September 28, 2017
Reverence Justified: A tribute to Gary Warnett
Sad news overnight as word reached Sneaker Freaker that longtime contributor and OG legend Gary Warnett had passed away. Gary was responsible for many incisive opinion pieces and major features in the magazine over the years. His encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture was unrivalled, and he loved nothing more than enthusiastic discourse about obscure footwear, hip hop and VHS skate videos. He was a tough negotiator and a glorious cynic who loved skewering hypocrisy, but he was also an unabashed fan who maintained the giddiest delight when he uncovered some new esoteric titbit to fiend over. Nerding out was his specialty – if it was an Olympic sport he’d be a champion decathlete, Jedi master of every discipline.
In an age of overwhelming corniness and phony influencer status, Gary was the real deal. His opinions held weight, his words conveyed gravitas. He was funny as fuck, but deadly serious too. He was a maverick who said what he thought and not for fame, money or status could his opinion be bought. I know I tried many times to get him to write about some corporate baloney, but if he wasn’t interested, the answer was no. He was pure like that. It’s why he was so loved and universally admired.
Speaking personally, a few words of sage praise from Gary Warnett was the ultimate accolade. I’m sure I wasn’t Robinson Crusoe in this regard – kudos from him was keenly sought, hard earned and when it did come, it was deeply satisfying in a way that is hard to explain. He was the barometer, the benchmark and the gold class standard against which we all measure ourselves in this tight-knit industry.
A few years ago Gary took on the epic job documenting the most innovative Nikes of all time for the Genealogy book. As usual, his writing was brilliantly researched, clever, thought provoking and snappy to the final full stop. It was an honour to bring the pages to life with his help, and I hope we did his copy the justice it deserved. I know it drove him nuts when he found out there was one tiny error in the entire book. Only he would know, let alone care, that a minute detail wasn’t 100% correct.
With huge regret, immense sadness, and outright anger at the universe for taking him way too young, we reproduce this interview with Gary from the Nike Genealogy book. I can’t honestly think of a better way to pay tribute to the man and acknowledge his legacy. The world is a poorer place without his immense presence.
Exhibitions as monumental as the Genealogy of Innovation don’t just happen without an inordinate amount of lengthy discussion and hard work, followed by protracted negotiations and infinite fine-tuning. Selecting the finest 200 Nikes to have graced the planet is a tough gig, one that calls for a razor-sharp mind, an encyclopaedic knowledge of Nike history and an OCD-like attention to detail. With an impeccable background in the quasi-journalistic art of sneaker criticism, including many a fine article for Sneaker Freaker magazine, Gary Warnett was drafted in to curate and document the exhibition. Enjoy his guided tour of the Genealogy of Innovation.
First of all, let me ask an abstract question. What do you think makes Nike, Nike?
Well, that question makes a lot of sense if we’re talking football. Speaking from a shoe fanatic standpoint, we all know the differentiators that make each brand appeal. For me it would be a sense of rebellion, in terms of colour, design and technology. There’s an irreverence in the mix, but not an the expense of performance.
It was the upstart brand and football boots are a perfect example of demonstrating Nike’s quest to find that sweet spot themselves. Does 1971’s The Nike represent the essence of the brand? Nope. The 1984 Tiempo is still very traditional in a lot of ways. The early 1990s boots like the Tiempo Premier and Air Play are a leap in the right direction, but it’s really the GX in 1997 that’s the playmaker, then the Mercurial the following year which delivers a truly ‘Nike’ design for the pitch.
You could trace what makes the Mercurial great all the way back to Bill Bowerman chipping, slicing, glueing and carving spikes and distance runners in cahoots with Jeff Johnson back when Nike was in its infancy. Back when the Mercurial dropped, Nike was still young – it was only 27 years old. The headstart that other great football brands had was colossal. But I think that there’s a number of interesting elements in the football shoes that precede the Mercurial that deserve documentation. That we could link the Mercurial to a nylon Cortez without it being too tenuous is what makes Nike, Nike in a number of ways.
Critics often talk of Nike as a ‘marketing’ company. I would have thought this book illustrates that Nike is a design company that loves ideas more than anything. How do you feel about the dichotomy between these viewpoints?
