Interview: Torben Schumacher & Sam Handy on creating the adidas Originals ZX Flux

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Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

While in Berlin for the preview of the adidas Originals mi ZX Flux photo print app we took some time to sit down with the men responsible for the creation of the ZX Flux itself, adidas Originals Design Director Sam Handy and adidas Originals Global Business Unit Director Torben Schumacher.

It’s quite genuinely hard to believe that the ZX Flux was only announced at the beginning of this year. It’s not been on the shelves for a full 12 months and it’s already seen an insane amount of colourways, various different material makeups, some incredible OG hybrids (the recent ZX Flux 8000 is a good example), mi adidas customisation, the soon to be public mi ZX Flux photo print app, various different uppers and now a ZX Flux 2.0. This is the kind of activity that most brands would spread cautiously over 5 years, but I’m happy to say that adidas have understood the important impact that the ZX Flux could (and has) have for the brand and have invested heavily in it. It’s not only a new perspective on sneaker design for the brand, but a whole new attitude on how to go to market and what adidas Originals is as a whole.

I could ramble for a long time about the historical importance that the ZX Flux will have and the crucial change that it represents for adidas Originals, starting to not only look backwards, but to look forwards and to innovate without losing sight of the past. If you know me then I will have undoubtedly ranted to you about the importance of this when the shoe was first announced in January, but I can’t stress enough that I whole heartedly feel that the ZX Flux will be looked back on as an important moment in the history of adidas Originals and adidas as a whole, changing how the brand operate and opening them up to a huge number of new pockets of consumers. adidas are competing hard at the moment, snapping up deals with all kinds of A-list celebs and designers, as well as pushing out some serious product on a level that we haven’t seen from them in years – there’s a visible hunger and for me it’s symbolised best by the ZX Flux.

Now that I’ve set the scene, let me talk briefly about the 2 men I had the pleasure of speaking with in Berlin. Torben Schumacher has been at adidas for almost 10 years now and since joining the brand in 2004 as Assistant Project Manager of Strategic Marketing has worked his way to Global Business Unit Director, overseeing the ZX Flux project and the strategy for how it should be rolled out across the globe. Sam Handy joined adidas roughly 5 years ago after a 7 year stint as head of design at Maharishi and it was he who came up with the ZX Flux, refining it until it became the shoe that we see today. It’s fair to say that both hold a huge amount of power and influence at adidas Originals, and in the sneaker market in general, yet both were incredibly easy to talk to and humble, both hugely passionate for what they do and love doing.

Throughout the interview, we discuss how the ZX Flux came about, the process of stripping back an iconic classic (the ZX 8000), why they find the mi ZX Flux photo print app so exciting, and other possible Flux innovations for the future …

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How did the idea of ZX Flux come about?

Torben: Well we’ve been looking at ways to contemporise our running offer and offer in general for quick a while. ZX is obviously our most iconic running line and back in the ‘80s, ZX 500s and then up to the ‘000 series in the late ‘80s, we’ve issued so many iconic shoes and products. We felt that this was a great starting point and tried to clean it up and take something really DNA and really us, but clean it up, contemporise it.

The ZX Flux at one point sat on my desk as a sample and we all felt that it was something really cool, really clean, really simple, but still very much adidas, which is beautiful because it has those iconic elements. Yeah, and then that journey started. So we knew instantly that it was something that can be really big because it holds so many different things, prints just being one of them. Yeah, that was really the starting point of ZX Flux.

Sam: Yeah, this is a year and a half ago now, something like that. I was just experimenting with different ways and different archive models that could be the base to try and make that shoe that can push us forward. A way that you can update the archive and create a contemporary shoe, but that’s full of DNA, and for me the ZX 8000 was always a really important shoe. I’ve always thought it was one of those iconic, game changing shoes from 1989 and it became the right shoe to become the ZX Flux. Some how just peeling off the layers and deconstructing until we’re left with the negative space of the ZX 8000.

Can you talk us through the process of how you approached stripping back the ZX 8000 into the ZX Flux?

