The sports giant Nike is about to indulge the public's accelerating desire for customised fashion. On Thursday, London's first Nike iD studio, where customers can redesign and personalise sports shoes, will be opened. Developments behind the screens in Niketown in Oxford Street have been kept a secret from all but those on the inside, although that species known as the "sneakerhead" has had a shrewd idea.
Sneakerheads are the aficionados who know the precise year a Michael Jordan signature shoe was released, or who have watched bids for the recent "What The Dunk?" shoes spiral into the thousands.
Now, the London iD studio will enable members of the public to experience this masstige service - that's mass fashion meets prestige - first hand. Choice is the buzzword of modern shopping, and the iD concept creates the potential for a dizzying 6,417,696,845,720 shoe designs.
Each season, the Nike iD studio will release five exclusive models. Priced from £90 to £120, these are available only at the Nike iD studios on both sides of the Atlantic. The streetwear oracle Sneaker Freaker called Dunks "the most significant shoe of the decade", so it's no surprise that the Dunk is the dominant style. Each model will be customisable from a selection of leathers in 25 colours and six finishes, including perforated, mock croc and patent.
The iD studio will be inhabited by a handful of street-style experts, called "design consultants", ranging from revered graffiti artists to a former personal stylist from Harrods. Here, by appointment only, consultation is allocated by the studio's concierge (her name is Q, and she's the girl to know if you don't fancy weeks on the waiting list). There is no obligation to purchase the end creation, however, as the "locker" concept allows designs to be stored and referred back to later. "Team lockers" have proved popular across the Atlantic, where groups of friends or even companies share and rate each other's designs.
Nike isn't the originator of the customising concept in trainers. Inspired by a female customer who was searching for "brighter pinks" and "lighter yellows" in his first store, the Vans founder Paul Van Doren offered to make her a pair of shoes. "It was almost from the first day we opened that Vans started charging extra to do a custom pair," his son Steve recalls. "Soon, we were making shoes to match school uniforms and customising for all the cheerleaders across Southern California."
Vans and Converse offer a limited range of customised details, but Nike's more diverse range and technical design detail are what makes its offering such an advance.
The hype behind the concept of Nike iD, and the reason it's such a big deal in the trainer world, has its origin in the Nike iD space at 255 Elizabeth Street in New York. Opened in March 2005 (but soon to close after a Nike iD studio opened a week ago on the other side of town), it was open to a chosen few creatives, opinion formers and industry players.
Here, in a slick inspiration suite, visitors got an exclusive look at luxury materials, special features and fits before finalising a design. The public had to make do with a smaller service on the internet. One fan, who took loyalty to extreme limits, was the prolific producer/DJ Clark Kent, famed both for his discovery of Jay Z and his love of the Air Force 1 shoe. Over the past two years, despite already possessing a sneaker collection in the high hundreds, Kent has visited 255 about three times a week to design a new pair of Air Force 1s.
"I could give it up tomorrow," he insists. "There's being addicted to something, and there's just liking a luxury. I don't need fresh kicks, but I do love them. The buzz for me is in creating something wearable, but un-buyable. I don't see sneakers as a 'culture'. That would mean it dictates a way of life, and at the end of the day, this is just leather and rubber."
Not everyone's attitude to trainers is quite so sensible. Perhaps Nike risks diluting iD's exclusivity, but judging by the extreme reaction to cult styles in the past, this democratisation of one aspect of the trainer scene could be long overdue. Trainer fever can reach ridiculous heights. In the icy February of 2005, the New York design icon Jeff Staple designed and released 150 pairs of the Pigeon Dunk Low model. Anticipation grew on the internet, and on launch day police were called in to close off the street on which Staple's space was situated, and to break up a crowd who were later found to be hiding knives in pockets and under baseball caps. The New York Post ran the "Sneaker Riot" story the next morning, while the Pigeon Dunks soon popped up on eBay at $2,500 and up. NikeiD.com continues as an online service, and it's clear that the internet has much to answer for when the demand for exclusive style gets this intense.
Sneaker collector Wes Tyerman manages Foot Patrol, a sneaker boutique in London. He thinks that "hype sites can sometimes show products four months ahead of their release, and I think this is too early. People can get caught up in looking too far ahead, so that when something good is released it can get overlooked."
So, if the creativity is shifting to the consumer, does Tinker Hatfield - Nike's vice-president of creative design and the brains behind some of Nike's most collectable shoes - feel threatened? "For me, iD was strange at first, but I've become accustomed to it and now I love it," he says. "I think that some of the earlier, simpler designs are the best ones to iD - for example, the original Air Max."
Even this icon of footwear design has some regrets, however - Hatfield would like to go back and tweak his original Huarache model. If someone as experienced as he is can see room for improvement on past styles, some customers may feel similar regrets on receiving their unique sneakers two to three weeks later. Of course, Nike probably hopes that the studio experience is enough to bring the creative consumer back for another go.
iD studio, Niketown, 236 Oxford Street, London W1 (020-7612 0990)