Interview: Aaron Cooper Details Huarache Trainer

Interview: Aaron Cooper Details Huarache Trainer

words, interview & images_Nick DePaula of Sole Collector Magazine

The original Nike Huarache Trainer has to this day stood out as an iconic piece of Nike’s history of innovation, and for good reason. A full-length neoprene inner sleeve, dramatic ankle cutaway and relatively minimal midfoot strap didn’t quite give off the impression of tremendous lockdown and support that most athletes were used to in 1994, but as with most Tinker Hatfield designs, there was quite a bit of reasoning and logic behind the shoe’s parts and pieces. The Huarache Trainer’s lighter and more comfortable fit and feel took people to a new place in footwear, and soon won over athletes of all sizes.

More than fifteen years later, Nike Training is once again returning to the original Huarache concept. Packed with today’s latest and greatest materials and construction methods, including Fuse and the ever-responsive Zoom Air, the Zoom Huarache Trainer hopes to take Tinker’s lead and quest for innovation well into the next decade.

Sole Collector had a chance to chat with Aaron Cooper, who during his time as Design Director at Nike Training helped create Nike Training’s newest Huarache-based all-purpose sneaker. Make a tasty sandwich ahead of time for some company and dive in for a detailed account of just how the Zoom Huarache Trainer was designed and developed.

Nick DePaula: Can you talk about how this shoe began, and why it was decided that you would be creating a modern update of the Huarache Trainer?
Aaron Cooper: I went back and found some stuff that Tinker [Hatfield, seen at right, designer of the first Huarache Trainer] had pulled out on the original Huarache, and the idea about comfort was the key point to the whole thing. The idea of not feeling like you have a shoe on, and then you have a strap that held the shoe on your foot. To me, that was the most important thing, because I thought the original Huarache series was some of the most comfortable shoes Nike has ever done. The most important thing to me was to maintain the comfort from the past Huarache, and bring it into today’s performance because the athletes have gotten bigger, faster and stronger and they have the desire for more flexibility.

Unless you’re designing a shoe that is going to be the lightest weight shoe for a particular reason or a problem you’re trying to solve, comfort and flexibility were the two biggest things for me, in designing the shoe. Weight, no matter what I’m doing, is always important. You can ask people in Asia at the factory, and when they bring me samples, they bring an exacto knife, ‘cause they know I’m just going to cut them apart. [laughs] I question every last millimeter, to reduce as much weight as possible. Obviously we want a lighter weight product, but it was as a result of always being concerned about the millimeters.

This was the original sketch out of my sketchbook, and it just represented the comfort, more breathable materials and lighter weight bootie and that minimal exoskeletal structure around the heel. Finally, there was the strap, and then I just wanted to focus on the flexibility and it turned out pretty close to the original. I cut up a bunch of pieces of the shoe, and I have parts where just the bootie is on the bottom. I have shoes that are cut in half and I have pieces of the bottom and also just this exoskeletal structure separated. When you separate all of that, it really brings the story to life about the skeletal nature of the shoe. You can feel how light the bootie and the bottom is, and you can feel how light just the strap is, and you’re like, “Well, you can’t take any more away.” You can’t make it lighter, in terms of the form that we created here. It surprised me once we cut it all up, and it was cool to go back and dissect it like CSI. [laughs]

NDP: There’s a lot that did carry over from the original, but there’s also a new and more modern shape to it.
AC: Of course. To me, up to this point, nobody had really gone back to the original Huarache and brought it back in a form that paid homage to the original. They always spun off into different forms. I thought that was fairly important, and I think there’s still opportunity to bring back the Huarache idea and concept and do it a new, never-been-seen-before form, but I thought it was important to pay homage to the original form that Tinker created, but use all of the current materials and manufacturing processes of today. This strap is fused, which is Nike’s latest and greatest technology that’s just now in the marketplace. The strap, with the innovations that have happened with materials, it’s softer, takes a mold better, without getting hard, and then there’s also the no-sew heel counter.

NDP: That’s real sharp.
AC: Yeah, and then the interior foam footbed is Cushlon, made famous by the Nike Vomero, which I actually worked on. [laughs] That tested out to be the most responsive, most comfortable and best balance of all. There’s nothing else in there except for the Phylon carrier foam, the Cushlon in the forefoot, and then the huge Zoom bag in the heel. That’s it.

