Nike Design Legend Tinker Hatfield Turns Sci-Fi Dreams Into Reality

First, they lost Kanye to Adidas (with Yeezy himself dissing them on his new album). Now, even King James and his lifetime contract are being overshadowed by an Under Armour-clad phenom named Steph Curry. Having to drop their sponsorship of Maria Sharapova amid a doping scandal certainly doesn’t help things.

But after five decades at the top of the sneaker food chain, Nike has become accustomed to the challenges of being number one. Pretenders to the throne, beware: If you’re not careful, you might end up like former Nike rival, Reebok, currently stuck in the doldrums and seeking a new direction.

Perhaps feeling the competition getting uncomfortably close, Nike has begun firing back with an onslaught of new concepts. Some are drawn from its deep roots; others are the product of entirely new thinking. One of the boldest is the new Nike HyperAdapt 1.0. It’s the brainchild of one of the Oregon brand’s native sons, the legendary designer Tinker Hatfield.

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Tinker has Nike in his veins: “As an Architecture student at the University of Oregon, Hatfield was coached in track by Nike co-Founder Bill Bowerman. Then, in 1981, he joined Nike as a corporate architect of retail spaces and soon found himself translating his architectural approach to shoe design.”

His portfolio reads like a list of Nike’s greatest hits, including the Air Jordan 3 through 15, and the world’s first ‘cross training’ shoes, the Nike Air Trainer. He had only been with the company for two years when he designed the Jordan III, the shoe that kept Michael Jordan from leaving Nike. Hatfield currently oversees the company’s ‘Innovation Kitchen.’

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He’s also one third of the Nike ‘dream team’ dubbed ‘HTM,’ along with designer Hiroshi Fujiwara and Nike CEO Mark Parker, which “…began its run back in 2002 and has released 17 pieces of limited-edition footwear since then.” The HTM brand quickly became associated with “…some of the Beaverton behemoth’s best and most coveted designs. Oftentimes, their collaborative work will highlight the latest technologies and hint at future applications, much like how concepts function in the world of automobiles.”

Appropriately, one of Hatfield’s most iconic designs only ever existed as a concept: He designed the power-lacing kicks Marty McFly wore in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II. In the decades since, the shoes have taken on near-mythic status, culminating in a populist petition a few years ago to get Tinker to create an actual pair of auto-lacing, light-up sneakers.

In response, he and fellow Nike design star Tiffany Beers created a side project that ultimately resulted in the 2011 Nike MAG: “The shoes feature an electroluminescent outsole, space age materials, and a rechargeable internal battery good for 3,000 hours.”

Sadly, power laces did not make the final cut. Still, fans raved about the kicks. 1,500 pairs of the shoes were produced and auctioned on eBay in 2011, with proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease research. A total of $4.7 million was raised from the online auctions. Google cofounder Sergey Brin agreed to match the donations, bringing the final tally to $9.4 million. Pretty impressive for novelty footwear — but, apparently, Hatfield and Nike had bigger plans in store.

Fashion, after all, is the fastest growing sector in the sneaker industry; the larger trend of ‘Athleisure’ is also shifting the market towards more style-heavy design and away from pure performance. Nike is responding with a big investment in design. Sneakers, once relegated to the tennis court, are acceptable in more places today, and fewer and fewer of Nike’s shoes ever hit the turf.

Which brings us to the unexpected culmination of Tinker’s pop-culture vision: On October 21, 2015, which is the same date Marty McFly visited the future in Back to the Future Part IINike unveiled a self-lacing version of the Nike Mag, scheduled to go on sale March 20, 2016.

Last week, the first mass production version, now dubbed the Nike HyperAdapt 1.0, was shown to the public. Tiffany Beers was there to describe the new technology: ”When you step in, your heel will hit a sensor and the system will automatically tighten. Then there are two buttons on the side to tighten and loosen. You can adjust it until it’s perfect.”

The sneakers will be available for the 2016 holiday season, but only to members of the company’s running app, Nike+.

So while the sneaker challengers are starting to make noise, Tinker is still a big weapon in Nike’s arsenal — and the Oregonians aren’t taking this fight sitting down. Then again, what else would you expect from a company born on a race track?