The Nike Air VaporMax

Nike’s latest step into the world of splashy designs and performance-minded innovations was seven years in the making and marks new capabilities in its manufacturing prowess.

The Nike Air VaporMax, which will become available in March, eliminates the foam midsole of the running shoe and attaches the upper — the part that wraps around the foot — directly to the sole. The upper is made of Nike Flyknit, while the sole is made up of Nike’s airbags, in this case called the VaporMax Air unit.

The effect makes the shoe more lightweight and flexible, while maintaining durability, which is crucial in building a shoe that maintains air pressure.

John Hoke, vice president of Nike Global Design, called the new technology an “inflection point.” In designing and testing the shoe, Nike used 3-D modeling and simulations that could show potential “hot spots” in a matter of minutes.

“Data-enriched design is here, but data doesn’t dream; we do,” Hoke said.

He hinted at personalization as a key focus of innovation on the horizon.

The soles are made in one of Nike’s two Air manufacturing innovation centers, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There, the airbags are made starting with a material that resembles plastic sheet, filled with nitrogen, and the color is added later. Scraps are recycled and reused to ward against waste.

The Nike Air shoes, which debuted in 1987, have become a signature for the brand. The Air Max, the first to have a visible air-cushioning unit, came of age in the Nineties when expensive sneakers became a status symbol.

But Brett Holts, vice president of Nike Running Footwear (Run Easy), said the design is intended  be to the Air Max of the future — not a nod to the past.

His presentation at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., was part of a day of tours and talks at the expansive Nike campus, for which journalists were encouraged, with a smile, to dress comfortably (albeit preferably not in a competitor’s products).

Holts’ talk followed a tour of the brimming Department of Nike Archives, where old shoes illustrated the evolution of the running shoe into casualwear stalwart alongside replicas of Olympics track spikes, Michael Jordan posters and World Cup jerseys. Later, 3,000-meter steeplechase record-holder Evan Jager led a jog around the Michael Johnson track in the Oregon rain.

In the lobby of the building where Hoke leads Nike’s legions of designers, an indoor track paints portions of the bottom floor and a three-story sculpture reads, “Always listen to the voice of the athlete.”

While for Nike’s athletic ethos, this makes sense, it also makes sense to build a shoe for a consumer for whom a $190 shoe has become a lifestyle choice.

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