Words: Alex Synamatix
With Nike SB announcing the Nike SB Free skateboarding shoe this week, we spoke with Footwear Design Director of Nike SB, Shawn Carboy, about the thought process behind the shoe and how Nike’s skate sub-brand finally brought Free to their offering.
As Shawn mentions, this isn’t technically the first time Nike SB have played with Free technology. In fact they’ve tinkered with it on several occasions, but it’s only ever felt like tinkering. A bit of Free siping here, a bit of Free siping there, but never a full commitment. Well, this week they announced the shoe that had finally managed to welcome Free to Nike SB in full. Having started life at Nike as a footwear designer, working his way up to Footwear Design Director, Shawn has spent years being hands on with skate footwear at Nike and several other skate brands before that. His outlook on the topic is insightful, refreshingly simple and honest. He understands his consumers and athletes extremely well (not so easy in the world of skateboarding) and is doing his part to move the market forwards technologically.
Throughout the interview Shawn gives us an insight into the thought process behind migrating successful innovations from one category in Nike to another. He also gives us insight into how and when the Nike SB team work alongside their athletes to create and develop product that isn’t signature lines. Mostly, I wanted to focus on the mindset of a designer when it comes to problem solving, as that’s where some of the best footwear design stems from, and thankfully throughout my time talking with Shawn I felt that I got a good glimpse at how the inner cogs work. Hopefully you’ll feel the same by the end of the interview …
Could you briefly talk us through your history at Nike and designing skate footwear?
Sure. I started at Nike in 2006, where I primarily worked on Nike 6.0 and snow. I came from a company called Emerica prior to that. I primarily was brought on to help with the snow program and some of the other stuff. We were just expanding at that time. I believe around 2 years prior, around 2008/9, that’s when I started working on SB. I actually worked on SB and snow at the time, full time, and then probably a year after that I became full time with SB. So I actually started as a footwear designer and kinda worked my way up to now being the Design Director, which happened last February.
When did the idea of bringing Free innovation over to SB first come about and how?
To be fair, James Arizumi was the first one to try to introduce Free to SB with the Tre family. Primarily, the Tre idea was the first experiment. He experimented with the centre flex to give you lateral flexibility and then when we did the Zoom FP we tried to still play with that, but it still wasn’t giving you the full natural flexibility that you need for Free. And then the innovation kitchen, our Innovation Lead at the time helped us out trying to figure out how we incorporate more flexibility into the sole, how do we get not only the regular flex, but also the dorsal flexion. Similar to how your foot needs to be flexible for football. With football you need flexibility on the top of the foot and the bottom of the foot. So he was able to figure it out; what we needed, what actual flex grooves that we needed for the Free SB. It’s been going on for quite a while.
So was there a lot of product testing involved in migrating the Free technology over from running to skateboarding?
It was one of those things where we kind of dabbled in the beginning and then this shoe was the first time that we were actually really able to go “OK, we’re going to try to make this the most flexible shoe that we have in the line using Free”. We just took this chance to kind of put a steak in the ground.
We did the Max product, and that was really for recovery, for after skating. The challenge with this kind of construction is you need rubber, and with the Max product you didn’t because it was for after skating. You didn’t need so much rubber. But for this, because we knew what the team was going to be using it for, we wanted to make sure it had the traction and durability that it needs.
And how do you approach making a really lightweight, flexible shoe, with those being the priorities, while making sure it’s also durable enough for skateboarding?
You know what, personally, no actually the team, we have a couple of principles. We try to keep it minimal, just keep it simple and focus on the priorities. In the past, we looked at things like the Tre’s and there was a high focus on durability, but then you lost flexibility and performance. You made it durable, and it lasted forever, but it didn’t perform the way kids wanted. We know the kids love Janoski’s and Dunks, so how do you keep it simple, how do you keep it innovative? I use the term “introduce something new, but keep it familiar”. If you try to launch something super crazy, something out of the box that they’ve never seen something like this before, it’s really hard for skateboarders to gravitate towards it. They are a conservative type of crowd, because of the fact that you’re looking at your feet all day.
