Interview: Matt Nordstrom Nike Apparel Innovation & Tech Guru

The Senior Designer talks us through the Nike Innovation Pop-Up Space in Sydney

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Last Thursday night saw the launch of Nike Pacific’s first ever Innovation Pop Up Store in Sydney. With sport on the hearts, minds and TV sets of nations around the world right now, it was perfect timing to showcase some of the newsworthy technical developments with product across the board. Matt Nordstrom, Nike’s Apparel Innovation & Tech Guru / Designer, was in town for the event and I was lucky enough to have him walk me through some of the latest product innovations coming out through Nike this season.

Trained as an industrial designer Nordstrom now holds the lofty role of a senior designer at Nike HQ. This role sees him translate the needs of elite athletes into performance apparel. To give you an insight into Nordstrom’s role at Nike, he has said, “There are only a handful of places where one can dig into apparel design of this depth – the military, NASA, and Nike. Nobody else really has the resources to investigate a product category like apparel and discover how to bring innovation to one of the world’s oldest product categories.”

Looking around the Innovation Pop-Up store, it’s not hard to see what he means. While aesthetically beautiful, it’s the technical features of the products that really shine through. “It looks the way it does because it functions the way it does” Matt explains. “Having the elite level athlete embedded at the center of our design process helps to clarify our goals and what we’re trying to do with our product. Sometimes the hardest thing as a designer is when you don’t have restrictions, whereas when you have something like an athlete who just needs to go faster… it’s the filter on the design process that causes everything to sort of click into place.”

The design developments Matt speaks of range from the new Flyknit racer created from a single engineered piece, to apparel which contains recycled plastic, elasticized printing techniques which eliminate the need for traditional hemming techniques and the omnipotent use of materials which allow superior lightweight performance.

Whilst once weight was a prime indicator of quality and reliability, in the sporting arena at least, lightweight is the right weight and flexibility is king. “What’s significant about it (now) is what we’re not doing. We’re looking at what we can take away,” muses Matt. The development of lightweight performance product from the brand was a direct design outcome from interviews and consultations with elite athletes as to their specific needs. “It all starts with them and the innovations that you see in this room, they all started with an insight we learned from talking with them,” says Matt.  “They’re pushing boundaries and that’s what we’re trying to do with the product. Defy limits. Defy physics. They challenge our very ideas of what’s possible. So this summer you’ll see Nike delivering superior lightweight performance to its athletes.”

But how do the needs of elite athletes correlate with the needs of us, the everyday punters? Matt likens the concept to that of high-performance auto. “Look at Formula One. We find out things going 120 miles per hour that inform and help the everyday consumer vehicle” he explains. And you know if an item is comfortable and delivers to a word-class athlete, then it will surely do the job for the rest of us.

Speaking of ‘the rest of us’, anyone with even a passing interest in sneakers will be aware of the madness that surrounded the release of the Flyknit racers late last week. The amazingly crafted shoes were on display at the pop-up store and whilst they are quite breathtaking to look at (and let’s face it, that’s why y’all copped them), it’s they way in which they are crafted that is truly revolutionary. Designed for the ultimate long distance event, the marathon, the ultra-light shoes are the best fitting long distance shoe Nike has ever made.

“What you’re seeing here is a single engineered surface. One piece,” explains Matt. “This method of manufacturing eliminates the need for overlays or underlays. It also does away with the need for cutting stitching and gluing.  It’s a completely new way for a designer to think about and make footwear. It goes from fibre to finished product with very few stages in between and this drastically reduces waste”. Weighing just 160gms, the functionality of the shoe is transparent.

Another innovation in running footwear is the Nike Lunar Glide 4, known for being the best ride and best glide of these types of running shoes. Featuring a new innovation, flywire, each high strength cable moves independently of one another. They contain the foot but because they are dynamic, the cables move with the foot as it changes shape through its stride. And this all impacts on the shoe’s overall comfort, which is obviously very important for athletes. “Comfort on an elite level means zero distraction. We aim to make the footwear and apparel invisible to (the athlete’s) sense of touch. There’s no room for anything superfluous,” says Matt.

This sentiment is echoed throughout the space, particularly in Matt’s specific contribution to the designs on show, the Nike Swift Turbo Speed suit for track athletes. ‘Project Swift’ began back in 1998 with the development of that infamous suit worn by Cathy Freeman back in the day. What we see now is the latest iteration of the suit developed through over a decade of research and testing. “There’s been over 1000 hours of testing in the wind tunnel and over 400 different surfaces. It’s taken that to arrive at the fastest suit for track” reflects Matt. “The beauty of being a designer working on something like this is that we set out to do something extreme. There’s a real purity of purpose, in the sense that (the suit is) an implement of speed. Everything we do contributes to the athlete finding out just how fast they can go.”

The result is a suit that is 0.23 of a second faster than the work Nike did four years ago. If you compare the speed of the current suit to just wearing running shorts and singlet, that results in 0.43 of a second faster over 100 metres. To put that in perspective, that’s the difference between being on the podium or not.

Using technology inspired by the aerodynamic force of the textured golf ball the form-fitting suit is printed with a textured effect tailored to each area of the body. “It’s changed the way we build apparel” says Matt. “The evolutions we find for elite athletes you’ll find will cascade down to other products and become embedded into all levels of products.”

After seeing all of these almost space-age advancements from Nike, I was intrigued as to what design meant to Matt, given he is so heavily involved with design on such a technical level. “Design can mean a lot of things. It can mean pure aesthetics. It can mean function. I think when it’s done best, it’s a fusion of those two things, together in the most meaningful way,” he muses. “But fundamentally it’s the act of creation and trying to create a future that doesn’t exist, which is what the athletes are trying to do when they’re breaking new records.”

The Nike Innovation Pop Up Store is open at Shop 4, 1 -11 Oxford St, Paddington from July 27 until August 12 from 6pm to 10pm

For more information log onto www.facebook.com/nikerunningau