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Why Nike prevailed in the cultural marathon

Why Nike prevailed in the cultural marathon

Nike may have done a lot of things for its 50th anniversary this year. It might have done what many fashion brands do and hosted a lot of sizable events in various cities around the world with specific friends like LeBron James, Billie Eilish, Naomi Osaka, and Travis Scott, all of whom work for the brand. It might have published a limited-edition coffee-table book with gleaming images of footwear displayed like works of art. It might have produced “50 and Fabulous” goods (or one thing).

Nike, though, hasn’t done any of that. The only anniversary-related action it has taken thus far has been to reintroduce the old Spike Lee character Mars Blackmon, better illustrated by a brand-new “anthem” called “Seen It All,” and to suggest that, in truth, we haven’t. This may be both a humble brag and a statement of fact since, as you learn in both athletics and fashion, there is always someone coming up behind you.

Be a result, if Goldman Sachs was once referred to as the “vampire squid” on the face of humanity, there is no escaping the fact that Nike has evolved into a component of the foundation system that supports the tradition. Never just stick to the sneaker tradition.

Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory, has evolved into more than just the world’s best clothing brand (price greater than twice as a lot as Adidas, its closest sportswear rival, and forward of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel). It’s a component of the movies we watch, the music we listen to, the museums we visit, and the work we do; it’s a component of how we think about who we are and how we got here.

It is “an icon of individuality, in an age where individualism has become rampant,” according to Robert Goldman, co-author of “Nike Tradition: The Signal of the Swoosh” and professor emeritus at Lewis & Clark School. It also happens to be accessible to many people.

Nike Undated images provided by Nike show a Nike tennis shoe. (Nike cited in The New York Times)

Ignore Niketown. In a sense, we are all now citizens of Nikeland.

Its founders include Invoice Bowerman, who famously poured rubber into his wife’s waffle iron to create a new functional sole, and Phil Knight, a former runner for the University of Oregon. Its 1988 anthem, “Simply Do It,” serves as its motto. Perhaps most importantly, it has a logo.

Many people who work at Nike or with Nike will start by telling you about their childhood when you ask them why they decided to join the company.

As a young child, Nike’s chief design officer John Hoke, who has worked for the company for 30 years, sent Knight a letter with a sketch of a brand-new shoe design. In exchange, he got a note and a pair of waffle trainers. (In his office at the Nike headquarters in Portland, Oregon, he displays a photo of himself wearing the shoes and playing tennis.)

Virgil Abloh, the late designer for Off-White and Louis Vuitton who reinvented Nike’s most iconic shoes using a Warholian approach to footwear, once remarked that he used to sleep with a pair of Jordan 5s “on the end of the mattress simply so I may notice it during the morning.” The creator of the Japanese streetwear brand Ambush, Yoon Ahn, who has been collaborating with Nike since 2018, remarked that the first pair of shoes she bought with her own money were Nikes. She currently has a storage room full of them.

In a 1992 interview with Harvard Business Review, Knight stated that one of Nike’s greatest innovations wasn’t the waffle sole, the Air Pressure 1, the Air Jordan, or the Flyknit (though they had been essential, after all), but rather the realization that they weren’t just selling shoes.

The swoosh was designed by Carolyn Davidson, a recent Portland State College graphic design graduate, and registered as a trademark in 1971. It was intended to be a homage to Nike’s wings as well as an unintentional allusion to another logo. According to Goldman, Knight initially regarded it with some skepticism since it resembled “a huge comma,” but it has now changed “from a kind of useless blur” into an icon bursting with meanings.

Why Nike prevailed in the cultural marathon

(Nike briefly considered getting rid of the swoosh in 1998 after reports of hazardous working conditions in its Asian subcontractor factories and charges of child labor turned the logo into a poster child for corporate stupidity and led protestors to call it the “swoosh tick.” Despite the controversy leading to some public remorse on the part of Nike officials and new business processes, the brand eventually caught with its swoosh.)

That’s why Nike embraced the heroic in the form of Michael Jordan, its first and most significant partner, giving him control over his brand in a way no sports star had before; as they famously bought up athletes and groups (more than 10,000 ultimately counted) and sliced and diced their specialties into sports — from running and basketball into tennis, soccer, ice hockey, and skateboarding; and as they named buildings after athletes and groups;

Subcultures also gave rise to sneakerheads. The not-so-secret signal from the Swoosh was turned.

