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nike designer sean mcdowell, leads us into his colourful candyland of trainers

Last week i-D fell down the rabbit hole at the 10th Anniversary of Nike Free, and got lost in the colourful candyland of trainers, all things spacey and luminous sock like shoes. After customising our very own Nike ID sneakers, we caught up with designer Sean McDowell to talk form, function, freedom and fashion. Run wild, run free, just do it, it’s Nike.

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Congratulations on your 10th Anniversary!
Thank you, we’re very excited about the Nike Frees.

Tell me a bit about your latest invention: the hexagonal shapes on the Nike Free sole. Were you just feeling the hexagonal vibe or is there some frightfully clever reason behind them?
I think that through all of our testing we sort of realised that while the square unlocks your foot as you have a latitudinal and longitudinal flex groove, which can work really well, it wasn’t testing as well as the hexagonal. The hexagonal was just a lot better. You can have a nice little rotation with the hexagon.

Let’s just talk about the Nike Free 3.0s quickly, as something has been bugging me: are you meant to wear socks with them? Or do you just ride them solo? Because they are pretty sock-like.
We see 50/50. There are 50% who just love going barefoot in them and who have a super running experience, and then there are others who just love having that bit of buffer.

Can you explain a little bit more about this whole notion of freedom?
It’s about freeing up your foot to move more naturally.

What about those who don’t move very well naturally?
Then we have wide selection for you. I mean Free is part of our line, but we have a pretty broad offering. We have lots of Lunar shoes, Max shoes and Zoom shoes. Different runners have different needs, and we have a lot of options for them. 

How hard was it to find that balance between ultimate freedom and the necessary support your foot needs?
It took us about three years to find that kind of balance; we had to invent something completely new. How do you unleash the foot? With the first Nike Frees that we put out we added a warning label. We were actually really nervous that you might be reawakening your foot and causing stress and strain on the body. But we found that wasn’t the case.

Touch wood…
That’s right!

Where did the idea of letting the natural motion of your foot take over come from?
That came from an interview with a very famous distance track coach named Vin Lananna. In 2000, a group of Nike designers went to talk to him and saw a group of athletes running barefoot on the grass. We thought to ourselves, "is this going to be the new trend?" At the time everyone was making these stiff and rigid shoes, and we thought that maybe it was a thing of the past, and we were entering into a whole new era. And it worked out really well.

With the Nike Frees - is the push behind them about getting more people running or are these the shoes of champions only?
I get really turned on by both groups. On the Nike campus we have the chance to work with some of the best athletes in the world. They’re just training and working out right there. It’s pretty fun. You get to see Mo and Galen, and all these other rock stars.

First name basis with Mo, huh?
That’s right. We give him prototypes and he can go on a 20-mile run and come back and give us feedback. The other thing that’s been pretty interesting over the last few years is that there are so many young kids in urban centres who are getting energised to run, and that’s been breathing all new life into the running community. So shoes like these can work for both.

When designing a new trainer is form always dictated by function?
That’s right. We’ll work really really hard on gathering as much scientific data as we can and then we translate that into a new shoe. Sometimes we’ll take a new technology or new innovations like Flyknit and we’ll introduce that into the product and it winds up looking really good, really clean, really modern and really simple. 

Do you ever follow fashion trends? Or is Nike much more insular and focused on doing its own thing?
I don’t want to say that we’re insular but it’s more factual. We like to sit in our own world and talk to our own runners and try and do the best products that we can. It’s kind of fun, at the end of the day, to see how what we’re doing can sometimes influence fashion. But that’s not what’s driving us.

There’s a huge emphasis on sportswear in fashion right now and, as you said, more young kids are starting to run. How do you feel about this movement towards sport and casual wear?
As we like to say, comfort never goes out of style. It’s interesting to compare some of our comfortable running shoes with the high heeled, restrictive shoes that women have been wearing. There’s definitely a trend for more comfortable shoes now.

Are you going to be around for the Marathon?
No! But I desperately want to be.

Oh no, how come?
I’ve got to get back and help my wife and get some of the kids’ soccer games in.

Are they all Nike fans?
Of course. There’s nothing else in the house.

How many sneakers do you have?
My wife would tell you over 1000, which is probably close.

So in your household, gendered stereotypes are reversed and you’re the one with the most shoes.
Hahaha. Exactly. I bring my wife new shoes all the time; she loves being married to me but I easily out pace her in the closet. I’ve taken over most of the attic, there’s a whole basement filled with shoes, and there’s also the garage. It’s consumed the whole house.

Yikes. What’s your favourite colour?
So I have over 1000 shoes in every shade known to man… for me, I love matching the footwear and the apparel. 

So as well as having the most shoes in your house, you also take the longest to get ready.
Haha. I actually sometimes lay it out the night before, that’s how weird I am.

It’s ok; don’t worry. I’ve done that before. 
Haha.

What’s next for Nike?
This year we’ve got a lot of exciting products coming out which I’m really excited about. But I can’t tell you any secrets. 

Sounds exciting!

nike.com