Look closely at the athletes' kit when the Olympic Games open in Beijing next month, and one brand in particular may seem keener than others to make something of a statement. The Games, of course, are the ultimate marketing opportunity for any sportswear brand – but Nike has gone into dizzying overdrive to make its mark. Take the new Air Force 1 training shoe, cunningly inspired by the "bird's nest" design of the Olympic stadium. Or the sole of the Air Max 90 sneaker, which along with the Windrunner jacket will be worn by any American, Kenyan or Ukrainian who goes up to collect a medal and has ingeniously been recreated in the colours of the Olympic rings. Representing Nike domination in Britain, look out for marathon maestro Paula Radcliffe, sprinter Simeon Williamson and heptathlete Kelly Sotherton draped in yet more new incarnations of the ubiquitous brand.
But is it new? Any sneaker fiend will know that the Air Force 1 basketball shoe – one of the most collectible sneakers ever, with box-fresh examples changing hands for thousands of dollars – was first designed by Bruce Kilgore just over 25 years ago and was one of the first styles to cross over from sport to street, worn by rappers from Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z. Similarly, the Air Max 90, part of a classic series of sneakers launched in 1987, is a clubber's staple designed by Tinker Hatfield, and little short of a god to legions of sneaker fanatics.
Now both models are making a return, in updated form. And Nike knows they will be fashion gold. The shoes, from an initial collection of eight designs, are part of a momentous marketing opportunity for Nike Inc, which turns 30 this year. Although the company won't discuss figures, the Olympics represent its biggest and most expensive promotional campaign ever. Nike is already the biggest sports brand in China, its largest territory outside of the US, but the launch of these products represents something of a profound commercial shift for the mega-brand: is Nike at last, openly cashing in on its old-school streetwear credentials?
Nike Sportswear is a newly formed division of the brand, with each item carefully selected from Nike's archives and each lauded by various street subcultures as much – if not more – for their style statement as their benchmark advances in product design. For a company long reluctant to admit that the bulk of its trainers and training clothes are worn more by brand-conscious fashion-followers than serious sports people, this is as close as Nike has come to acknowledging the debt that its success owes to styling.
"We do know that not everyone who wears Nike is an athlete or wearing it for sport and that's why this new collection is more style-led – it's sport remixed for the street, casual-wear seen through a sports lens," says Kris Aman, Nike's global general manager for the Olympics. "As sportswear has entered the fashion realm in the past 20 years, and as the line has blurred between sports stars and celebrities, a sports brand has more 'right' to play in the non-performance area now. But we have the sports heritage to back this up..."
"The word 'fashion' can make something seem very transient and trendy," adds Nike Sportswear's creative director, Richard Clarke, carefully. "We're a company that focuses on innovation – but innovation also allows for an expression of style. People connect Nike with fashion, but designing products solely for lifestyle doesn't encourage you to think about problems and solutions differently [as we do]: without the problem, you're just thinking, 'Does this look good?'"
Other major sports brands have built lucrative fashion businesses by reissuing archive models – more or less exact replicas which, because sports technology has advanced so far, would be useless to most hardcore athletes; Puma and Adidas, with its Originals line, being the most obvious.
Nike, in contrast, is taking its classics and overhauling. Inevitably, these models will retain all the style cachet of the originals but they now also employ the latest technology: the new take on the Air Max 90, for example, uses a high-tensile thread called Flywire that Nike claims reduces weight and improves stability, while the upper of the Air Force 1 uses injected TPU, a special polyurethane, to give not only additional support but also a strikingly graphic look.
Among its other designs being rebuilt are the Eugene track jacket and 1977 hoody and, getting trainerheads reaching for their wallets, new takes on the brand's Dunk – its basketball shoe first launched in 1985. These are the iconic products that, as Clarke has it, were "watershed moments... they were products that were the first of their kind that also become staples of somebody's wardrobe".
Whatever Nike's new division produces next, you can expect these products, like those making their debut in China, to find their way on to the feet and backs of pop stars, metropolitan creatives and teen posses loitering outside McDonald's. Maybe even a few athletes.
Nevertheless, Nike is reluctant to fully embrace its place in fashion. "We're still staying focused on what the athlete needs," maintains Clarke. "You just have to focus on being authentic and keeping it simple, and if other people decide they also need it... well, how someone re-appropriates athletic gear to suit their life is down to freedom of choice. Fashion may sell on status or colour or print, but people also identify with functionality and authenticity. And that's what we sell." n
timoty a clary/afp/getty, moose/admedia/capital pictures, kai wiechmann/pymca, daniel berehulak/getty, gareth cattermole/getty, annie collinge