Nike design chief talks Colin Kaepernick, empowering women, and the future of retail in Asia

  • John Hoke talks about why companies should take a stance on issues, the Just Do It anniversary ads’ message, and Nike’s pivot to the women’s market
  • He also explains the mutual benefits of Nike collaborating with fashion designers such as Virgil Abloh and Riccardo Tisci
PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 1:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 1:01am

Global companies are rarely out of the spotlight, but 2018 has been a particularly busy year for Nike. From a controversial 25th anniversary celebration of the Just Do It campaign to a successful Fifa World Cup – where the brand sponsored 10 teams, including champions, France – and a lawsuit involving gender discrimination, the company has made headlines.

Despite the ups and downs, Nike has maintained double-digit growth, cementing its role as the world’s leader in sportswear.

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That’s good news for John Hoke, Nike’s chief design officer and the man behind the first Nike Town, which opened 25 years ago in New York, who is now tasked with engineering the future of the company with help from his team of more than 1,000 designers around the world.

As a brand, Nike is up there with the likes of Apple and Harley Davidson as a quintessentially American success story, and its products have been embraced by the fashion community. In the eyes of luxury consumers, Nike is now on par with European powerhouses such as Gucci or Chanel.

“This transition began roughly 10 years ago, but in the past five years the interest in the activewear space has just picked up,” says Hoke during a recent visit to Hong Kong.

“To me it’s the convergence of several things that turn youth on today. Luxury fashion houses have seen what the youth market is doing and are paying attention to what turns on the market, and the pace of change in the market is picking up because of devices and unlimited images, and people really trying to self-curate and go deeper into the stories and narratives of brands that they find interesting.”

Nike was one of the first companies to blur the lines between sportswear and high fashion, by teaming up with designers such as Chitose Abe of Sacai, Riccardo Tisci, and more recently Virgil Abloh of Off-White.

Collaboration is at the heart of the company’s ethos, Hoke says. By pairing up with fashion creatives, his teams get to go outside their comfort zone while staying true to the idea that, at Nike, functionality is of paramount importance.

“Everything we do has to work – that’s non-negotiable. Our collaborators know that,” says Hoke, an architect by training who has been with Nike for 27 years.

“They find deep interest in our commitment to make things perform. We’re teaching them some of the tricks of the trade that come from athletics and beyond. I like to say that if it was a horse race, function would win by a nose.”

This pursuit of innovation, however, does not come at the expense of aesthetics. “First and foremost, we’re problem solvers and our truest north is to serve athletes, help match their ambitions with services, ideas and products that help them reframe what’s possible for the human race,” says Hoke.

Nike’s focus on serving athletes may be the brand’s guiding principle, but sneaker culture has also played a key role in its success.

What started out as a niche obsession among young males in American cities such as New York and Los Angeles is now global. From London, Paris and Tokyo to Shanghai, Sydney and Beijing, “there is this phenomenon of the drop and what that means culturally, the idea of being a curator, knowing the absolute subtleties and nuances of different sneakers. That knowledge is currency”, says Hoke.

Though sneaker culture is associated with so-called hypebeasts – young men who collect the footwear and eagerly await each new release – Hoke believes there won’t be a difference between women and men in the sneaker market for much longer.

In recent years, Nike has made significant efforts to expand its reach among women. From the hijab collection launched last year to help Muslim female athletes participate in sport, to a recent partnership with a series of female designers such as Martine Rose and Yooh Ahn of Ambush, it’s “about feeling the hands of women designing for women and a message of empowerment”, says Hoke.

“We care deeply about female athletes and clients. We know she has great buying power but we also know that she wants to be inspired and motivated. Sports give her a sense of empowerment, community and connection. We get to play in that space and give them ideas, motivation and products to help them find their best potential.”

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This pivot to the women’s market long predated the internal problems that came to light early last year – when a number of female employees complained about pay discrimination and sexual harassment – and reflects Nike’s commitment to take a stance on social issues, no matter how controversial.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Just Do It slogan this year, Nike enlisted a series of athletes, including long-time collaborator Serena Williams and National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, to star in a campaign that went viral. Kaepernick was famously one of the players who chose to kneel down while the US national anthem was playing at football games in order to highlight racial discrimination.

Hiring Kaepernick was a bold move on the part of Nike, especially in such a polarised political climate.

His appearance in the campaign ad drew calls to boycott Nike products, and even US President Donald Trump chimed in, tweeting that the company was sending a “terrible message”.

“The Just Do it message was a very powerful anthem for our company; it was a call to action to move and play sports,” Hoke argues. “Our desire was to reintroduce our idea to the next generation and showcase people in the ads who were change-makers and boundary breakers.

“The point is athletics is a birthright for all, and we won’t rest until more people get the chance to move, so it’s important for companies to take positions and stances, to have a set of convictions.

“Our position is that we believe that sports can change the world and should be a part of your daily habit, and can help people find their best potential, and that potential can help them do great things.”

Customers are responding to Nike’s efforts to win them over.

The brand has a huge presence in Asia (according to reports, Nike’s annual revenue from China alone in 2017 was US$5.1 billion) and has recently debuted what Hoke calls “the next concept of retail for Nike” in the heart of Shanghai.

Dubbed the House of Innovation, the store brings together physical and digital, making use of augmented reality that enables customers to take a deeper look at the making of Nike products. There’s also an app that lets them order items, then pick them up in designated lockers, creating plenty of Instagram moments as a bonus.

“I can’t tell you how many people tell me about the first time they went to a Nike store as kids because it had a lasting impact, as they had never been to a place where you congregate and see things together,” says Hoke.

“As an architect, I’m fascinated by the human need to congregate. That’s what sport does; it’s like a campfire. Digital is an augment but can’t replace that, so stores become places to congregate and see other people and to feel the energy and magnetism of sports.”

The stores also take the popular customisation process that is Nike ID to the next level. “The most luxurious thing we can do is when we work with athletes because we study them, the way they move, and now we’re trying to do that with every single consumer,” says Hoke.

“Our first step in the House of Innovation is Nike by You. Imagine taking my design studio and putting it in a store. You’re working with experts, not just sales assistants. This is part of the dialogue, giving the customers the chance to work together – complete co-creation.”

Amid declining sales in bricks-and-mortar stores and the rise of e-commerce, brands such as Nike are realising that shops need to become actual destinations.

The company plans to roll out the House of Innovation in other major cities (New York just opened last week), a move that will definitely be closely watched by all the brands that look to Nike as the holy grail of groundbreaking innovation and customer experience.