Nike’s marketing led me to the path I chose in life for work so I’ll never knock it. W+K’s work, Peter Moore’s work, those ads, the copywriting… amazing. But it’s a critique I’ve heard a lot of from those who don’t necessary follow the product and would rather have a general quip in their conversational armoury, even if it lacks substance. Nike don’t skimp on marketing and they’re committed to innovation, so that seems like the best of both worlds to me. With football product from Nike, marketing was very thin on the ground compared to running or basketball up until the early 1990s – there were some weird little Nike UK ads I love, like an ad with Ian Botham for the Tiempo that played on his football past. I know as an Aussie that you know abut Botham! There was even Nike sponsorship back when the Air Strike dropped that tied with the British comic known as Roy of the Rovers. Football can be resistant to American modes of marketing, so it was a challenge for Nike in both promotion and product design.
The Genealogy exhibition is 40 years of Nike innovation told through over 200 interconnected footwear designs. But the football boot story has rarely, if ever, been told on this scale, and certainly never in conjunction with Nike’s pantheon of sneaker designs. How did this mix strike you when you saw it for the first time?
I was tasked with picking the shoes, so the mix and the timelines were on me anyway. You don’t hear the football boot story, and I wish I could have included the Air Fire, the cleated incarnations of the Air Strikes, the late 1980s Firenzas and the Eurostrike with the heel lettering, so it was fun to try to gather that as a collection. Bear in mind that a lot of these shoes were collated with multiple timelines in mind too – a lot of the lightweight nylon and mesh runners of the 1970s belong in the material category as well as cushioning and lightweight.
The real surprise for me was the amount of seemingly obscure running shoes that really broke ground technically that nobody discusses. I forgot that Zoom Air/Tensile Air actually debuted in loafers and work shoes half a decade before it appeared in sports footwear.
I think most people, even (so-called) fanatical sneaker fanciers, would be surprised to read that the first Nike was a football boot and not a sneaker. Is there an untold story behind The Nike?
Ah, The Nike! You can’t take that boot’s status away, can you? To my knowledge The Nike was used to demonstrate that Blue Ribbon Sports’ own product would cover sports that the brand they used to distribute didn’t. It wasn’t a particularly impressive boot and the quality wasn’t great either. It was actually made for the American version of football too because boots were very multi-purpose back then. A lot of cleated Nike shoes seemed to target both footballs, baseball, soft ball and hockey until the very early 1980s, so that category can claim The Nike too. The Swoosh was called the ‘Nike Stripe’ in some 1971 sales documents and was applied for ‘attractive reinforcement’. But it is certainly a historical moment for Nike.
I don’t suppose we’ll see a retro anytime soon? [laughs]
Well, oddly enough the Lunar Cheyenne shoe and the Nike Premier boot from last summer take a lot of inspiration from The Nike and could be considered upgraded retros to some degree.
Reading Tinker’s interview in this book, the clash between conservative forces and designers who want to push boundaries has been there since day one. Whether it’s the Foamposite or the first Air Trainer, Nike has never been frightened of betting big, and they rarely lose. Why is it so important for brands to design and make products that are challenging to both convention and contemporary consumer taste?
Nike’s ability to annihilate conventions has been their unique selling point time and time again. Look how strange some of the shoes are here! It’s essential that Nike creates curious forms and ignores all feedback bar the athlete on the path to putting them out. I think a design should define its era and not be bogged down in the comfort blanket of nostalgic reference points. The Mercurial Vapor, the Foamposite or the Sock Racer are three examples of absolute game changers and I hope the Genealogy showcase of shoes at least hints at how they came to be.
Aren’t the best sellers always wrapped in a plain wrapper?
An all-black Air Force 1 or white Air Monarch might be a bestseller but the road that led to them is paved with wild experimentation. The AF-1 is incredibly technical, but its look and status 32 years on seems innocuous compared to the new KD or Kobe’s shoe.
Looking back through these pages of this book and given how slick and sophisticated the world has become these days, is there a loss of appetite for iconoclast statements?
We have the ability to publicly decry a design immediately now and the ability to see and share product with a certain ease. Once, we used to see a shoe when we were meant to. I wonder whether contemporary technology with its ease-of-use and aesthetic minimalism means we’re hungry for a certain simplicity – maybe that’s good from a carbon footprint and lightweight standpoint?
Maybe we’re simply desensitised by the volume of options in the market now, including the ongoing obsession with retro designs?
Retro is a huge business right now but footwear design seems to really look like they should in 2014 – look at the latest iteration of the Nike Zoom running products. The interest in innovative clothing at a fashion level is interesting. Kids are less conservative in their attire and I think open-minds are a positive sign for shoes to come.
Including the Roshe Run here is an interesting choice. It’s arguably the least innovative Nike shoe in the book and yet it’s one of the most influential – and highest selling – new shoes in the past decade. That is a really incongruous anomaly. Any thoughts?