S: It was done very literally to be honest. I had on my computer the line-out of lots of different ZX models and then just started deleting pieces and seeing which ones looked and felt right somehow. The ZX 8000, when you take off most of the shoe, there’s still a lot of DNA left, and I kind of stumbled accidentally on the idea of the floating stripes just by taking off the mud guard and taking off the eye stay but leaving the exact shape of where the stripes were, so you get this kind of negative image here [points to the 3 stripes on the side of the ZX Flux]. That was kind of by accident, but I think it makes the shoe make sense. When you run the stripes all the way down into the tooling it starts looking like a performance shoe, but when you float them like this it feels like something really new. The stabiliser is inspired by the OG one from the ZX 8000, but we removed these areas [points to the panels in the heel stabaliser] that were always infilled on the original shoe, which makes the whole thing feel more light and more deconstructed. So that’s kind of how it happened

There was also a lot of shell pattern work afterwards to refine proportions. It was always very important to have that very “sneaker” toe-down – a really fast, deconstructed toe. I guess it’s no secret that lots of sneaker guys have been hankering after those early ‘90s toe-down shapes that are super fast, and we really wanted to build that in from the beginning, so we had a very modern shoe but with that fast toe from a classic ‘90s model as well.

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Did you go through quite a few samples to get to this point or did you strip back the ZX 8000 and just find this shoe?

S: Lots of samples. Yeah, lots. Lots and lots of samples. Different samples for toe-down, different samples for toe reinforcement, different samples for eye stay height, different samples for collar height.

I’ve said it a few times – to create a simple shoe takes a lot more work than you would imagine because everything is visible, so any bit of the proportion that looks wrong is really evident. It takes a lot of refining to get it right. The shoes with lots of overlays hide a lot of construction, so when you take it all back you really need to get it right and proportionate, so it’s been refined and refined.

Because it’s such a stripped back shoe, was it a real challenge to maintain the shape without the supportive panelling?

S: Yes. It’s really difficult… well difficult is the wrong word, but it took a lot of sample rounds and a lot of discussions with suppliers to make sure you have a consistently good toe shape across different materials as well. Because it’s so stripped back, the main material is also really visible, so if you use the mesh it actually behaves really differently than if you use the satin or if you use a woven, so you have to redesign it for every different material.

Can you give us an insight into how you manage to maintain that solid toe box shape on such a minimal shoe?

S: I’m trying to think if it’s giving away all the secrets! You take a lot of it and just completely strip it away, and then you take other parts of the reinforcement and put them on the reverse side, so things that would be on the top are on the other side, and lots of refining work on how it sits on the last as well. It’s all kind of a bit technical footwear construction stuff, but lots of work around where the reinforcement sits in relation to the last when you’re making the shoe.

So where did the name Flux come from?

T: Umm… that’s a good one! Flux stands for constant change and we just wanted to pick something catchy but also something new for us. We stumbled across it really. This came up and we really liked the idea of constant change because it is a new way of approaching footwear design for us and Originals, but it’s also a new way of how we go to market and how we talk about stuff. That’s why we think it’s a really good fit.

And was it deliberate not to use number like all of the ZX models of the past?

T: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because ZX is that red thread and that’s what links it to the archive and to our brand DNA, but definitely we didn’t want to follow that same code. We tried to make it look and feel different.

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You mentioned that when you tried it with the 3 stripes running all the way down to the tooling that it looked too much like a performance shoe. Was it very important from the start that the ZX Flux didn’t look like a performance shoe?

S: Very. Yeah because our performance colleagues make lots of great running shoes, you’re wearing one now [points to my adidas Prime Boost], it’s a super nice shoe, I have them for running as well, so we don’t need to build shoes that compete with that, we need to build shoes that express all the value and DNA of adidas Originals that are modern and contemporary. So it’s really important that it has that DNA anchor to the archive, but also doesn’t turn into a performance shoe. From the beginning that was very important.

In the UK the ZX Flux has opened up a lot of newer consumers to adidas and adidas Originals as a brand. When you were designing the shoe did you have any idea that it would have such a big impact and especially in such a short amount of time?

