words & interview // Nick DePaula
images // Brennan Hiro Williams & Jotham Porzio

One of the best things that can happen in the footwear industry is when an insight works, works across multiple categories, and even better, works for multiple seasons.

For adidas, the idea behind furthering the boundaries of lightweight innovation has continued to push the adiZero range of products for the company, and the rolling successes in categories like Basketball, Running and Football have continued to carry each further in the minds of athletes.

Specifically in football, the brand has been leading the lightweight charge not just for one position or style of play on field, but for athletes of all sizes and abilities. “Everyone wants to be fast,” you’ll often hear at the company’s Portland-based “Village” headquarters.

With speed still in mind, the team looked to build on the success they were already riding with the new adiZero 5-Star series and offer up a new cleat aimed at players looking for just a bit more protection. That cleat is the adiZero Smoke.

We recently caught up with Designer Todd Rolak and Product Line Manager Jeff Morris from the adidas Football team to hear all about how the newly released adiZero Smoke came to be. Dive in and read all about the initial inspiration that led to the shoe’s defining colorblock and more in our detailed conversation ahead.

Nick DePaula: What’s the feedback on the adiZero range been like so far, and where does the Smoke fit into the line?

Jeff Morris: This was a bit of an expansion of our adiZero line. Basically, what we did was launch with the 5-Star and it was a big hit; lightest cleat on the market. When we went out and started talking to kids after that shoe was on the market, we started to get feedback that there’s still the kid that wants the lightest cleat ever, which is the 5-Star kid, but we also started to hear from some players that they want “lightweight, but …” So that’s how we started to classify it: “Lightweight, but …” A lot of the things that came up was the shape around the collar and having more protection there in the collar. This then became an evolution of the 5-Star, and it was about creating more comfort for those players.

NDP: Was having such a bold block on the shoe one of the big original ideas when you started working on the shoe?

Todd Rolak: Yeah, it was. We started with the 5-Star as the base model, and American muscle cars were the overarching theme of the season. When you start dealing with racing and American muscle cars, the colorblocking cuts across the form, versus following the form. It’s unbound by the surface, and the block cuts across it. For us, it’s one of the first times that we’ve ever done something like this with the plates on the cleat, and it was a challenge for our development team. They hit it out of the park, but finding suppliers and executing that idea was tough. You can instantly see that inspiration coming across the form of the cleat in the striping of it.

JM: That was the design inspiration for the range for the entire season. Todd actually took a cleat down to our lab and had it spray painted with a bold colorblocking, and then he just had it sitting on his desk. Every time somebody would walk by, they’d just stop and walk over and pick it up – “Oh my God, this is awesome!” We saw that and really wanted to try and make this happen. It was literally spray painted.

TR: It was just taking the idea of being raw and American and inspired by muscle cars, and then taking that into the paint booth. We did three or four different blockings, but this one became the most successful. Using that influence really drove the visual, and it gives you a great 30-yard read, a great 50-yard read, and it draws you in from up close too.

NDP: When you guys met with athletes for feedback on the idea, I’m assuming that’s something that they could associate with and really liked?

JM: The look of the shoe was a big hit once we started showing it to players. The type of player that wears this shoe – the skill players like receivers, defensive backs and running backs – are the more flashy players on the field already. They’ve got that swagger and they like to be seen. When we started showing them these, they were flipping out. They all said, “This is unbelievable!” Beyond that, from the color side of it, we got the inspiration for the bright colors from a 7-on-7 tournament we were at last year in Texas. There was one team that had blue and orange for their school colors, but they all had on cleats that were either really bright blue or really bright orange. It was their team colors, but really amplified. We started seeing that trend a little bit more among the football players, and especially even more during the summer when they’re playing in 7-on-7 tournaments.

TR: They’re unbound by tradition and they can form their own teams and their own colors in the summer. They can be untethered to the traditionalness of team football. We’re certainly starting to see more loud colors.

NDP: Once you guys got into building the shoe, were there any guys that were instrumental during the weartesting process? What were some of the big performance cues that you guys were able to dial in? 

TR: Everybody wants to be fast. Everyone. From the lineman to the coach even. [Laughs] These are for skill players, but every position on the field now is skilled, and every position is fast. The low cuts are for your traditional skill positions, and the mid is more for the linebacker and bigger players. When we started focus-grouping, we saw the need for the mid and we brought that to the table. The lineman are all pretty fast now too, so we wanted to also do a mid to hit those needs too.

JM: As far as specific players and teams, we test all of our product on our NFL and our collegiate athletes. This went through that same testing process that all of our other cleats do as well. We also actually launched this shoe during Bowl season last year. Notre Dame wore this colorway last year, and Eastbay loved the color so much that they ended up picking it up. It was our key launch during the Bowl games, and then in spring of this year, you probably saw it on RGIII for his Pro Day.