So how we approached it was to just keep it simple; the uppers, the lines. Try to keep at least the toe-down as minimal as possible, so it wasn’t distracting. The last thing you want to do is have distractions when you’re looking down at your foot. But then when it comes to the sole we wanted to focus on the flexibility in the forefoot because that was the most important part. In the mid-foot we felt that arch protection was more important than flexibility, because the board can hit the bottom of your foot and cause huge problems or it causes injuries. So, protect the arch, but then still have flexibility in the heel. Flexibility in the heel is really built for if you’re jumping down a big set of stairs , it allows you to run out of it. It gives it a crumple zone. If we didn’t, it would kind of do a slapping effect, similar to normal cup-soles – it doesn’t flex at all. If you create certain crumple zones, it allows you to kind of roll out of the impact.
You mentioned how you didn’t want to go too far with the design away from traditional skate shoes, but it’s clear that the upper references key design points from the Free running sneakers. Was it important that the Nike SB Free share visual cue points with the Free Run family?
Yes. The thing is, we thought it would be a great idea to draft off of it. Some skaters don’t even know what Free is, they’re just kind of like “Oh, what’s that?”. Then there’s the older generation that grew up around Free, they’re like “Oh yeah”. What we were trying to do was tell a bigger Free story, but tell it through a skateboarders lens. That’s why I like keeping the toe simple, just having the breathability on the mid-foot area. It seemed like an interesting approach and a little bit different. The toe’s familiar, but the mid-foot’s a little bit different.
Outside of Free and that story, what were the main inspirations behind this shoe design in terms of its shape?
We really focused on the build of the shoe and the function of the shoe. We had Sean Malto and Shane O’Neill test the shoe out and something that they really wanted, they wanted total control of the board. They wanted natural flexibility. They wanted to be able to put the shoe on and kind of have out-of-the-box flexibility and not have to break it in. So we focused on that and “How do we get it to be that?” … “How do we remove the distractions?” … “How do we get it to fit like a glove?”. Also, we wanted it to be lighter than what our other shoes weigh. It’s actually 75 grams lighter than the Janoski, which is awesome. The thought around making it lighter … feet become a problem if you’re skating eight hours a day, so we wanted to make it as light as possible without losing the structure of the shoe. It really is about allowing you to skate consistently from the time you put the shoe on to the last hour of the session.
The suede component, as far as the upper, was really important because if we’re introducing something groundbreaking underneath your foot, we wanted the suede to kind of ground it out. We were experimenting with some skins and it wasn’t grabbing the grip tape and what we try to do with the interaction between the materials and the board is that it needs to kind of have a velcro effect. If it doesn’t have that, it just doesn’t seem to work out. So, we stuck with suede because we felt that the connectivity on the top of the foot would be something familiar, that skaters wouldn’t have to get used to it. The flexibility underneath the foot … they say barefoot running, for us it’s not necessarily barefoot skating, but just no distractions. You have what you want to have and not what you don’t.
Free technology came from a demand from runners for a shoe that functions as close to barefoot as possible. Did the demand for this shoe come from skateboarders?
We had been throwing around the idea for a while. There was a team trip to England and they had some of the original prototypes and it was something that when we travelled people were like “When are you gonna do a Free shoe?”. A lot of the retailers. They didn’t know we were working on anything and we actually were working on the Max product too as well. So it kind of naturally happened. Internally we wanted to mess around with it, people were asking for it, so it just kind of naturally fell into place.
Lastly, Sean Malto is the lead skater involved in the launch of the Nike SB Free. How involved was he in the early stages of creating this shoe?
So in the beginning when the innovation team was using it, they didn’t have access to our professional athletes, but once it got into in-line timelines, when it gets handed over to the category, that’s when Sean and us were all involved. He was involved intensively throughout the process. Obviously he got injured half way through the process, but he skate tested the first two to three sets and then he actually was able to test the last set. He was only out for about six months and that’s roughly one wear test. He was crucial to getting the shoe to where it is. For me, what was really great about having Sean is that we had both Shane O’Neill help us out and Sean Malto. It’s good to have two different points of view because they like two different types of shoes. Shane’s a little bit particular; he has a certain way he wants a shoe. It’s kind of like a golfer with his golf club set. Shane is the one who has his driver and he knows what he wants. Sean is the one that will experiment a little bit more and really try to figure out what we’re trying to solve. They’re both really great and they both come with really interesting points of view.
Those two were really important and Sean especially was really important to the project. If we didn’t have those guys, we wouldn’t have the feedback that we need. We were getting feedback from our wear test team, and they’re awesome, but you need to balance that wear test feedback with the athlete’s because the athletes are the ones that are taking it through the extreme elements. It’s super important to have all of that. If we’re not making product for them, then we’re not doing our job.
Learn more about the Nike SB Free here.