It all started with a video preview. The adidas ZX 8000, a 25 year old runner from the adidas archive that got the ball rolling on the now beloved ZX line, was seen shedding its layers and transforming into something more modern: the adidas ZX Flux. From there, Berlin residents got the jump on the world with an extensive preview event, and people began to catch on to just how big of a shoe the adidas ZX Flux was set to be. It was that Berlin preview that manifested the power of the printed pairs – the shelves there were packed with a version of the sneaker that sported smooth uppers dipped in colorful, lush images and patterns that topped anything previously seen in terms of printed sneakers. There were full cityscapes, crashing waves, kaleidoscopic patterns and more printed onto this new age adi-runner. But how did adidas Originals do it? How did they manage such a massive hit in the ZX Flux?
Leading up the project was adidas Originals Design Director Sam Handy, a man who became acquainted with the legendary ZX line during his childhood in Britain. It’s no secret that the ZX line, and indeed adidas runners at large, have a bit of a bigger cultural back story outside of the US, but the result of Handy and co’s work has already helped Yankees get more familiar with the lineage. We can only hope that the fervent searches that have been made here in the States for certain ZX Flux pairs will eventually lead heads to delve even deeper into the brand’s deep catalog of classic runners. In this exclusive interview, Sneaker News sat down with Sam Handy to discuss the road that led up to the ZX Flux, as well as what’s in the works for the future of the immediately successful shoe. Continue reading to get his insights, as well as some exclusive imagery, and stay tuned for further developments on the adidas ZX Flux.
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Left: Jacques Chassaing, original designer of the ZX 8000, Right: Sam Handy, adidas Originals Design Director
Sneaker News: Sam, could you please introduce yourself to our readers and describe your role with adidas?
Sam Handy: Yeah, my name is Sam Handy. I’ve been working with Adidas for about 5 years now, I’m the Design Director in Originals. I look after most of the short calendar fast programs that we’re doing, so we do a lot of stuff with the quicker calendars.
SN: What was the design brief like on the ZX Flux? Did you start out wanting to do ZX tribute or was it more like you wanted to figure out how to get this minimal adidas Originals running shoe and the Flux line sort of became the platform for that?
SH: We kind of started it as a bit of an experiment. It’s always been hard for Originals to find a way to bridge the gap between the archived stuff that we do and a super modern running shoe. We’ve also got our performance division as well so there’s a whole half of the company that creates really banging performance running shoes, like I guess you saw the BOOST shoe, the adiZERO has currently got the marathon world record – so they make really great running shoes, so then for us to make a really minimal lifestyle running shoe has always been a bit of a challenge.
Then that’s kind of what I started experimenting with looking at at different toolings, different uppers to find the right way to attack that problem, so I really wanted the build to be super minimal. And then I’ve always been drawn to the Thousand Series because I think they’re great. The first time that I really got aware of adidas when I was younger, it was with the Thousand Series shoes when I was growing up in England in the late 80s. So I’ve always thought that they’ve been a really remarkable design; super cool midsole, really interesting uppers. So that’s why I started just looking at what I could build on the ZX 8000 to make something super deconstructed. It kind of evolved out of a problem, of how do we evolve our archives to make
lightweight technical running shoes and lightweight non-technical running shoes, minimal running shoes. And through that I was kind of going to the 8000 as a way to solve my problems.
SN: Obviously, the design is all about stripping things down to the bare minimum. Were you worried at all that you would lose the ZX DNA in doing that? Because it is so much about chipping away and taking everything away.
SH: Yeah, sure. I tried lots of different ways to do it. I was leaving different panels on at first, and I thought that I needed to leave the toe overlay on, or leave the ghillie and the eyestays. But then through trying different things and drawing different ways to solve it we ended up just leaving the stabilizer on, so then you see that the TPU stabilizer and the midsole is so iconic that it works. You’ll see that it’s a ZX shoe. Also with the stripes, we took off the curves at the bottom so there’s kind of negative space where the mudguard of the ZX 8000 was. I think stuff like that curve lets you still see the Thousand Series DNA in that, like I tried it with the stripes running all the way to midsole and it doesn’t work. It turns into its own shoe. I think with having disposed of only a few elements makes it still feel like ZX.
Above: Design sketches of the adidas Originals ZX Flux approaching its final stages
SN: On that same note, are the guys who originally designed the ZX series still around, and could you get feedback from them? Or was it more that you had to work with the archive and figure it out?
SH: We’ve got a really great archive team there. There’s a group of people that run the archive so that we can have a look at the original shoes, like the original ZX 8000, and looking around other shoes from that era as well, that could inform it. There’s a guy called Jacques Chassaing who still works here. He was involved in the original development of the Torsion system and I think he worked on EQT, he worked on a lot of the most banging things Adidas did from EQT, to the Torsion system, to a lot of great basketball products. I sat and talked with him quite often during the development process.
SN: What was the reaction of guys like that, those older guys?
