In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, celebrated novelist and distance runner Haruki Murakami said he runs in Mizuno footwear because, “they have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan…Yet the soles of these shoes have a solid, reliable feel as you run.” Contrary to his entirely functional view on running shoes, style is increasingly prevalent in running shoes. A number of collaborations between sportswear companies and fashion designers in the past decade have produced sneakers that are as functional as they are stylish, attracting both distance runners and sneakerheads alike. These collaborations range from Kiko Kostadinov’s work with Asics to Nike and Undercover designer Jun Takahashi’s stylish running line Gyakusou.Today, fashion plays as big a role in running wear as it does in sportswear, and vice-versa.

Courtesy of a renewed interest in utility, performance has become a style in and of itself. Running footwear and clothing designed for athletic use imbues a casual outfit with purpose while conveying a nonchalant attitude. Collaborations such as Kiko Kostadinov’s with Asics, Undercover’s with Nike and Acronym’s with Nike recent examples where function, technology and creativity meet to produce a product that meets modern performance needs and aesthetic sensibilities. That combination is, at its essence, performance style.
In a way, these collaborations mirror longstanding relationships between athletes and brands who in tandem research and develop specialised athletic wear. Both Nike and Asics’ first running shoes were the result of collaborations with elite athletes.

Initially the company’s namesake, Asics developed its iconic Onitsuka Tiger runners with the help of marathon runner Toru Terasawa in 1953. Both Nike co-founders Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight were involved with track athletes themselves. While those initial releases were purely functional, over time both brands realized the power of fusing technology and fashion, which inevitably led to the emergence of performance style decades later.

While Nike has controlled the performance as style narrative for several years–working with everyone from Acronym’s Errolson Hugh to a data-driven collection with Alyx’s Matthew Williams—Asics (and by extention Onitsuka Tiger) played a minor role, mostly relying on its past cultural cache from the likes of Bruce Lee and The Bride in Kill Bill. That is until 2017 when the brand unveiled its first collaboration with critical darling Kiko Kostadinov. Since the initial release of the collaborative Asics Gel Burz 1, Kostadinov has continued to present subtle variations of the shoe, working within confined design parameters to make a shoe that’s as “fashion” as possible. For Kostadinov’s fourth Asics runner, presented as part of his Spring/Summer 2019 menswear collection, Kostadinov began with the preexisting Asics Nimbus sole, subtly reworking elements of Asics’ existing technology including a trail shoe upper and transparent wrap that accentuates the shoe’s support and reliability. Here the implication is clear: For this collaboration to really ring out, it must organically fit into Kostadinov’s “fashion” vision, without betraying the core functionality of the Asics-provided footwear technology.

Though not a runner himself, Kostadinov’s work engages with functionality and manufacturing precision. Speaking purely on his work from a fashion design perspective, the lines and details of Kostadinov’s garments often reference functional workwear, creating a sense of purpose in his collections. The result of testing and research, the methodology comes across in his considered aesthetic. Like his clothing, the Gel Burz 1 and 2 are clearly considered in a similar way, referencing both road and trail running in each design (or as one could say, how the shoe and technology are supposed to “work”). By inserting the shoe into runway collections, Kostadinov makes a statement that product research and function plays as big a role in fashion design as they do in activewear.

While Kostadinov explores performance, Takashi employs it out of necessity. Founded in 2010, his Gyakusou imprint takes its name from Takahashi’s Tokyo based road running group the Gyakusou International Running Association. “Gyaku” meaning backwards and “sou” meaning run/running, the name is a reference to the group’s minor act of rebellion: running counter-clockwise while everyone else in Tokyo runs clockwise around the city parks.

Rather than introduce performance to the runway, Gyakusou inserts fashion design into (quite literally) the field of running wear. From warm-ups featuring Undercover’s signature “giz” print to trail ready models like the translucent Zoom Fly SP, Gyakusou garments embody Undercover’s “less but better” mantra and translate it for performance. While Kostadinov is tapping running technology as another medium to explore function and “workability”, Takahashi’s collaboration with Nike is literally made for the activity of running. As a runner himself, Takahashi is perfectly positioned to develop athletic wear that is both stylish and highly functional. Gyakusou explores the tension between the opposing forces of disruption and harmony, the same sensibility that underpins long distance races: Achieve equilibrium between the meditative rhythm of running and the surge of pain and adrenaline that the body experiences when pushed to its limits. With Gyakusou, the notion that fashion and performance are separate spheres is entirely null and void.

At the heart of every Acronym design is utility, and its Nike collaborations are no exception. In 2016, Errolson Hugh unveiled Acronym’s second collaboration with Nike, a series of Air Prestos reworked to elevate every aspect of the sneaker, hitting the sweet spot between style and performance-driven design. It’s something he’s continued well into 2018. Whereas the other collaborations attempt to make already (and in some cases, unchanged) performance sneaker silhouettes fashionable or literally fuse form with a specific function, when it comes to Acronym—updating a sneaker with new technology not only aides and tweaks performance—but, by proxy, makes the shoe more aesthetically pleasing.

With the addition of a rising mid silhouette and zipper closure, Acronym gave the slipper-like Air Presto increased support and stability. Taping was added near the toe box of the shoe; a clear reference to kinesiology tape, a simple tape applied directly to the body by athletes for support and rehabilitation. With bright colors, complex features and exposed details, the final shoe puts the process of research and design that fashion designers undertake to rework athletic wear into style-conscious product in plain sight. Sure the technology is grounded in Nike’s athletic research, but there’s no contesting that Acronym designed this shoe.

While fashion is often concerned with reinventing our relationship to clothing, it doesn’t always take function and comfort into consideration. Contrastingly, athletic wear is primarily driven by function. The collaborations mentioned here erode the perceived boundaries between technical function and style, the very same distinction praised by Murakami. Today, there is a reciprocal relationship between fashion labels and athletic wear brands, producing innovations in both style and function.

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Tags: sneakers, nike, asics, kiko-kostadinov, acronym, gyakusou