It’s possible that the first well-known sneakerhead was Lee’s goggle-eyed portrayal of New York Knicks fan Mars Blackmon in the 1986 film “She’s Gotta Have It”; Lee wore Air Jordans and a Brooklyn cycling cap.

The character’s preoccupation with his Airs, which he wore to bed, attracted the attention of Nike’s marketing experts, who asked the independent Lee to work with Jordan in some ads. It was an alliance that went beyond sports and movies to forge a new kind of franchise.

Fraser Cooke, a former DJ and hairdresser who co-founded FootPatrol, one of the first cult shoe stores in London, said, “They understood one thing was occurring.” Jordan and Lee created urban communities, and urban communities gave birth to hip-hop. Hip-hop culture was on the verge of becoming “the dominant subculture,” complete with Nikes as a requirement for the dress. Executives from the sneaker industry immediately adopted a social anthropological stance.

In 2003, Cooke and Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike at the time, met while Parker and a few other employees were on a clandestine tour of London’s subway system (the substrata of cool, not the subway system). Shortly after, Nike offered him a position as what amounted to an edge ambassador, romancing and dousing what was bubbling up in the world of the swoosh.

Cooke, who currently holds the incredibly complex (and constantly changing) position of senior director, global specific initiatives, and catalyst model administration, stated, “My job was to work with outsiders.”

Since then, he has been credited with bringing in several edgy, non-sports personalities that have their fan bases, including Comme des Garçons, Riccardo Tisci (starting when he was at Givenchy), Kim Jones of Dior, Abloh (far before he was a glimmer in Louis Vuitton’s eye), and Chitose Abe of Sacai. (As lines between various parts of “attire” become increasingly blurred, there is a type of arms race amongst sneaker producers for fashion partners.) Additionally, Catalyst model management manages connections with other non-conventional Nike partners including Travis Scott, Drake, and Eilish.

Designing “not things but thoughts,” as Hoke put it, is the goal. Tom Sachs, the artist who signed on more than ten years ago, stated that he wanted to build a sturdy bronze skateboard ramp. (That didn’t go down so well, but it did inspire the Mars Yard shoe and an attempt to combine Nikes with the moon shot.) This group of outsiders is referred to regarded as catalysts rather than collaborators because collaborators are now many and much more transactional than theoretical.

Brahm Wachter, the king of streetwear and contemporary collectibles at Sotheby’s, said, “It’s cleverly matched with practically every super-important cultural second and person.” Nyjah Huston to “Forrest Gump,” Mia Hamm to “Misplaced in Translation,” Kobe Bryant to “The Breakfast Club,” and Osaka to “Back to the Future” are all possible transitions.

Why Nike prevailed in the cultural marathon

From fronting Colin Kaepernick after he took a knee during the national anthem, thanks to Serena Williams, who donned a pair of chartreuse Nike x Off-White “Air” Jordans along with her flower-strewn yellow Versace gown to co-host the Met Gala in 2019, Nike is now on par with Anna Wintour’s Manolos.

There is a by-line to that from Jordan’s original Air Jordans, which were prohibited from being worn on the basketball court because they did not follow the NBA dress code. At the time, Knight remarked to the Harvard Business Review that the ban “was good! As long as everyone is aware that we are addressing the correct side of the issue, we welcome the kind of publicity that positions us against the institution.

The irony is that Nike is essentially the institution at this point. It’s “part of our heritage,” Wachter said.

That’s why around 95% of all the shoes Sotheby’s has purchased since deciding in 2020 to establish a sneaker class and continue regular auctions (now eight to 10 a year) are Nikes. Because of this, a Nike is the priciest shoe ever purchased at a public auction. (Perhaps those are Kanye West’s Nike Air Yeezy prototypes, which Ye wore to the 2008 Grammy Awards and which Ye had paid $1.8 million for in 2021). And this is why the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection includes Nikes.

Nike has evolved into “a consumer product that in some way seems to challenge the notion of consumerism,” according to Goldman. That puts it dangerously close to “the trendy predicament,” he said.


Amelia is a content creator and marketer at where she develops resources to help entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Outside of work, she enjoys writing and tinkering on side projects.

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