It’s hard to believe that what has become a staple in the footwear industry, Nike Free, is a decade old this spring.
While it was not the first shoe to mimic the natural foot, it was the shoe to take this idea mainstream. In 2004, nothing on the market looked like Free. The closest thing to barefoot running was barefoot running.
Free changed the whole world’s perception as to what running footwear is and could be. The notion that all running footwear should be heavily focused on softening the blow of the impact of the foot to the ground changed to the belief that the foot is strong enough to support itself.
While many call Free a technology, it is really a mind-state.
Free is more than how a shoe is designed or functions, as it is a direct reflection to how you, the athlete, approach running. With Free mentality, as opposed to relying on elements to provide comfort, support and stabilization, you gain strength by naturally supporting and stabilizing yourself by training your stride to naturally react to your running motion. Nike took this Free philosophy and made it a template for all of its running product.
But a philosophy isn’t born overnight.
While many shoes evolved to unfold the revolution that is Free, the Nike Air Presto is the father of the Free. The Presto was created as a reaction to all of the over-designed and over-protective shoes of the 1990s.
If you look at your running footwear, even today, you will find material stitched or welded on top of material after material. This creates so many layers that restrict your foot from performing in certain ways, particularly natural ways.
As opposed to training your foot to correct itself, the footwear industry created features to prevent your foot from flaws. So instead of training your foot to be correct, you basically embraced your flaws and bought something to correct it for you.
This seems pretty counter-intuitive to the whole idea of running, does it not?
What the Presto did was reverse that notion of what a running shoe was into the bare necessity of what a running shoe needed. By stripping all unnecessary materials from the upper and molding a sole unit, it created an experience that was as natural and close to running barefoot possible at that time.
The upper of the Presto is created out of a lycra-based mesh that gives it a four-way stretch — which means that the mesh stretches in every direction.
When you look directly down on the top of the Presto, it looks quite narrow. The reason being that the stretching of the mesh allows for your foot to expand with the mesh, as opposed to being restricted by it. The sizing is not actually narrow, it grows to the shape of your foot.
Now remember that this shoe is being developed roughly around 1996. There was no FlyKnit or Flywire. Those technologies were just dreams in the kitchen. So to solve for how to provide lacing, Nike created a flexible webbing from TPU (Thermo-Plastic-Urethane). While TPU is anything but natural, it provides a fit that conforms to your natural shape.
If you have never had a pair of Prestos, the best way I can describe them to you is by saying they are like a T-Shirt for your foot. The fit is so similar, it is uncanny. The shoe was crafted to have the seams of the pattern placed in areas of the foot that would not irritate you. Just like a tee.
Furthermore, is the sizing of the Presto. As opposed to using your traditional nomenclature of sizes 6-15, the Presto goes by XXS, XS, S, M, L and XL.
The sole unit design is quite simple. The goal was to clearly exemplify the natural gait of the foot. It features a striking graphic line that flows from the heel to the forefoot in a dramatic arch. The forefoot is incredibly flexible, as it features a deep groove — almost a sipe — like on the forthcoming Free. Accompanied by a traditional waffle pattern for the rubber, the sole unit created a very pure motion that was very natural.
Nike’s differential approach to the footwear industry gave birth to the entire future of the company. The Nike Presto set free a movement that sees no end in sight.
*For more on the Air Presto, head over to Brett’s desk.
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