A well-designed clothing label is resilient. The signature of a designer, it is strong enough to stand up against years of wear, comfortable enough to feel like it isn't there at all, and vivid enough to make a garment's designer standout. For the Air Jordan XX9s, Nike's designers have taken the most invisible part of any garment and turned it into a basketball shoe--literally.
Nike calls the technology Flightweave, and it draws on the same 250-year-old process used to weave a dress label, a silk tie, or even a football jersey. Nike hopes that the technology could enhance its reputation on the courts at a time when the footwear giant needs all the help it can get.
In early March of this year, Philadelphia 76ers guard Tony Wroten was moving in to score when the sole of his Air Jordan 10 completely separated from the rest of the shoe. An older "retro" model first sold in 1995 and then re-released by Nike in 2005, it was later revealed that the issue was caused by the very age of the shoe and the glue that had degraded over the last 10 years.
Even so, the incident put Nike in the headlines, and not in a good way. An Air Jordan failed at a critical moment when an athlete needed his shoes the most. And it wasn't the only example of Nike footwear failing on the court: in late February, Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs played so hard his Nike shoes exploded during a play. A week later, Andrew Bogut of the Warriors had his Nikes tear apart on the court, too.
The incidents illustrate an important point: Playing basketball is tough on footwear. The players are 300-pound colossi, sprinting, jumping, and pivoting up and down a hard wooden court for hours at a time. According to Nike, there are more than 1,000 different movements in the average basketball game, all of which are omnidirectional. Because of the extreme stress that basketball places upon a shoe, it's important for there to be as few potential fail points in an Air Jordan design as possible. Otherwise, what happens is exactly what happened to Tony Wroten, Manu Ginobili, or Andrew Bogut. A shoe falls apart.
Almost always, the potential points of failure on a sneaker are the seams, places where different pieces of material are glued or stitched together. In Wroten's case, his shoe came apart between the upper and the shoe's sole, but the same could happen where there's any stitching or gluing. The fewer pieces of material that go into making a shoe, the stronger it is. For the Air Jordan XX9s, Nike is trying to reduce the number of possible fail points as much as possible by actually weaving the full upper portion of their game shoe in a single piece.
One of the primary movers behind Flightweave is Rob Bruce, Jordan's Global Innovation Design Director. An ex-Ideo designer with a background in consumer electronics, Bruce looks a little out of place among the tall, strapping sports guys who jog between the buildings of Nike's Beaverton headquarters. Slightly thick around the middle, with big glasses and an endearing tendency to nerd out about engineering problems, Bruce is often seen on lunchbreaks piloting his remote control quadcopter over Nike's lakeside campus while his colleagues are in the gym or playing a quick game of one-on-one.
Bruce's role within the company is almost that of skunkworks operative. "I'm the explorer guy," Bruce tells me over a table of half-dissected Jordan prototypes, each of which is one small step on the path leading to the XX9. "My job is to look three to five years out." To do so, he prowls tradeshows, trying to understand what people in different industries are working on, and trying to use these technologies and processes as inspiration for his own work at Jordan. "I keep my ear to the ground, and no matter what I hear, the whole time I'm constantly thinking in my mind: how can this make a better shoe?" Bruce says.
The big innovation of the Air Jordan XX9's, Flightweave, is the result of an unexpected mental connection between Jordan and an the Italian factory that knits the labels for many of Nike's products as well as other companies. "One day, we were looking at the labels on Nike's NFL jerseys, and admiring their detail," remembers Bruce. There was nothing unique about them--they were standard labels knit for Nike by an Italian outlet of Avery Dennison--but looking at them, something clicked.
Making a game shoe the same way you'd make an Italian fashion label might seem weird, but when Bruce and his team thought about it, they realized it made a lot of sense. Labels are designed to be incredibly resilient to wear and tear, yet still be lightweight and comfortable against the skin. In addition, the machines that weave labels are extremely high-resolution because they need to knit thousands of different threads together at enough fidelity to read small text, allowing for an incredible amount of textural detail.
The technology of Flightweave is based off of a centuries old weaving technique pioneered by French inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard. Called Jacquard weaving, Jacquard's invention greatly improved the versatility and automation of industrial weaving, making the automated production of mass-produced textiles possible for the first time. (In fact, the Jacquard loom was so influential on Charles Babbage in the creation of his Difference Engine that there's a case to be made that Jacquard might be the grandfather of the modern computer.) Jacquard weaving allows for incredibly strong, lightweight, and intricately patterned textiles to be mass-produced. Examples of jacquard weaving include clothing labels, silk ties, football jerseys, and more.
To use the process for Flightweave, Bruce and his team needed to figure out how to adapt this 250-year-old technique to do something it had been never meant to do: make a shoe. If that sounds a little bit like Flyknit, Nike's big play to make shoes knit like socks, you're not wrong. Like Flyknit, Flightweave comes from Nike's increased interest in using engineered materials to create stronger, lighter shoes. Where Flyknit is knit together like a sock, Flightweave is woven. The difference isn't just semantic. Weaving results in tougher, more elaborately patterned textiles than knitting. And while Flyknit shoes almost look like Tinker Hatfield’s very talented grandma knit them, Flightweave has all the variation of appearance that you'd expect of a high-quality textile.
Thanks to Flightweave, the Air Jordan XX9s are the strongest and lightest Air Jordans the company has ever put out, Bruce says. At just 12.75 ounces, the XX9s are around 8% lighter than the shoes that preceded them, the Air Jordan XX8s.
To prove that the XX9s were up to snuff, Nike also put them through a series of rigorous tests, both on and off the court. They filmed dozens of athletes playing in them at 2,000 frames per second, then slowed it down and inspected every frame for weakness. They cut up pairs of XX9s and ran them through abrasion tests, scratching and rubbing them millions of times to see if the Flightweave would fail. (It didn't.)
With the XX9s, Jordan was also able to address a small design issue with the Air Jordan XX8's in 2013 in association with that shoe's central innovation, the Flightplate. A piece of carbon-fiber material resting between a player's foot and the zoom bags in the Air Jordan's sole, the purpose of the Flightplate for a basketball shoe is almost the same as that of a tennis racket: it broadens the sweet spot to return more bounce for the ounce. In the XX8's, the Flightplate came in two separate sections: one in the heel and one in the toe, resulting in what Bruce calls a feeling of "flappiness," almost like a boot or a flip-flop. The XX9's solve the problem by connecting the heel and toe portions of the Flightplate with a tendril, keeping it rigid even as a foot moves within a sneaker. This helps athletes achieve a better transition as they shift from one motion to another.
Time will tell whether the Air Jordan XX9's will fall prey to the same on-court explosions that have plagued other Nike basketball shoes in recent months. But thanks to inspiration from Italian weavers, a 250-year-old proto-computer, and the label off of an NFL jersey, the XX9s should have a solid claim on being the lightest and toughest Air Jordans yet. They go on sale in September for an MSRP of $225.