words, images & interview // Nick DePaula

Known for reinterpreting and reinventing some of the brand’s most iconic past models, Nike Sportswear ventures down a new road this season with the introduction of two sneakers based on cult classics from the last 1990’s. Both the original Zoom Alpha and Tuned Max, great sneakers in their own right, if a bit dated from a construction perspective, are given new life this season thanks to a more modern touch and up-to-date technology.

Designed by Nike Sportswear Global Urban Design Director Marc Dolce, the new Air Max Alpha and Air Max Ultra both introduce Hyperfuse construction to the mix and make use of two of the brand’s recently introduced Air Max units. I caught up with Dolce to hear all about the project, and where the Fuse meets Sportswear lens might take us into the future. Enjoy a look ahead at the cues that inspired both models, as well as some great insights into the differences between designing a traditionally constructed sneaker and a Hyperfuse upper.

Nick DePaula: Can you talk about how the concept of doing the Air Max Alpha and Air Max Ultra inspired by older Nike Running models came about?
Marc Dolce: NSW is where Performance meets Style. We lead the industry with beautifully crafted product that is constantly pushing innovation and technology, and we use a combination of modern and classic craft to do that.

In Sportswear, part of my job is to curate the vault and try to figure out which models to bring back. Sometimes we bring back a shoe straight up as it was, and sometimes we’ll re-design it. Depending on the project, we’ll look to make it perform better or make it more premium. The Air Max 24/7 is a good example of that, and it was the first attempt to use the new full-length Air Max bag. With that project, we wanted to keep the shoe very familiar. It was a success, and we learned a lot from the consumer.

For the Air Max Alpha, we helped develop and test the new 180 Air bag with the Innovation Kitchen. It was ready for us before any of the other sport categories were going to use it. The great thing was, performance started using Hyperfuse and we wanted it to be a technology that we could bring into Sportswear. We looked at a few models in the Archive, and I looked at them just loosely at first to potentially inspire what these two shoes could become.

The original Zoom Alpha was one of the models that I initially had called out, but I went back and forth on it a bit as I went. I always thought it had some interesting overlays, especially on the forefoot, and I thought that we could feature those concentric circles and make it feel protective. I always thought the Tuned Max was really unique with the way it had some Foamposite along the heel. It was the kind of shoe you either loved or hated. But I thought it had the foundation to be reinterpreted into a modern shoe.

I really wanted to look at how I could compress some of the classic DNA from both shoes and then exaggerate that into a modern form. I remember wearing the original Zoom Alpha with jeans and the toe shape was really iconic. I wanted to try and create a new visual effect that would still give it a memorable look and feel.

Above: The original Nike Zoom Alpha.

NDP: Both models have a Hyperfuse upper, a first from your group. What was different about designing them this time around?

MD: By using the Hyperfuse process, you’re allowed to create shapes that you can’t normally do with traditional methods of making shoes. I never sketched the shoes by hand. One of the first drawings I did was on a flat pattern shell, and I never had done that before. With this method of making, no matter how I would draw it, it would be translated into a pattern shell. From the start, it was a new way of working. It gives me a lot more precision and control over exactly how the shoe will look. When you draw a shoe from a profile side angle, there’s a lot of dimension and distortion going on in your sketch, especially in the toe. The top line can always vary, and the factory can sometimes reinterpret your drawing. The cool thing about this was that there was no reinterpretation. My design was sent to the factory and then they would fuse it together. The entire concept of Fuse is great, because it reduces the amount of layers and gives you a better fit. If we’re designing shoes in Sportswear, we can take a classic style and run it through that filter and it’ll come out like a completely different and modern shoe.

When I first started working on the project, we had the Air bag already, and that was the big hero. I wanted that to be the hero, and then I wanted to make sure that we took advantage of the Fused upper and had transparent layers. On the Alpha, we carried over the two overlays in the forefoot that serve as a protective element. We also were able to play around with some gradation, and as we layered the upper, it really allowed for some interesting depth and accenting. We also used some reflectivity as well, and originally, that was more of a functional element. Nowadays, we can be wearing a 3M shoe and take a picture with the flash on and love seeing the shoe just blow up in a photo. I wanted to keep that reflectivity, so you’ll notice it on the Swoosh, on the mudguard and the tip of the toe.