NDP: And the heel Zoom bag is 14 mm?
AC: Yeah, 14. That’s it. The factory did an amazing job, and it’s beautifully manufactured. They did a really, really nice job. Taking all of those materials and maximizing them so they can create the most comfortable, lightest weight, most responsive and flexible shoe possible, that like the old Huarache, you don’t even have to lace up to keep on your foot. You feel like you have a pillow around your foot.

When you want to go to the gym, maybe you just lace it up, and then when you want to go out on the field to run some routes, you can use the strap as the last piece of security. Some shoes almost design themselves, and this one, obviously the canvas was the original Huarache, and then, I just had to put all of the latest and greatest materials and manufacturing and work with the amazing factory partners that we have at Feng Tay.

NDP: The Trainer 1 was obviously a re-make that you worked on and it had a lot of success with a visible Air unit. Did you guys toy with any different cushioning set-ups, or was Zoom in mind all along?
AC: Comfort was the plan all along. Responsive, flexible comfort. Zoom Air being the most responsive cushioning in the marketplace and in the industry, in my opinion, and the athletes love it, so we basically wanted to fill up the heel with as much Zoom Air as possible, and then leave the forefoot “Free,” but utilize our current foam technology that we had.

NDP: Is it a 20/ 10 mm offset?
AC: It’s more like an 18/ 8, which is pretty much where all of our Training shoes are. You’re lower to the ground here, but still with Cushlon, you get that nice comfort and bouncy responsive cushion. The Cushlon actually goes all the way back over the Zoom Air, so you get a nice transition.

NDP: Did you bounce the design off of Tinker at all during the process?
AC: Yeah, for sure I did. He liked it, and I think he appreciated the homage to the original and making it better. I definitely showed Tinker a couple times through the process.

NDP: Larry Fitzgerald is a huge part of this shoe and I understand he offered a lot of insights into the performance. How’d the Super Powers pack come about?
AC: The Super Powers pack really began with Larry’s super power of having the best hands in the NFL. I always thought about it as receiving the ball, but after learning more from Zach [Bromert, Training Senior Product Manager], just because he played football, Larry’s skill-set is truly impressive when you consider what he does as soon as he initiates the play. The hand-to-hand battle and combat that he has with the defense to get away from them, to create that separation and then, the speed to get away and the leaping and flying ability that he has to make the play.

When we presented it to him, I talked to him about the hands that he has, the ability to fly higher, and the ability to run faster. The key thing about that, I believe, is that there might be faster people in a straight line, like Superman is the fastest in a straight line, but I have read somewhere that the Flash is actually the fastest superhero in the world, but specifically on angles and side to side. I was thinking, “Wow, that’s perfect. His speed and angles and the relationship between him and the Flash, being the fastest on angles, works great.”

I was more inspired by Larry. It’s not like he’s a huge super hero fan, but it was more about his abilities. I always refer to it as super powers. The important story is the ability and those super powers, because I believe he has those super powers on the playing field. He can get to a spot without a defender still on him, and if they are still on him, he can jump higher and get to the ball at its highest point.

NDP: In terms of the colorways, there’s a whole story of versions that relate to his life. You have the ball boy inspired version from when he was a teenager working for the Vikings. His college and pro colorways, and the Monday Night Football version inspired by his silver cleats. You guys also did two friends & family versions for him too?

These are the original renderings and colors that we presented to him and the stories. In addition to all of his team colorways, last season, he went over to Iraq and spent some time with the guys there, and I thought that was a really cool story. He sincerely went over there, it wasn’t like someone asked him to. He’s such a sincere person and wants to do well and is so meaningful in what he does in his life, that I thought that was a really cool story.

NDP: You’ve talked a lot about Larry Fitzgerald, but were there any other athletes that you got feedback from or that wear tested the shoe?
AC: Actually, Adrian Peterson was in one time, and I had met him a couple of times and worked with him a little bit, so I valued his opinion. Not just as an athlete for performance, but he’s a big sneakerhead. I always think it’s funny how these modern day athletes, they not only care about the best performance and push us to new places, but a lot of times, they’re also sneakerheads.

NDP: And the style is still important.
AC: That’s always important for them. You wouldn’t have gotten an athlete twenty years ago to put a shoe on that they thought was ugly, but now, they have the history of the sneaker culture. When I showed an early prototype to Adrian, just to get his opinion about it, he immediately said, “Oh, is that a new Huarache!?” I said, “Yeah,” and I asked him what were the top three things about a Huarache that you can’t compromise and they have to be in the shoe, and he said the bootie and the midfoot strap. He didn’t even go to a third, and said those were the two things you had to have. It was funny, because at the time, we were talking about the midfoot strap versus a forefoot strap, versus no strap. Is that something that we want to completely change, or is that a main ingredient to the DNA that we want to keep. He was so adamant about it. I may have been on the fence on it a little bit, and he pushed me over pretty easily. It’s a perfect example of just listening to the athlete, and that’s why I think Nike is awesome, cause you’re surrounded by those types of athletes and so many athletes and they help you build the product.

