A journey through the Portland campus where Nike are preparing for the summer’s biggest sporting moment
Last summer feels like a blur, doesn’t it? A heady, carefree, seemingly endless summer awash with optimism and a sense of temporary national pride channelled through a squad of young, talented footballers. It didn’t come home after all (and let’s be honest, we weren’t even that good) but for England’s men’s team it set a solid springboard for, as ever, next time.
While the men went into that World Cup as quasi-underdogs, England’s women’s team go to France in 2019 as one of the favourites to take home the trophy. They’re a genuinely world-class outfit, who have more than a good chance of winning a tournament that’s increasing rapidly in popularity.
Deep inside Nike’s base in Portland, USA are several teams of women who are obsessed with football and design, and have been working tirelessly on the making of 14 new kits for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It marks a first for the women’s game: in the past, women have simply been handed the same kits as the men, but this time they’re getting their own designs. The new kits have their own specific aesthetic touches, along with bespoke engineering features, and there’s a sustainability aspect, too – each kit is made using 12 recycled bottles.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup is a massive moment for Nike, and the effort and resource that’s gone into the tournament is a culmination of decades of pioneering advances in women’s sports. Nike has recently opened a self-reflective archive in Portland, accessible only to staff, that takes the viewer through its history in women’s sport, even acknowledging its failures alongside its successes, including a crisis point in 1990 where a series of tasteless ads caused them to realise they had absolutely no idea how to talk to women. The result of that was the “List” ad campaign, which rolled out across women’s glossies, and was simply a survey of all the things that caused women anxiety, printed in the middle of magazines that exacerbated those same worries. Nike has been forced to assess its impact on the world before, most notably in the 90s when it came under fire for its role in the working condition labour crisis.
But creatively, it’s relentlessly tried to push boundaries in sport, with the release of a hijab for Muslim athletes, Serena Williams’ black catsuit, and recently that Colin Kaepernick ad. While the immense Portland campus certainly has an air of cultishness about it, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the imprint that Nike has left on sport, and consequently on culture. Glass boxes demonstrate the design lineage of the Air Jordan, enormous buildings are named after elite athletes, and employees excitedly rattle off stories about the brand’s history and iconic moments without it feeling too much as though they’ve just drunk the Kool-Aid.
However, Nike has never been a company to gaze back into the past, and they’ve taken a futuristic approach for the England, Norway, Netherlands, and France teams). Senior Product Apparel Manager Cassie Looker explains how haute couture influences the way they approach design, and agrees that walking out of the tunnel onto the pitch is a runway of its own.
“When we’re looking at the kits, the federations, and the fans, we want to make sure there’s a sophistication to it,” she says. “Looking at France, thinking about runway shows, what Paris is known for – haute couture – all the amazing fabrics and prints you see there… that is definitely a point of inspiration for our design team.” Looker picks out the France kit as her favourite, a personal choice given that she spends a lot of time in Paris working closely with the city’s superstar football team Paris Saint-Germain.
“Looking at France, thinking about runway shows, what Paris is known for – haute couture – all the amazing fabrics and prints you see there… that is definitely a point of inspiration for our design team” – Cassie Looker
The kits themselves are beautifully and carefully designed, each carrying idiosyncratic touches; for example, England’s away kit features a hand-drawn pattern almost imperceptibly woven into the kit, with flowers representing each of England’s counties. Norway’s home shirt reflects the team’s success in the women’s game in comparison to the men, with a star under the crest displayed proudly, showing off its previous tournament win. The kit itself is inspired by a Norwegian ski sweater from the 1950s. The Netherlands harks back to the men’s World Cup win in 1988, referencing the team’s classic design from a bygone era, with additional “art deco tulip pattern”, a nod to the flower that Holland is renowned for.
Nike’s behemothic base stretches underground to a secretive lair that has the feel of a place that might be hosting an extra-terrestrial, past “NO PHOTOGRAPHY PAST THIS POINT” and “REPORT ANY SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOUR” signs, through to Nike’s 3D high-security bodyscanning base, or The Nike Sport Research Lab, which is where the Apparel Innovation team work, a department helmed by Janett Nichol.
Nichol has the air of a mad scientist from the movies, and she beams with pride when discussing Nike’s approach to collaboration, showing off products made in partnership with Off-White, A-COLD-Wall, and Matthew M Williams. Her role depends on attention to detail, and a passion for elite performance, with design informed by data. “The athletes are at the centre of everything we do,” she says. “What happens is we bring the athletes into the lab and we run a number of tests on our athletes. And that allows us to have a deep, deep knowledge around many, many athletes around the world. And it's through that data that we're able to discern certain things. It could be that we have an athlete running on the track and we recognise that this particular athlete perspires at this number or mile marker in his race and he perspires in this area, and at a certain mile marker the sweat accelerates or decelerates.”
The women’s game feels as though it’s at a crucial point, with this summer’s World Cup a decisive tournament, a chance for the players to show the planet not just how much it has improved, but how much potential it has. That said, there’s still a long way to go. Nike clearly wants to be at the centre of that journey, but it’ll need to be prepared to stick in it for the long haul, and not just the summer.