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Air Max insights from creative director Dylan Raasch

On the women shaping Nike's future, sneaker design in 2018, and the Air Max DNA.

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Dylan Raasch has the enviable job of creative director of Nike’s Air Max family, presiding over the world’s most seminal sneakers— the Air Max 97, Sergio Lozano’s 95, and Sean McDowell’s Air Max Plus (the TN, as we better know it). Dylan began his Nike tenure in 2009 as part of the Running team, where he created the Roshe, one of the giant’s most commercially successful releases to date. Nine years later, under Dylan’s direction, the Air Max team delivered the Air Max 270: the most successful Air Max launch in the brand’s history.

Earlier this month following a series of leaks, Nike officially announced the Air Max 720, a lifestyle sneaker constructed from more than 75% recycled manufacturing waste. The 720 sees Nike deploy its tallest Air unit to date: a towering 38mm. That’s bigger still than the Air Max 270’s conversation-starting the 32mm heel. We reached out to Dylan to discuss what went into creating the newest member of the Air Max family.

Hey Dylan, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. The first thing that stood out to me about the 720 was the really bulbous heel — a more extreme version of the ballooning air unit of the 270, which  really surprised people at the time. What pushed you to exaggerate that element here?
What most people don’t know is that the Air Max 270 was somewhat of a test. Our goal with this new family of air was to get the biggest air unit possible in order to create the most heel displacement, thus creating the most cushioning. We were pushing the limits of cavitation draw with the 270, and reached a limit with its 32mm diameter bag in the heel. In the process we learned some things which allowed us to get another 6mm of diameter with the 720, creating a completely new sensation of air. The full-length airbag “ring” cradles the foot, keeping the body feeling buoyant and nimble. Ultimately this also helped with transition and stability.

And what other design tropes link the 720 to the existing Air Max family?
I think our rich Air Max DNA always makes it into our new models at some level, and almost subconsciously at that. We didn’t try to make any direct ties to heritage models but the midsole clip has similarities to the 97 with the swoosh placement and flowing lines. The Air Max Deluxe had details that inspired the 720 as well, and gave the team some ideas of where we could take the new model. We took [inspiration] from wonders of nature. Energy definitely is a new theme that makes a bigger statement—which I think will become more and more the identity of Air Max.

What detail are you most proud of?
In addition to the signature design of the heel, the AM720 air unit contains more than 75% recycled manufacturing waste. One of the goals of Air Max moving forward is to continue to improve our resource footprint and do what we can to ensure we constantly improve in this area.

I saw in an Instagram post around the time of the launch of the 270, you shouted-out a tonne of women involved in the process — I thought that was really heartening to see. Can you share some of the women in the Nike team who helped bring the 720 to life?
Jesi Small and Vessela Yordanova are the ones that really helped bring the Air Max 720 to life. Jesi is one of our Senior Lead Industrial Designers on the team and was instrumental behind the bag design and upper design and marrying the two. Vessi is one of our talented Material Designers and it was her work that allowed the story of the shoe come to life. On the lead colorway, “Northern Lights”, the two worked together to craft a beautiful story and bring it to life like no other shoe has before.  

Were there any compromises made, or more outlandish design sacrificed, to make this an everyday lifestyle shoe?
No compromises were made on this model. We started out with a bold statement in regards to size of air, upper material, the colour shifting bag finish, and even the overt colour gradations that will show up later on this model. We managed to maintain it all the way through to production which is rare.

To change track, and I know I don’t need to tell you this, but for our readers’ sake; you’re the man behind the Roshe run, a huge success for Nike. When you’re given a price point of $70 for a shoe, you obviously have to strip away a degree of detail. On the flipside of that, I’m curious about what happens when you’re designing a shoe at a higher price point, like the 720. What are the first details you add back in?
The first thing we look at is if there is a technology that we can utilize that we otherwise couldn’t afford, that will bring a benefit to the wearer. This is usually the most expensive element in any shoe, whether it’s a Air Unit, React Foam, or a Carbon Plate.

And the extras?
The extras are the details that help tell a rich story. These are extremely important and is what gives the shoe its identity and depth. Without these you’re really just creating a foot covering. It’s the small details that shows thought and consideration was put into the product. We like to call these ‘discovery elements’ as most of the time we hide them, so it’s something only the wearer will only know of themselves. I guess you could say it creates a relationship at a certain level.

For the uninitiated, can you elucidate how painstaking the prototyping process for a release like this?
When creating something with innovation that is essentially an unknown, the team must do everything in their power to make the process as seamless as possible, which means making as many prototypes as possible. The difficulty with Air is we have several teams working on the project at the same time; engineers, industrial designers, wear testers, our factory partners, and our air bag manufacturing partners. You throw an idea out, everyone adds their input to solve the myriad of issues that arise through each iteration, and you create version 2.0. This repeats over and over until the deadline arrives, not when the team gets the result they need. It’s essential we get the results we need before the deadline, regardless of when that is. This is why the prototyping process is so painstaking; it requires constant communication, nonstop problem solving, and the resources to do so.

So how many variations were made to the 720?
The 720 was relatively fast compared to other projects since a lot was learned with the 270. We created 5 different Air Bags iterations to get the final production design. For the upper we spent most of our time working on the color gradations and material explorations so we probably had 8-10 different upper iterations each with about 10 different designs.

Given sneakers are trending back to louder, bigger, more outlandish silhouettes—and colourways, to an extent—do feel more at liberty as a designer?
For sure! We have the ability to do things we couldn’t do five years ago. As with all things, it will be temporary but it is definitely a fun time to get a little bit more playful and expressive. It’s something I think we need now at this time in history.

Additional Air Max 720 release details to follow.

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