S: There’s obviously a hope. I was talking to someone about it earlier – when we launched the shoe in Berlin this year in January, we were all very confident, we believed in it internally and we really liked it, but we got more and more validation from people outside of the company and then we started to believe that there was going to be this momentum. But we definitely didn’t think from the beginning “Yeah, done. Box ticked. Perfect running shoe”.

T: And I think it’s also fair to say that we tried to approach it from a different perspective. There is a new fresh design and a great shoe, but then we also over invested. So we came in not just with one or two colourways as you usually would release a shoe, but we brought in like 40 in the first instance. There was just so much out there for so many different pockets of consumer tastes that everyone would find a shoe they liked. I think this was something that was also really different to previous releases of ours. We really wanted to put things in a different perspective. I think customisation and the app is yet another perspective to add to it. Can we make it the most personal, the most unique shoe you can get? So we’re super excited now to bring in that next perspective.

Talking about the app, as the guys responsible for the original ZX Flux and therefore most of the original colourways, what are your feelings towards giving this amount of control to the consumer with the mi adidas app?

S: I love it! Often one of the hardest things about designing footwear, designing product in general is the editing process. We’ve had this exercise lots of times, both in colourways and materialways, so we’ll revue boards from my design team that put together 100 different colourways and we’d love to do them all, but you can’t. You have to edit down to let’s say 5 colourways for a logical release and 1 materialway. The beauty with mi adidas is you can now let people create all of those different options because they all look good and they all look interesting, so you really kind of expand the possibilities of the model. I think it’s really fun.

A couple of people have asked if I think that it does designers out of a job, but I completely disagree. It’s really fun designing for customisation to give people all the different options to make great shoes. I think it’s the same thing with the photo app – we still have photo print shoes in the roll out because people are still going to want to buy one that we’ve put together for them, but there’s also other people who want to customise and be unique and express themselves. It’s nice allowing people to be creative with adidas.

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We’re now seeing some differences in the uppers from the offering. Are you going to start introducing other toolings or inspiration from other ZX models to get the Flux treatment?

S: I don’t think Flux is a recipe per se, like I wouldn’t want to say that we’d take say the ZX 500 and do exactly the same treatment to it, or take a Centour and just have floating stripes. I think what’s more the Flux treatment is the idea of being respectful to the archive, building a shoe with visible DNA that takes us to a new place, and I think that recipe we’ll definitely want to follow up on.

And how about other technologies coming in to the ZX Flux family? Will we ever see BOOST on a ZX Flux or is it how it is?

T: I think we definitely want to explore everything we have as a brand. Primeknit and BOOST are definitely very exciting technologies and we definitely want to include those perspectives in Originals much more going forward, so I’d say just watch this space.

There seems to be a lot of energy surrounding the ZX Flux, both from inside and outside the company. Do you think it’s going to be looked back on as an important moment in adidas history?

T: I think we just hoped so. I mean for us it’s something really important and I think if you just look back over the last 6 months you can really see the investment behind it and all the creativity and the energy we try to get out and it’s really exciting to see energy coming back. People really like the product and want to see more and that’s very encouraging, so we’re very confident about it and we just hope that at one point it’s going to maybe become an icon.

S: And I guess maybe aside from the model ZX Flux, internally it starts to feel like we’ve found the recipe for evolving the archive models. The adidas Originals archive is a very powerful thing and we’ve done lots of great retros and brought lots of shoes back and they’re super nice and people love them, but finding the recipe to evolve that I think is something internally that’s been quite important.

And what do you think it is about modernising the adidas Originals archive and unlocking them for the future that is so important for the brand as a whole?

S: I think because it’s an extremely powerful thing. From 1949 through now, adidas was constantly evolving and bringing great groundbreaking new silhouettes and if we can find a way to reimagine them and evolve them for contemporary consumers, but still with that DNA anchor to the past, I think it’s really the recipe for adidas Originals to going new places aside from amazing archive reissues. To find the right way to do it, with respect, with sympathy to the archive, I think it’s really important for us.

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Special thanks to both Sam and Torben for their time and insight. Thanks to Charlie at John Doe, Simon at adidas UK and Leila at adidas Originals.