INTERVIEW: Tinker Hatfield talks Nike HTM and Air Max Day

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Once again, it’s Air Max Day and people are going mad for all things Visible Air. We spoke with the man who started it all, Tinker Hatfield, to discuss the roots of HTM, its recent “democratisation”, and Air Max Day releases.

Getting time with Tinker is no easy achievement, even in recent years when he’s become more of a spokesperson for Nike than ever before. When we got the green light for interview time with the man himself to discuss Air Max and HTM, our Ai Max Day was made already, way ahead of schedule. It’s always a pleasure to speak with Tinker, not only because his impact on Nike, sneaker culture, and culture in general, but also because he’s very honest and free-spoken for some high up at a brand. You never know what he’s going to say – it’s refreshing.

Considering the impact HTM has had on Nike, it’s surreal to hear Tinker discuss it so casually, but then again it’s always been a casual affair internally at Nike. In essence, it’s three designers with mutual respect and admiration coming together to create, innovate, and push boundaries. That’s what it’s always been about and that’s why it’s so interesting to see it becoming more accessible with this Air Max Day. Not only is HTM branching out into solo design projects – this year sees the first H, T, and M shoes rather than HTM – but the product is going to be less limited, and it’s even made it to NIKEiD, for now. To some HTM fans this is sacrilege, to others this is great news because it’s less like gold dust to get hold of, and that’s the attitude Tinker holds towards it. He also gave the impression that this is for now. Not to say that they are planning to revert to the hyper-collectable business model for HTM, but that HTM should always be fluid and be able to react to what feels right at the time. That’s always been the mentality with the footwear designs, so why shouldn’t it permeate the business model also?

As always, Tinker’s insight is eye opening and fascinating to anyone with a remote interest in sneaker and/or Nike. Enjoy the read and happy Air Max Day.

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Where did the idea of HTM come from originally?

It really popped up because Mark Parker and myself used to travel to Tokyo and we knew Hiroshi from his style-setting notoriety and we became friends, and I think over time we became really comfortable with him and in the end we decided to develop a little sub-brand, partly because it was going to be fun to all work together, but also it affords us [Nike] an opportunity to introduce new ideas and concepts and even performance sneakers into the marketplace in a little more streamlined, personal way. That’s really why we started HTM.

Was it an easy sell internally at Nike?

I don’t remember anyone voicing an opinion to the contrary. When you get the CEO in on the project [laughs] things go a little smoother. Mark was always keen on it. Mark is really quite influenced by style from all over the world, from futuristic stuff in Tokyo to more classic stuff somewhere else. I think we’re all influenced by the world. But in particular, Mark likes to spend a lot of time in Tokyo – he’s a big toy collector – and I’ve been there with him and we’ve been to all these cool shops and talked to all these designers and Hiroshi was just so well dialled into that scene that I think we just all found that we liked a lot of the same art and design and we could communicate with each other quite nicely. It just seemed an easy step to take.

What’s the approach to coming up with an HTM product, with the three of you? Do you get in a room together and brainstorm?

It happens in various ways. I’ve definitely been in some sessions with both Mark and Hiroshi and we might look at a bunch of different designs and decide that there’s one in particular that we’d like to reinterpret, and that’s collaborative. That’s been going on and that’s been fun to do. More recently though, we’ve also embarked on trying to take HTM and do our own interpretations, so H and T and M all being separate interpretations of an existing design, or possibly even a new design. So I think we’re experimenting around with different ways to do it so that it isn’t always the same. I think that’s what people find interesting. It’s what I find interesting.

Most recently with this Air Max project we actually all separated out and did our own, and that was fun.

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That brings us nicely to the Air Max Day releases. The shoe you’ve created, is a mix between the Air Max 90 Ultra and Mercurial Superfly. Where did that idea come from?

Well it started with just chasing the Air Max 90 as a foundation, if you will. I’ve been a big proponent of proprioception design – which is a little bit higher collared, stretchy collared types of shoes – for good reason; some people feel like it helps them notice the ground a little better and maybe there’s at least the notion of better stability and better fit. Anyway, I thought that I would just add something that I’ve already worked on before as an innovative project and I just thought I would add that back in to an existing framework, which is the Air Max 90, and then proceed to change all of the other materials to use more modern techniques for the making of the shoe but also developing a lighter weight, thinner skinned version of the whole thing. So I was looking at style of course, but I guess my performance mind was at work here too trying to think “What would make an Air Max 90 actually perform a little bit better, maybe be more comfortable, and also look a little more unique?” To me, that’s where I went. I chose some colours – I had a specific reason why I chose the colours I did – and there was a little story there. A lot of things added up for me and it was fun.

Out of interest, why the Air Max 90 out of all of the Air Max that you worked on, for the foundation of this shoe?

