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Rob Williams on future sportswear

The Nike's footwear designer and head of their innovative Flyknit collection considers the future of sportswear and infinite budgets

This year, Nike launched a series of projects as part of their new Flyknit technology, in what promised to be a great year for sport in the UK. The Flyknit collective inspiration blog recorded the summer series of workshops at Nike's east london 1948 space, where a number of new talents - from DJs to artists and great minds from the sports industry - including Run Dem Crew founder Charlie Dark - worked on collaborative projects. The entire Flyknit campaign was built around the element that was central to the development of the product itself - innovation. Inspired by athletes performing at the top of their game, in the year that saw London host the 2012 Olympics, we spoke to Rob Williams, senior shoe designer for Nike, who worked on the Flyknit campaign, about how the use of new materials and new techniques is pushing forward the future of shoe design.

Dazed Digital: What was the personal breakthrough for you when you developed the latest Flyknit collection?
Rob Williams: For me, one of the biggest breakthroughs was being able to work with top athletes - these guys are running at world-class level - and I got feedback and a lot of insights into what they needed. For me, it was being able to take what we’d learned from those guys and put it into a shoe that’s available to give to a lot of people. From a designer’s standpoint, being able to work on a product like this, that performs so well, fits amazingly and is still very lightweight. On top of all that it is also sustainable. I think the biggest breakthrough was being able to work in a way that nobody has really worked before.

DD: Where do you see Flyknit in the future?
Rob Williams: Right now I’m basically working on a lot of new Flyknit products, next generation and the generation after that – and there’s just some really exciting things coming I think. There’s a lot to be done with Flyknit.

DD: What is the most exciting thing happening in sportswear right now?
Rob Williams: Obviously, for me, I’m pretty attached to the sportswear industry, and for me I feel really lucky to be working on this project. I don’t know if there’s anything out there right now, in the sportswear industry, that’s more innovative than this. For me this is probably the most exciting thing, and working on it is a designers dream come true.

DD: What do you think will be the biggest changes in attitudes and the development of sportswear over the next 10 years?
Rob Williams: I think the next ten years are going to be really bright. Specifically for Nike - we’re always working on innovations. We’ve been working on Flyknit for years, and there are a lot of people that have worked on this project. At the same time there is a group of us looking at the next ten years, in terms of innovation and,‘how can we make shoes?’, ‘how can we make this better and also make it sustainable?' The Flyknit shoe is so technologically advanced that it’s hard to imagine the next ten years.

DD: This is the greenest shoe Nike have made so far. Is that something future designers will have to bear in mind? Do you think that is something that will be crucial to future design?
Rob Williams: Absolutely, markets will always drive what is successful. At the same time, as a designer, it is our responsibility to think about the future. I have children, they play sports and they love soccer, football and basketball and I have to think about their future as well. You always have to think about the generations that are going to come after you. That’s the responsibility of the designer and also of the company, to make something in a new way, to continue to innovate and try and make it better for the environment.  Also, I mean honestly, there’s economical ramifications. If you can make something in a new way and use that technology to an advantage, then I think that’s good for everyone.

DD: The type of yarn that’s used, is it something that can be produced worldwide?
Rob Williams: Definitely. I think what’s interesting about the way that this is made is that.. who wouldn’t want to make a product close to where you’re going to sell it. I think that’s definitely a big part of it. I don’t think we’re there yet, but it’s definitely something that we’re looking at. It’s a really wise thing for everyone involved to look at things like that. We’re just now being able to make the shoe, and those are all things that we’ll continue working on.

DD: If you had an infinite budget and resources on your projects, what would be the wildest thing you'd do?
Rob Williams: Speaking personally as a designer, I think it would be amazing to be able to serve people who don’t necessarily have a lot to work with. We now serve a lot of people at the higher end, but through technology it would be really cool if you could make products for customers who don’t have a lot of resources.  A shoe that doesn’t cost a lot of money. If you think about sport, and the future, and talk about countries like Africa – you think about people who don’t necessarily have the products or the money. It would be great for companies like Nike, to use technological advancements to think, ‘how do we serve people like that?’ I think theres a lot of people inside the company that think that way, and think there’s things we can always work on there, but that’s just my personal opinion.

DD: Are there any new materials that you're already experimenting with?
Rob Williams: I think there’s always things that we want to experiment with, but right now I think what’s really cool is this, Flyknit, our latest technology. It really is the future of footwear, there’s no one else able to do this. We’ve been making shoes the same way for ten thousand years and so obviously we’re looking to the future, but right now the future is here. We’re making a shoe in a way that no-one else has before. We’re focused on the future, but I don’t think there’s anything more exciting I could be working with right now.

When you think about it, the running shoe is really simple, and so is the sport.  What’s great about Flyknit is it really is a “back to basics” shoe, but it’s made in a way that’s  never been done before, so that’s really gratifying.  It really does feel like nothing else.