The Alpha also had an interesting waffle outsole design. Knowing that the Air bag was going to be really strong and provide a ton of cushioning, I wanted to make sure there was a smooth transition in the shoe’s stride. The midsole goes from Air bag straight into Phylon, and I built in some lateral and horizontal flex grooves that give you a nice crash pad and transition through the toe.

Above: The original Nike Tuned Max.

NDP: With the Air Max 180 and 360 bags, are both going to be units that we’ll be seeing going forward?
MD: Yes, and the 360 bag provides a ton of value for consumers and people have responded real positively to it. Nike Running will continue to use that bag to lead performance, and for us, we’re going to continue to look into the vault and find ways to bring back some key models from the past that can live on that bag. We’ll be working with the performance group to figure out how we’re going to tell stories on a seasonal basis that can complement eachother.

NDP: As you were looking back over both the Zoom Alpha and Tuned Max, were there any other models that you considered for this project?
MD: I did, but the biggest thing for both shoes was that I really wanted the depth and dimension of the shoes to come through. It was all about making the upper translucent enough so you could see into the upper and see the bootie. When I started all of the sketches, I’d start with a colored bootie, and then I’d work on adding in a reinforced synthetic layer that could help with the structure. After that, the whole shoe is covered by an open mesh and the skins are added to provide protection and bring it all together.

Hyperfuse allows for light weight, it’s breathable and it’s also durable. The light weight comes from the minimal layers we’re using and the open mesh, but that outer skin really adds durability too. The biggest thing that I tried to incorporate into both shoes was a full-length bootie. Ever since the original Huarache, when you have that bootie, you don’t even really have to lace up your shoes and it always fits and will be comfortable. For both models, we really played with the base layer and wanted to create lines on the upper that we just couldn’t do before Fuse. If you look at the original Tuned Max, it had heavy injected molded pieces on top of the mesh. Now, we can build in the structure under the mesh, and it actually provides breathability and support. It’s a modern way to look at shoes, and the upper feels like it’s one piece without the stitching.

NDP: As you guys were developing both shoes, was there anything that was new to you with the Fuse process that was hard to figure out?
MD: The amount of layers that you can put on was kind of challenging. At Nike, there’s obviously a high standard for all of our shoes that we have to make sure that we maintain. Getting the shoe weartested was really important for us, to make sure the shoe worked right in the flex areas. I had to concede the amount of overlays that we could do in the forefoot, and that was to make sure that we didn’t have any delamination. Sometimes when you begin to add more layers, that can be an issue.

Performance has been doing Fuse, but for Sportswear it was a new technology, and for me, using it in the first season was great. I loved it. The first time I worked on it, I felt like it was the way that shoes were always meant to be made and designed. To draw a shoe the way that it will be created as a pattern and have an engineer work on it from there is great. It’s more efficient to design that way, and with the way my brain works, there wasn’t really a learning curve. I knew the dimensions I had to work with, and I just designed within that and really enjoyed that. Luckily, I also have a great development team to create the product, and our Color Designer Shaneika Warden is developing some great color combos going forward.

NDP: That’s really interesting from a design perspective. Obviously, the first two Fuse shoes for you guys here are Running-inspired models. Are you guys looking to branch out and create a few basketball-inspired models that will include either Fuse or today’s Air Max bags?
MD: Fuse really lends itself well to some of the older Training models. Basketball models are a little bit different, because they’re more about the touch and feel of the leathers and molding. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t do that, but we do look at it by silo. Running and Fuse also lends itself really well. Updating what was originally a mesh based upper with synthetics works great, because we’re able to remove the stitching, the foam packages and take away things that we might not need anymore. The same goes for Training, where you want a shoe that’s breathable and lightweight. The Basketball team on the performance side does a great job on their own of offering those insights in new models like the Hyperdunk and Hyperfuse. For Sportswear, we’ve really been looking at other technologies for basketball like Foamposite and more classic constructions. Going forward, there could be combinations of those classic and modern constructions that we might use together.

NDP: It’s weird that it’s been almost fifteen and over ten years now for models like the Zoom Alpha and Tuned Max, and high school kids now might not know those shoes. It’s interesting though that those shoes that might not have as visible of a technology — and even cushioning units that are no longer used anymore like Tuned Max — can have a second life.
MD: Definitely, and we’re really just looking at refining some classics, creating a new aesthetic with today’s technology and showcasing a more modern method of making. Hopefully people will enjoy that.

Available Now: Nike Air Max Ultra and Nike Air Max Alpha