Above: Early exploration sketches of the Huarache Trainer, with and without a strap.

NDP: Do you have a favorite colorway yourself?
I honestly like them all, because there’s a story behind them. When you’re designing “signature product,” you want the athlete’s personality in the shoe, both from a performance desire and need and style, which would include the materials and the color. The one I really like is the Minnesota ball boy one, because not everyone knows that story, the material is really cool, and it’s like a football-but-not material. I just think it’s fresh and super clean, and purple is kind of an off color.

NDP: Hey now, that’s my favorite color!
AC: Nick loves purple! [laughs]

NDP: I grew up with the Kings, so I have an excuse.
AC: But it’s super wearable, it’s got a cool twist with the material and it’s a really deep story and something out of Larry’s life that not a lot of people know. That part of his life meant a lot to him.

NDP: For somebody that see this shoe on the shelf, what can they use it for and what will the higher cut offer as compared to a lower-cut trainer?
AC: Honestly, I think it might be the most versatile trainer we’ve done, because of the comfort, the fact that you can wear it without even lacing it up. You can lace it up when you go to the gym if you want to have a little bit more support, and then, the fact that you have the strap can give it that last bit of support. You really can lace it all the way to the top and it engages like a mid, but your foot can move a little better in the Huarache because of the design and the way Tinker had the cut out, which is another thing we wanted to maintain, because it’s a performance shoe. It’s really versatile in terms of how an athlete wants to wear it. You can kick around in it and it’s super comfortable, almost like a slipper feeling shoe, to something that you can just go out and tear it up on the field. The flexibility provides comfort, but keeps you really nimble on the field. The traction has proved out to be our best multi-surface traction. We’re all pretty happy with how it turned.

NDP: When did you show Larry the final version? Did you get to show him in person and get some feedback?
AC: It was during the summer, and he was sent all of the shoes. I need to ask him what camera he was using and tell him he needs to get a new one. [laughs] He sent us back a cell phone picture of him with a big smile — and you can definitely see him smiling cause you can’t miss that — but he was wearing the shoes and had just gotten them, and somebody took a picture of him wearing them when he had just gotten them and he sent that to us. Which is always great, like “job well done.” He said he loved the weight of it, the way it felt and performed in the gym, and he said he was actually able to go out and run routes in it. You want to make somebody happy when they’re not training, and make somebody happy when they are.


NDP: Was there anything on the development side that was a challenge?
AC: For sure, and Lisa Cato (Senior Development Manager at Nike Training) was the developer and she’s great. Big fan of Lisa. There’s always challenges though. If there aren’t challenges, then you’re not moving forward. The fusing of the strap and keeping the strap fused together, but also pliable so it wasn’t stiff, was the big thing. The old strap was an injected plastic strap, which was injected flat, so it’s always going to want to go back to being flat. This was fused together flat, but because of the nature of the materials and the new manufacturing process, it’s a lot more flexible than the original one. That was absolutely a challenge, but again, the factory was just an awesome team effort. For Lisa, it’s her job to raise all the red flags, but she’s also one of the first to try and break down the barriers. The factory folks that we were working with, and both the developers on campus and in Asia got behind it. Usually I can pick one thing out that we weren’t able to do and I wish we could’ve, but everything that we wanted to do is in this shoe. The fused strap, the no-sew heel counter, the material for the bootie and everything.

NDP: Are the panels around the collar molded as well?
AC: Yeah, it’s molded. A lot of times, this molding gets really stiff and hard, but between material exploration and the factory doing manufacturing exploration, they were able to come up with a package that was really soft.

NDP: That’s real cool. I think whenever people think of a molded collar, they think of the Jordan V or VI and those can be a bit more stiff.
AC: Exactly, and this is really soft. The tooling wasn’t easy either, and it came back just really precise.

NDP: With the Trainer 1, it seemed like you had about four to six months to do the entire shoe. Was working on this shoe under a more normal timeline?