Well that’s a great question. We’ve done a lot of work recently, Nike has, reintroducing the Air Max 1 and at the same time the Air Max Zero, and those shoes have had some buzz, especially the Air Max 1, I just see it everywhere. I thought I’d look at a newer Air Max in the lineage and so I just landed on the Air Max 90. It was one of the ones I remembered probably the most and I thought it was a strong design to begin with and I could do something with it. I guess that’s what happened.

While we’re talking about the early days of Air Max, what impact do you think a project like HTM could have had on Air Max if it had existed back then?

That’s a great question. I don’t know that I have a good answer other than to say that when I was working on Air Maxes years ago, from the 1 to the… maybe the last one I did was the 94? I sometimes get a little confused as to what I did and what I didn’t do [laughs]. But the reality is that I really wasn’t looking to collaborate that much [laughs]. I was younger and I thought I was full of myself and I was just trying to make a mark, but trying to do good work for Nike. But I don’t know if we even needed an HTM because there was so much new work that could be done and processed through the Nike system at the time. I think the HTM concept makes more sense for today because of what we’ve just discussed with the complexities of these big category businesses – in running, in basketball, and what have you – and HTM makes more sense now because we can go around some of that bureaucracy of running a big business and make some really cool creative decisions. But if you look back at the history, that’s what I was doing in 1987, ’88, ’89, ’90, ’91… Not too many people were getting in my way so we didn’t need an HTM. It was good then, and now HTM makes a lot of sense now.

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And how do you feel that having HTM and the creative freedom it affords you has impacted on Nike as a whole?

Well we have this big sportswear business where a lot of shoes get reinterpreted, and they’re beautiful and I’m proud to be associated with the great design work going on there, and so when HTM first started it was really a little bit more like the way we do sportswear – we were doping more reinterpretations. But the future of HTM, and maybe even more what my mindset is, and I believe Mark and Hiroshi are on the same page here because we’ve discussed this, is that it’s going to continue to be a way for us to introduce new technology, new performance, new ideas, and it isn’t always going to be a reinterpretation, it’s going to be something new and we can control that message and we can also be a little bit more creative because it’s a simpler process.

I’ve been told that HTM is being “democratised” starting with this release. Do you feel that it’s important for HTM to become more accessible or at least appear to be?

Here’s the way I see it from my own perspective, irrespective of Mark Parker’s or Hiroshi Fujiwara’s perspective… We sometimes, for lack of a better word, we feel bad that sometimes projects are so exclusive that it’s difficult for people to participate. Trying to do larger numbers and/or make them a little less exclusive is a natural desire for me and I would suspect that Mark and Hiroshi would say the same thing. It’s cool sometimes when projects or products are really really difficult to get, but it’s also cool and rewarding to see more people get an opportunity to participate. I think that’s natural and normal and I suspect that that level of numbers, and level of democracy, might go up and down a little bit I suppose [laughs].

Do you think it’s got anything to do with the market becoming more open to the idea of adventurous, technologically advance sports footwear outside of performance?

That’s a great observation from you that I actually share. I agree with what you just said. It seems to me that people are more open minded, and by that I mean customers, consumers, people who are into sneakers, and they’re looking for more interesting and unique things and that opens the door up for us to spend more time and effort to satisfy that part of the market. So we’re all excited about how we can do that. Sometimes we work closely with these huge big time athletes in American football, basketball, track and field, you name it, and those are interesting collaborations, but this one with HTM is just more design driven and it’s more creative and it’s not quite as focused around another personality. It’s really interesting and I think you’ll find us always looking for new and better ways to be creative and I’m all for it.

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While we’re talking about it being a creative expression of design, is there any difference in approach or mentality between your normal design work at Nike and when you’re working on an HTM project?

Yeah, I think there are different ways to design of course for a lot of reasons. I like to think of it this way… I often am designing for a single individual, it could be a basketball star or a football star, and you get to know that person and you try to satisfy the needs and wants of that person to make sure the performance is there, that the aesthetic and the storytelling behind it and the personality all kind of lines up with that person, and that becomes a really cool story and a great way to actually then attract other people to the product. And then there’s this other way which is more about design influence and looking at the world of fashion and modern culture and also bringing in maybe non-athletic personalities, and it’s not quite specific to a single person, I think it’s a little broader look at design. Those are very different ways to look at starting a project and then finishing it off. It’s fun, for me anyway, to work in both arenas if you will.

You come from an architectural background that has tried and tested cultural importance. Do you think that footwear design could ever have a similar cultural importance as architectural design?

Well I can only relay a story to you… I know architects, some pretty well known ones, I’m not going to mention names, but I know that they have sneakers on in their creative studios, and the same is true of automobile designers and motorcycle designers. I think what that means is that footwear design has now become an influence for other designers, just like architecture has been an influence for me, and car design for many many footwear designers in the more recent past. I’m excited about the fact that I can call up a friend who designs cars and he’s telling me how cool that latest Air Jordan was and that he’s working on a Corvette for General Motors and there’s some influences going on. That to me is speaking to a more mature design business that we’ve helped bring about, so I’m excited about that.