I can see how that one might seem jarring, but to be honest, it’s a very relevant shoe if we’re looking at where the performance innovations we talk about are right now. Given the zen concept behind that design, it’s not that incongruous to me. In fact, it’s pretty harmonious! There’s some Waffle patterning that harks back to the early 1970s, there’s Phylon inspiration, there’s natural motion, lightweight mesh – on the best versions of that shoe in my opinion – and there’s the Solarsoft sock liner that harks back to Lunarlon. It just delivers those technologies differently. That and the Lunar Force 1, which is there to show how new innovations have been applied to old favourites to upgrade them, might cause some murmurs, but the Roshe is a phenomenon that’s been very influential over the last two years.
The way sneakers are branded is another interesting aspect to this book. Nike has the Swoosh – though not all Nikes have a Swoosh – and it’s used in a multitude of different ways. It’s a somewhat obvious acknowledgment, but it really is a very powerful symbol. What is it about that big tick on the side?
Great branding always seems kind of obvious. We grew up with that in our consciousness, didn’t we? Saying that, shoes like the Foamposite, Huarache and Air Max 95 – which I believe are masterpieces – don’t rely on the Swoosh to be recognisably Nike-affiliated.
Nike’s use of colour, especially the original releases of significant models, is consistently powerful. They ‘own’ combinations such as the Mowabb and names such as the Infra Red. What was Nike’s first home run using colour? Have you ever thought about this aspect of Nike design?
All the time. I’ve worked on collaborations before and these guys made it look very, very easy. It’s not easy to create an iconic, unique combination. It makes a lot of difference. Team colour on 1975 Cortez, the use of scraps of leftover suedes and materials on running shoes in the late 1970s that created that lurid big hair, short shorts running aesthetic was total attention seeking and the shoes that Nike would colour up for marathons in the early 1980s made an impact. In football, it was the GX from 1997 that really seemed to make a bid to use colour on a boot differently.
Is it fluke or genius… or something else entirely?
Well, to my knowledge, until a certain point, the designer of the shoe would define the colours and as the designer knew what needed to be highlighted, the colours seemed unorthodox, but just right. For instance, the red rand on the Air Max was there to highlight that sole unit.
The relentless use of Volt on the Lunar midsoles was another shrewd choice by Nike. That colour now seems to resonate with this idea of the ‘future’, which Nike has certainly invested heavily in.
Volt follows to a legacy of highlighting a sole technology and making it shout a little. It definitely seems to be closely affiliated with Nike now. Colouring up the sole unit links to the late 1980s Air Mariah reboot in terms of looks and the Volt contrast shares a few resemblances with the use of colour on the Air Rio and early Mercurial Vapor makeups. That’s probably just coincidental though.
Getting back to boots, the purple and orange Mercurial Vapor was the one combo that really strikes me as a definitive combination that was especially effective on television.
Using colour as a performance technology was pretty interesting. Post-1997, Nike Football was all about changing how you colour a boot, but the 2008 collection for the tournament that summer that used brown and black was a concerted attempt to make a collective statement for cameras, viewers and crowds. In 2010, the purple and orange was applied because it was visible in a stadium setting – visual acuity as a technology. There was a later Mercurial Superfly makeup that used dazzle camo as an evasive technology in league with Ronaldo’s speed.
Popularity is not always a sign of influence. The link between track spikes and football boots is pretty clear. But is there a Nike boot that you think has been influential in sneaker design?
The Mercurial boot had a colossal influence on the materials that shoes could be made with – the Hyperfuse technology and everything that span off from that probably wouldn’t happen without the Mercurial.
And finally… is there one Nike that you personally thought was unlucky not to be included in the final cut? My money is on the Huarache Light…
Good question. This is an edit of a collection of shoes that was 600 deep. Before that, around 900 shoes were listed. The Dynamic-Fit timeline included a lot more shoes, as did materials with the aforementioned crossover. But I think, in joining the dots up to the Magista Obra and latest Mercurial Superfly, there are other Huarache designs that are more connected than the Huarache Light, even though that’s an incredible shoe. There’s Skylons that are pioneering in the cushioning side of things but the one I really wish I’d included was the Footscape – that shoe was an interesting experiment in natural motion and the asymmetric lacing is a nice connection to a shoe like the GX. But these archives are pretty much infinite! I wish every shoe could be included because I believe you can link ‘em all in one way or another – it’s all one big ecosystem.