A Convergence of Art and Technology - Nike Flyknit Collective

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Produced by: Dan Hwang
Written by: John Kim

This past summer we were all witness to Nike's unmatched ability to change the game through a groundbreaking product release. The brand's revolutionary Flyknit technology was used to create the Flyknit Racer and Flyknit Trainer+ running shoes, each featuring an upper built with synthetic yarns. They answered the modern runner's demand for a lightweight minimalist shoe that fit as comfortably as a sock, but for Nike, the bigger breakthrough lay in the very conception of the shoe. A new manufacturing process, in which a virtually seamless one-piece upper is attached to the Lunarlon sole unit, meant a substantial reduction in production costs, as well as a major boost to Nike's sustainability efforts. Nike's dedication to promoting Flyknit as the Next Big Thing was no more apparent than the development of the Flyknit Collective, a worldwide creative initiative that celebrates the core principles of Flyknit technology: performance, lightness, formfitting and sustainability.

According to Ben Shaffer, Flyknit designer and Studio Director from the Innovation Kitchen, Nike's ability to develop technology built on those four pillars started from reengineering the simple process of knitting to create a performance product. Working closely with athletes ("the ultimate client"), Shaffer and his team set about pairing lightness with formfitting, with the goal of creating an upper that fits one to one with the foot, much like a sock, thereby "amplifying" the lightweight experience.

The designers eventually came to the conclusion that the best way to create a shoe that acts like a sock would be to mimic the very process in which a sock is made. Consequently, Nike hired a team of engineers to reprogram a knitting machine customarily used to make sweaters and socks, so that now the 15-foot-long device could be fed spools of colored yarn of varying elasticity, thickness and strength, to weave together the shoe's upper. (The high-quality polyester yarn was found following trials using an "endless" number of prototypes.) Thin synthetic cables similar to Nike's proprietary Flywire -- were knitted into the weave around the midfoot for enhanced support. The upshot: a lightweight sneaker that fits like a glove.

The notion of creating an upper tantamount to a second skin required four years of what Nike calls "micro-level precision engineering," in which programmers, engineers and designers worked in tandem to develop proprietary software that could instruct the knitting machine to apply yarns and fabric variations like Lycra-infused thread only to the areas in which they were needed. In a painstaking process, Nike had achieved the precision level necessary for the perfect placement of materials for support, flexibility and breathability all in a single piece.

Compare that to the Nike Air Pegasus+ 28, which is constructed from a total of 37 sewn pieces. Flyknit effectively does away with the need for cutting and stitching the most labor intensive portions of the build and therefore produces 66 percent less waste than the Air Pegasus+ 28. The ease of production costs and time raises the possibility of a return to localized manufacturing. It becomes easier to see what Neville Wakefield means when he says that Flyknit represents a "paradigm shift" in the way performance shoes are made.

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Wakefield, a fixture in the world of contemporary art, is the global curator for the Flyknit Collective, a global platform for creatives in all fields to translate the abstract benefits of Flyknit into material structures that connects them with local communities. The program kicked off in London with Ernesto Neto's Swinflybaby installation, located in the courtyard of London's 1948 space. A preview of the larger production that the Brazilian artist and sculptor would create in Rio de Janeiro, the dazzling structure was created with crocheted netting, drawing a clear parallel to Flyknit's ability to adapt to the human form. As Ernesto explained, "I want people to understand their body, through the relation they have through the work."

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In London, design agency UVA explored ideas of lightness, athletic performance and gravity through the use of trampolines made with woven mesh. According to UVA's Matt Clarke, the company was immediately attracted to the project for a number of reasons. Aside from the revolutionary product itself, there was the performance aspect to the design, with the lightweight nature of Flyknit calling for a demonstration of physical activity. The "Floating Point" installation, located in the center of Aske Gardens, was highlighted by a fifteen minute performance in which professional dancers performed atop the three assembled trampolines. As the crew from UVA observed, there was a playful component in this demonstration of lightness, an apt metaphor for the brand itself.

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In Shanghai, during Nike's Festival of Sport this past August, designer Arthur Huang unveiled the "Feather Pavilion," an interactive installation embodying all four of Flyknit's key tenets of lightness, performance, formfitting and sustainability, with a special emphasis on the latter principle. Huang created an architectural structure made entirely out of recycled interlocking recycled PET bricks aka  POLLI-Bricks standing in for Flyknit's woven threads. As its name suggests, the pavilion was based on the idea of a feather, which acted as the starting point for the exploration into lightweight forms. The concept was manifested through a shape-shifting ceiling, as well as the interactive lights and POLLI-Brick build.

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In Rio de Jainero, Neto created "ObichoSusPensoNaPaisaGen," a sprawling hand-crocheted structure conceived as a hanging garden. Constructed with polypropylene rope, plastic balls and stones, the build measures over 40 meters long and 12 meters wide and features two ramps, through which visitors gain entry and become subsequently immersed in a three-dimensional painting. The ropes are finished in red, orange, green and purple hues, which reveal themselves with each step further inside the suspended sculpture. Traveling to the center of the work, visitors are rewarded with the opportunity for rest in a space akin to a round market square. Neto's unique creation invites participation and play within seemingly unstable confines. In reality, there's a dependable system of support, thanks to a knit safety net that draws an obvious analogy to Flyknit.

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In New York, multidisciplinary artist Jenny Sabin created the "My Thread Pavilion," displayed at Nike's Bowery Stadium. Sabin says she was initially attracted to the project for its ability to mine "the simplicity of knitting as geometry, as pattern, as materiality, with the complexity of the body in motion." Sabin's Flyknit workshops explored the possibility of constructing woven buildings, with new and innovative textile processes allowing the possibility of that paradigm. Her pavilion reflected that reality, featuring a hive-like dome structure formed by weaving together threads into cylindrical modules. Gazing at the complex structure, all the tenets of Flyknit technology become immediately apparent.

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Finally, in both Tokyo and Milan, design agency LOT-EK is preparing a mobile running station under the guiding principles of sustainability and lightness.

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As with the fomenting of any revolution, Nike's Flyknit technology fills a void, while at the same time opening the doors to new avenues of forward thinking and innovation. The lightweight knit material is sure to make its way onto performance shoes across additional Nike product lines, while the Flyknit Collective program will pay dividends by connecting with local communities at the same time it sows the seeds of creativity among those who visited Flyknit Collective installations or attended the program's workshops. Nike continues to set the tone, and the revolution is lightweight, formfitting, performance-enhancing and sustainable.