SH: I think those people who were involved in those older projects always really like it when designers sympathetically look at the stuff they did. I think quite often, it’s easy for people to kind of raze their archive and not discuss it with them and just kind of pop up with a shoe that doesn’t really necessarily pay tribute to the original ideas. Jacques definitely was very appreciative of the desire to pay homage to the ZX 8000 and create something new – not to just slap them all together and say that I made the shoe. That’s definitely not my feeling. I designed the Flux and my team worked on the Flux as well, but it’s definitely part of the lineage of all the great running shoes that adidas has made in the past. It’s an evolution. For me, it’s an evolution of a lot of DNA of adidas Originals as opposed to just this brand new thing that popped out of nowhere. And I think that working with people like Jacques, that’s always an interesting discussion.
SN: One thing about the shoe is that we’ve seen 2 different builds for it, there’s the mesh style and then satin one that has more of the graphics and the prints. Which one of those did you start off from?
SH: The first trials were always on the mesh, so we tried to find a way to make this really light deconstructed, top-them-all minimal running shoe on the ZX 8000 tooling. From there we wanted to do prints on
the shoes and started looking at different materials that hold prints, and I really wanted to make sure that we could bring something new to the market with this minimal, printed upper running shoe. What we wanted to do was to do ultra-realistic prints and then that satin material and the prints would stick together. That’s just the only way you can really do it, to print something with that kind of a high resolution, is to use that super smooth satin material. The two things kind of led to each other. We wanted to do hyper-realism because no one’s done that and then that’s the material that lets you do it.
Above: The “Lightning” from the Black Elements Pack was the first iteration that tested out the satin upper
SN: What sort of photos and prints were you testing out when you were first starting out with the satin material?
SH: The lightning one, that’s the first one. I guess you saw that Black Elements Pack that dropped. It just felt like such a brutal, imposing image; it’s super dynamic. It’s like a test of what you can achieve when printing when you try to print something with a really strong black and a white highlight, it’s a real test of the resolution that you can do. The next thing that we were working on for quite some time was the City Series of the shoe, so we had the Berlin one release a couple of weeks ago. Yeah, the Lightning and the City Series were the ones that we were really working on for a long time and kind of showed us what was possible with that photo print I think. It opened a lot of doors, it’s a really interesting one to work with because anything’s possible.
When you can print anything on a shoe, it’s actually really hard to narrow down what you want to do and what you want to use. Normally you’re really limited with the prints I think, but with this there’s no limitation at all. There was actually a lot of crazy trial and error processing in the studio where we had like, hundreds of possible prints on the wall and were looking through for the process of editing down. We took out a lot of great ideas even, in the process to end up where we are now.
SN: What are some of those wild prints and graphics that never made it onto the shoe because of that editing process?
SH: There were tons. Lots of mentalness. When we were working on like the ocean print, there were things that we were trying like hurricanes. Or a crumpled aluminum, and then to photo print it on so it looks all super three-dimensional and really textural. That’s something that I’m still waiting to do that we haven’t brought to the market yet. But things like that, like really interesting textures, photo prints that you put on a shoe that really kind of scramble your brain when you look at them because it looks so real, that’s something that we still haven’t quite done yet. Those were a lot of the ideas that we threw out but we’ve got a lot more stuff in the pipeline in the way of photo prints.
We’re working on Spring/Summer ’15 right now and there’s lots of great stuff in the pipeline, in terms of prints. Hopefully we get to use all of the good ideas in the end. There’s been lots of stuff and we had to edit down to create the Spring/Summer range but there’s a lot of stuff there in the pipeline where we’re going to be doing all the good stuff.
Above: The 8K Graphic pair unleashes an impressive array of colors with the photo print method
SN: For this satin material, how long did it take you to realize that that was the right one? Did you have to dig through the materials available to you to end up here, or did you know right away that this was the one?
SH: We work a lot with our material suppliers, so we’re working a lot with the guys who are developing the materials trying to figure out a material that holds photo print really well. We looked through several different strike-offs of photo prints and that’s just the best one. It’s a very fine material, it holds the resolution. They can run it through the printers really well. That was guided by the quality. It’s the material that holds best the photographic print. That one was a bit of a no-brainer to be honest, we looked at a lot of other stuff and it just doesn’t hold it as well. When you see the prints – when you see printed canvas shoes a lot on the market, you can’t print canvas with anything like the kind of resolutions that we can print with this material.
SN: After that first round of sampling, was there ever any worry that you wouldn’t be able to get that real depth?
SH: It’s more that every print takes a lot of work. We need to run through like 3 or 4 samples to palette all the colors out. It’s an interesting project, like I come from a graphic design background. You get used to doing that stuff and doing pre-press or working with color profiles to make sure things can be as accurate as possible. I hadn’t done it for years and this is the first time that I had to do that stuff working on footwear, because you’re printing it like a magazine or a book. You have to really go back to a different discipline and figure how to get the accuracy because we’re not matching to Pantones, it’s really printed like a book or magazine. There’s a lot of trial and error.
