchoge ran an unofficial time of 2:00:25 in a pair of Nike Zoom VaporFly Elites (turbocharged versions of the 4%) narrowly missing the coveted barrier of the 2-hour marathon.
According to Nike Running designer Bret Schoolmeester, “The VaporFly Elite was really Nike coming to us and saying we could do anything no matter the cost.” But we’re choosing to highlight the 4% over its advanced big brother. Schoolmeester wouldn’t even give a ballpark estimate for a theoretical price . The VaporFly 4%, on the other hand, retailed for $250, but has since sold out due to the limited quantities Nike can make of its new ZoomX sole. ZoomX is made from a material Nike says is lighter and 35% more responsive than Adidas Boost, and long term, Nike wants to bring ZoomX soles to the masses. For now, however, it’s simply trying to get the word out that they cracked the code on how to make runners legitimately faster with a sneaker.
The oversized sole sticks out like a sore toe in an industry committed to making sneakers less sneaker-like every year. But Schoolmeester says Nike veered the other way for the Zoom VaporFly Elite and 4% not to be contrarian, but because it’s what makes these shoes so damn fast. “When you wear it, it feels like it’s literally propelling you forward from your heel to your toe,” he says. And when combined with its space-age foam, the ZoomX sole delivers those 4% faster results.
Futuristic tech and world breaking runs aside, the radical new shape of the ZoomX sole on both the VaporFly Elite and VaporFly 4% is something Nike still translated into its more accessible products like the new Zoom Fly and Zoom Fly SP. So far, fans seem to be loving the shoe’s new-wave look, and that might be most promising of all for Nike. The original Zoom Fly SP, which debuted the same weekend as Kipchoge’s world record attempt, looks almost identical to the 4% but features a translucent upper and regular Zoom sole, and currently has a price tag over $700 at Flight Club.
Nike presumably hopes ZoomX will usurp Boost as the premier bouncy foam on the market, but for now, the company will settle for tech that delivers results and looks great. Earning back die-hard runners (Nike’s currently the 4th most popular running sneaker brand according to Running USA), won’t happen overnight. But the Vaporfly 4% and its family of sneakers are a good start.
The King’s Sneaks
Nike LeBron 15
One of Nike’s biggest concerns of late comes its most cherished category—basketball sneakers. According to its 2016 fiscal year report, Nike’s basketball sneaker sales were down 1% for the year, a big deal when you consider they account for 5% of Nike’s overall global business. Across the industry, basketball kicks have struggled to keep up with more fashion-forward styles, with sales dropping “in the teens” in Q2 of 2017, according to NPD Group. Retro Jordans (technically still basketball sneakers) account for almost half of all Jordan sales but, according to Powell, as they began to lose steam in 2016, they also took a toll on Nike’s basketball sneaker sales figures.
Despite the downward trend, LeBron James—Nike’s billion dollar man—remains the top seller of basketball sneakers in the NBA. And let’s be honest: It’s not like Nike was ever going to let one of its core products just die. Especially not in a category where in 2015 it controlled a staggering 93 percent of the U.S. market. So, to shake things up and get some eyes back on its on-court kicks, Nike brought out the big guns to serve up the LeBron 15.
The LeBron 15 isn’t an evolution of the LBJ series so much as a reinvention. It features a full Flyknit upper (in a special new ultra-thick weave called Battleknit), is $20 less than the LeBron 13 at $180 retail, and is easily the sleekest, most wearable LeBron the King has ever let grace his royal feet.
James hasn’t been shy about his desire to make the LeBron 15 both a high-performance sneaker (which can confirm) and a shoe people have in their everyday rotation. “Since [Nike designer] Jason [Petrie] and I started working on the [LeBron 15], we have always talked about how we not only want to have the top, top, top notch in performance, we want style, as well. We have a desire to create shoes that makes all people feel good when they put it on,” he said back in September.
Nike even debuted the LeBron 15 on the Kith runway the same week LeBron first wore them on court. If there’s any partner that can make the LeBron 15 move, it’s Kith, as Ronnie Fieg’s store and brand have been hotter than ever this year. The Kith version of the LeBron 15 features a center zipper, embroidered flowers, and a strap embroidered with the phrase “LONG LIVE THE KING.” These are the kinds of details that can take a sneaker from on-court favorite to streetwear staple, but Nike isn’t stopping there in driving the LeBron 15 home as a must-have sneaker. On December 22, the Swoosh and Fieg are dropping a documentary about LeBron. It’s the full package—and if Nike’s lucky, the LeBron 15 will be the beginning of a new chapter.
Sneaker Collab of the “YEAR”
Off-White x Nike Air Jordan 1
They say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and there’s perhaps no sneaker in history less broken than the Air Jordan 1. The classic high-tops aren’t just classic Nike—they’re an icon of pop culture. So when it was rumored that Nike called upon Virgil Abloh to bring his own style to the sneaker, fans immediately began to speculate on the infinite ways it could go wrong. Would he print his brand’s construction stripes across the sole? Would he do them up in all gold like the Watch the Throne album cover? Instead, Abloh’s approach was to simply deconstruct and thus amplify the aspects of the shoe that made it great in the first place—and in doing so, he delivered the best sneaker collaboration of 2017.
There’s something oddly DIY about Abloh’s Jordans. Maybe it’s the way the shoelaces read “SHOELACES,” or the way they look almost turned inside out, or that they come with a red zip tie and four different color laces. The effect is to make you feel like you’re getting a peek behind the curtain at a product that’s not yet complete. On a different sneaker (or nine) it might not work, but on something as iconic as the Jordan 1, seeing the work in progress is genuinely exciting.
Across multiple releases in the fall, the shoes were scooped up by only the luckiest of app users, workshop attendees, and Friends of Virgil. But make no mistake: there was no shoe people wanted more in 2017 than these Off-White Jordans, and their resale price reflects it. Despite the multiple releases over several months, the kicks still are fetching over $1,800 at Flight Club. By comparison, not even Abloh’s former boss Kanye West put out a shoe in 2017 that’s been as desired on the aftermarket. And the other Air Jordan 1 “Chicago” (the color scheme Abloh referenced for his collab) in a similar price range is one that’s in mint condition despite first hit shelves in 1994. But over email, Abloh says he only notices the hype and resale value of his sneakers “out of peripheral vision.”
Whether he’s paying attention or not, Abloh’s 2017 tsunami of hype will only help Nike moving forward. If there’s any particular Nikes in need of a push, it’s those made by Jordan Brand—which used to get a big boost from onetime Nike endorser Kanye West—and the Off-White x Air Jordan 1 feels like the Jumpman’s first real win in some time. That’s in part thanks to Abloh’s own guerilla marketing campaign, in which he gave pairs to some of the biggest names in fashion and sports weeks before their first release. The likes of A$AP Rocky, Roger Federer, and Chance the Rapper each got their own personalized name tag written on the shoes’ white midsole by Abloh himself. But according to Abloh, no pair was more special than the ones he gifted to his Airness himself. Next to where Abloh’s Jordan 1s say “AIR” on their sole, he simply wrote: Jordan. And on the left shoe’s sole he wrote, “Virgil was here.” In many ways, the Off-White x Nike Jordan 1s signaled Abloh’s arrival to the mountain top of the sneaker game—and helped Nike remain on top in the process.
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