NDP: Of course. Definitely saw that.

TR: We went down there to meet with him, and it was perfect timing. His fellow students on the basketball team were making a run in the Final Four Tournament, and they were all rocking the loud electricity too. It was just perfect with his love for loud socks to also put him in an all-electricity Smoke.

JM: Knowing that it was coming out later in the year, it was a perfect opportunity to get it on RGIII.

TR: He was real into it, which was great.

NDP: Notre Dame was obviously where we saw it first, but are there any other big moments that you guys have planned coming up that we should be looking for?

JM: The one that’s coming up next is the Dublin game for Notre Dame. They came to us with the idea actually.

TR: They saw our inline offerings and they saw our Bowl shoe, and brought this concept to the table. It’s their heritage.

JM: They wanted to do something special just for the Dublin game, and they actually asked us, “Can you do a shoe using the colors of the Irish flag.” It played in really well with the design of the shoe. We are doing more special events throughout the season too.

NDP: With the NFL branding rights situation, I know you guys didn’t have stripes on field last season, but you will this year?

JM: Yes, we will. Some of these samples have tonal stripes right now, but we’ll have visible stripes on field for the season. The cleat has such a bold colorblock already, and that also obviously plays on the Three Stripes too.

NDP: In terms of the plate underfoot, you guys have been pretty consistent lately and are gaining some momentum with the SprintFrame plate. What kind of feedback have you gotten from guys now that the plate has been out there for a year?

JM: Phenomenal. It’s a super lightweight material, but also very strong, so we’ve engineered it so that it flexes in the right way and not in the wrong way. In football cleats, you don’t want any flex in the midfoot. On top of that, we’ve also developed the traction studs here with a new triangular shape, and the placement of them also plays a huge part in the traction for football. You can see the front three cleats that help with acceleration and toe-off, and then the middle two cleats that help with rotational traction and side-to-side movements. In the heel, these back cleats really help with balance and breaking. The feedback has been phenomenal. Guys wear it on field turf and natural grass and they love it. It’s enabled us to make revolutionary lightweight product with this material.

NDP: It’s also been cool to see both adidas Football and Basketball using the same technologies at times, like with SprintFrame, and really build around that platform.

TR: Absolutely.

NDP: As I’m looking through the renderings and sketches that you have there; it’s just cool how the colorblock really stands out so strongly, more than anything else out there.

TR: It’s funny, because this color story actually came after our initial process was already in motion. Normally, our team in marketing will see a need and then execute against a need. This project wasn’t like that. We already had an existing platform and that was successful, and the idea just happened to come from a paint booth. Some of these renderings and drawings came after we had already started to design the cleat.

NDP: Is there a lead guy that you’ll have wearing the Smoke? RG will be in the 5-Star, right?

JM: He and most of our pro guys will be in the 5-Star, but the Smoke will be worn by a lot of our NCAA teams.

NDP: Just looking at all of these samples that you guys have here, man, I wish you guys could share this colorblocking with the Basketball group. It’s just so cool. [Everyone laughs]

TR: That’s funny. We actually did, and maybe that’s something you’ll see later on. The inspiration behind American muscle really came from football and who that person that follows the sport is. It’s important to our athlete and Americana, and using that as a driver really did start to migrate into other projects and other categories. You can see some influence in the 5-Star Mid, and it’s been a big hit so far.

NDP: With the 5-Star, there was a big emphasis on weight. Was there a particular weight target here with the Smoke?

TR: Yeah, and we got it to 7.2 for the low, and 7.9 for the mid. Still within the same adiZero range, and we don’t want to go outside of that bracket. In meeting the needs of certain athletes, we thought that was well within the range of what they’d want.

NDP: Do you know where your competitors’ same-class products weigh in?

JM: The lightest cleat from a competitor in this range is 8.7 ounces.

NDP: Nice, and I remember the 5-Star was a couple ounces lighter than its competitors when it came out.

JM: When we launched the 5-Star, it was a full three ounces lighter than anything else. We’re well ahead of the game, and we know that lightweight is important to this consumer. When we go and talk to kids and do focus groups, one of the first things we ask them is, “What do you look for in a cleat?” Almost always, at least 90 percent of the time, the first thing they say is “lightweight.” We know that’s important, and at the same time, we know that we have to make it functional for both the athlete and the sport. I think with the technologies that are in this cleat with the SprintSkin upper and SprintFrame plate, it’s the perfect blend of lightweight, which is what grabs that kid’s attention, and function.

Available Now: adidas adiZero Smoke