SN: When it comes to selecting those prints and stuff, was that mostly you too? Or are working with your team and you hand it off to a colorist to figure out what to do graphics-wise?
SH: I’ve got a team of graphic designers, a team of apparel designers, and a team of footwear designers. It was the first project that we’ve worked on where we essentially had a whole design team working on it at once because the graphics guys are working a lot on photo print stuff and they’re used to really working on those things for T-shirts, for apparel pieces. But then they got super involved in the work that the footwear team was doing as well. It’s a really collaborative project of everyone really getting involved and seeing what could be possible on a Flux. Like I said, we have boards with hundreds of different executions of photo print because it really kind of opened everyone’s eyes as to what they could possibly do. Stuff people always wanted to see on a shoe, you could try it with Flux. Something you never thought was possible, you could try it on Flux.
Above: A sketch showing the ZX series DNA maintained by the adidas Originals ZX Flux
SN: Here in the US it’s been a huge success story, we haven’t really seen everyone this excited about an adidas Originals shoe in a long time. Did your team anticipate this sort of success?
SH: You might have seen that interview with me and Torben, one of the marketing guys, where we say that I ran the first sample of the shoe in-house and got it back because I wanted to see how it looked. And then I started to show it to people around the office and they were like “Wow, that’s kind of cool, maybe you’ve solved it” Maybe you’ve found a way to unlock the DNA of the archive, crack the codes of an archived shoe that evolves and becomes something new. We all felt that it was really cool and we all felt that it had a lot of potential but, the reaction that we’ve got sort of exceeded our hopes. We all thought it would work but we’re getting selling reports of the shoe just blowing out in Europe, sold out in the US. We were very confident, but it’s exceed our expectations. We’re very happy with it.
SN: The Sneaker News office isn’t too far from the adidas Originals spot in SoHo and that day that the Prism one was supposed to land you couldn’t even get through to them on the phone.
SH: Yeah, it was the Prism one, right? I think the Prism one, it just really blew out. Honestly, we tried a lot of new stuff with Flux and in trying these photo prints I think we’re the first ones to be able to do that really. Obviously when you do something for the first time, you feel confident with it. You’re hoping it’s going to work. You’ve got a bit of self-belief but then you see it land and you see people really run with it.
SN: It was like every single store would just sell out of their inventory immediately, and a lot of people were suddenly worried about not finding a pair. The whole thing has been pretty exciting. It seems that the US customer doesn’t know as much as the adidas story, so when we do see people this excited over a silhouette, it’s that much more striking.
SH: It’s really interesting. We talked to key accounts, big retailers. We were also talking to a lot of the US guys at the beginning and people were initially apprehensive because they said the ZX 8000 was never a big shoe in the US, like it was super big and really important in Europe but I think over in the US it was not such a big story. Obviously there’s that big gap in the midsole of the 8000, it’s unconventional. It’s a really unique midsole and people thought it wouldn’t resonate or that people in the US expect something different, that they want the cleaner midsole. But we really pushed that the DNA of ZX is really important. People weren’t initially convinced so it’s been really nice to see the US market reacting to it in a very positive way, as well as the European market, when there isn’t that big heritage on the ZX.
Above: A shot from the first in-depth ZX Flux preview in Berlin
SN: Once you the team saw the immediate success, did you have to mobilize and say, “OK, let’s try and get a bunch more out here” now that you knew that the market was ready for it and people were hungry for it?
SH: No. I don’t know if you saw the pictures from the launch that we had in Berlin, but from the beginning we had planned tons of them. I don’t know how many, but I think we’re edging towards three figures of models of Flux that come in the first 8 months. We really came out with a really big range at the beginning because we believed it would work, but yeah we’re definitely expanding it now and working on those more ideas.
SN: Now that it has been so successful, should we look for other models to do this Flux thing? Do you think it’s applicable to other categories, or do you think the fast-looking nature of the running shoe is the best for this Flux approach?
SH: I think, not to give too much away, but it definitely proved to be a recipe for how we can unleash that 60 years of archives that adidas has. adidas is really the oldest sportswear brand in the world. I think it’s the best sportswear brand in the world and we have this huge untapped catalog of amazing innovative design, and I think Flux is proving to be the recipe for how we can unleash that power. Maybe not treat it in the exact same way as Flux, maybe not a deconstructed upper. But this idea of taking the best of our archive and adapting it and evolving it so that it stays new and fresh, and creating new icons out of it – that’s definitely something you’re going to see more of.
SN: The shoe seems like the ultimate shoe as far as the mi adidas customizable platform. I can just imagine people being able to select any photo and put it on a shoe or use all kinds of crazy prints. Any plans for something like that?
SH: I don’t want to give too much away but we’ve got stuff planned in mi adidas that we should be able to announce in the next few weeks and it’s gonna be a real game changer in customization, like something mind-blowing and new. We definitely saw the potential but I can’t say too much right now.