AC: Yeah, but it actually got pulled up by a season. It started off for Spring ‘11, so it got pulled up (to Holiday ’10). Sometimes I like projects like that. We were currently working on Fuse, so that wasn’t new and there were experts that we could pull in to solve those problems. All of the materials in the midsole had been done, it was just about how we were putting them together. No-sew heel counter had been done, and there were a lot of experts that we could pull together very quickly and solve problems quickly. One detail that Kris Aman (Nike Athletic Training Vice President) suggested along the way that I really do like was these two little faster lines along the heel. It lined up with the break of a traditional running heel crash area.

NDP: And is the outsole still considered Diamond Flex?
AC: Similar to Nike Running, how they have a continuum of Nike Free, and Nike Running carries off of that continuum in their running line, we kind of see the same thing with our Diamond Flex. You can do completely hyper Diamond Flex, or you can just take material out and it’s more flexible in those areas, but it’s not as overt as other products that we do like the Trainer 1 or our Free product. The Summer 2012 Free that I’m working on, that one is going to have even better Diamond Flex incorporated into it, as you would think. Free will be the most flexible, and we just wanted to make sure that we maintained the flexibility as much as possible from heel to toe in the Huarache Trainer, and then we also added in this longitudinal groove. Those are the two most important things to us, and the third priority for this shoe was the Diamond Flex.

NDP: All of the colorways have the same mesh package?
AC: It’s called nu-foam, but it’s a funny story. It kind of spun off from the Taiwanese vendor Tiong Liong, and it spun off from the foam that we used in the original Zoom Generation for LeBron.

NDP: The Sphere liner.
AC: Exactly. And Katy Liao worked for Tiong Liong and has been a good friend of mine and has worked with Nike for many years. At the time, she was with them, and with LeBron’s desire for the most comfortable shoe, we told him when he was in high school and we were close to signing him, that we were going to build him the most comfortable shoe he’s ever worn. We knew, to be able to do that, you had to create a new lining that was going to be a big deal. That lining had never been done before, until we did the Zoom Generation, and now Katy actually works for Nike and is a materials person, and Tiong Liong has a whole package of different types of it. It’s basically a lycra, foam and mesh sandwich package. The original idea was introduced with the Nike Sphere jackets, and the idea was that if you only have half of the material touching your body, you create some area for air to flow through and keep you cooler. Our idea, on top of that, was that if you take half of the foam away, it’s also lighter. It’s like an egg crate, and the less materials that are touching your skin, the more comfortable it can be and it’s lighter. That’s how that mesh material originally spun off.

NDP: Do you have a favorite detail or element?
AC: Actually, one of my favorite construction details that we ended up refining was something that Sergio Lozano (designer of the Air Max ’95) helped me with. Whether I see him in the halls, or just bump into him, I try and get his opinion, and the one thing that he suggested was the way that this back layer on the strap comes out just a little bit further than the front. The factory definitely liked that for durability, and it finished that off a little better than the original. I guess that’s the beauty of working at Nike, and that’s why I’m really excited about working in the group that I’m now, because we all together design a product that we’re working on and being able to bounce ideas off of people is great.

NDP: Can you talk about your role now?
AC: I’m just working with Tinker and Eric Avar’s group now in Special Projects (in the Nike Innovation Kitchen). We look across all business units and look for category opportunities. There’s some categories that can come to us with specific desires that we’re working with. There’s other categories that we’ll approach and try and sell an idea into them, based off of an insight that we have about their marketplace.

Specifically, we’re always working directly with the athlete and in this case with the Huarache Trainer, I think capability and opportunities allow us to work more directly with the athlete, which is great. Eric and Kobe, obviously, also have that. Quickstrike projects have happened in the group too, and will continue to happen, and then, we work on “What if?” We want to balance it out, so that you have projects that keep the lights on season to season, and then the “What if” projects are something further out there that we see an opportunity to design around that may take a few years or even longer.

NDP: Is this one of the last models you designed out of the Training group?
AC: I was working on the Free 2012 Olympic shoe with Eric and Tom Luedecke, and there’s always a bunch of people working on all of the shoes. I’m working on a project right now out of the Kitchen that’s a Training shoe that’ll go into more of the innovation section of the category. Training is near and dear to my heart, and something that I’ll still focus on. Training is an essential part of an athlete’s life, so we’re going to definitely be paying attention to it and innovating around it.

NDP: So it’s safe to say there will be future Huarache based shoes, since this is like the big return of the franchise?
AC: Well Nick, that could be something that I’m currently working on in my new job. [laughs] The Huarache concept is so strong that I think you can design future product around it well into the next century.

Now Available: Nike Zoom Huarache Trainer