Practically Magic: A History of the Nike Air Presto
Practically Magic: A History of the Nike Air Presto
- Words Pete Forester
- Date October 4, 2017
Back in 1996, Tobie Hatfield, brother of the legendary Nike and Air Jordan designer Tinker, was in Korea for a production meeting and he hated the shoes on his feet. Everyone in the meeting had new Nike sneakers to try on, but as soon as Hatfield tried his he knew they weren’t right. “When I put the shoe on and stood up, the collar splayed out,” he recalls. That moment catalyzed a four year odyssey that would ultimately result in the creation of one of Nike’s most innovative sneakers: the Air Presto.
What Hatfield wanted to do at the beginning was pretty simple: create a sneaker that fit immaculately and was incredibly comfortable. But that was impossible to achieve with the way that Nike was making sneakers at the time. Even sneakers like the Huarache that were designed and constructed in the most contemporaneously unconventional ways were limited in their flexibility because of the constraints of leather and mesh brought together with stitching. Eventually, the search for the sneaker that became the Presto would leave these conventions behind, but it would require that Hatfield and his team tried every other possibility before they forged their way into the future.
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The name “Presto” wouldn’t even be attached to the project until the year 2000, but back in 1996 Nike created the first prototype, a basically unremarkable leather and mesh shoe with one standout: the “V-notch.” Hatfield’s fix for the splayed collar he experienced in Korea was to simply remove the excess material. So he cut out a whole section of the sneaker from the collar to the sole, opening up the entire shape of the upper to move in different ways. Suddenly there was more give throughout the shoe to flex and bend with every step and stride of the runner. Instead of the runner’s foot being housed by a rigid construct of leather and mesh, the sneaker responded to their movement.
With a prototype in hand Hatfield wanted the shoe to put down some miles to see how it performed, but he knew he couldn’t do it himself—it was his brainchild, he held bias. So he gave it to a coworker to try out. But there was one little problem: the prototype was a size nine and the coworker wore a size 11. Hatfield was eager for the feedback so he didn’t mention the size discrepancy and let the coworker go out for a run knowing that the size issue would only be a part of the notes that he’d hear about the shoe. But to his surprise his colleague had nothing to say about the size. The V-notch created enough flexibility that the shoe formed to the larger size. The size nine sneaker became a size 11 sneaker when it needed to be without sacrificing performance. “In addition to improving the heel fit, the V-notch relieved tension in the collar and created a hinge effect that helped the shoe grow in length,” Hatfield says. It was a total reversal of how athletes and footwear interacted. It would take years for that reversal to pay off, but it did make him think.
At that moment Hatfield held in his hands a shoe that no longer conformed to traditional sizing. If the same shoe can fit anyone ranging between a nine and an 11, is the traditional sizing method even valuable anymore? At least for the shoe that would become the Presto, Hatfield thought that it didn’t. Instead of sneakers, Hatfield saw this fit more like apparel—a T-shirt. “We don’t do half sizes for our T-shirts; we do small, medium and large,” Hatfield thought. “So what if we tried the same thing for footwear? What if we gave the athlete a range?” That new understanding in 1996 would eventually result in a paradigm shift for the way sneakers are sized. But like everything with the shoe that would become the Presto, reality was a few years off.
The concept of the Presto continued to be developed over the intervening years, but under a slew of different project names. Each step closer to the Presto was proven through designs that were released on their own. The V-notch got its heyday with the Air Gauntlet in 1998, the seamless interior and mesh upper were perfected in 1999 with the launch of the Air Zoom Drive. But these two elements weren’t enough to finally land at the Presto. Hatfield and his team needed the right materials.
Leather was too stiff and heavy. Mesh was limited in stretch and applications. The neoprene used on the Air Huarache was designed to trap heat in—the opposite of what they wanted for the Presto. None of these materials worked for what the shoe needed to be. Then they found it: Spacer mesh. A material traditionally used in the medical industry offered the flex and stretch of neoprene without the heat, and they could shape it into the sneaker that they wanted. Spacer mesh is stiff enough to maintain a lesser version of the “V-notch” but still flexible enough to give enough so the full V wasn’t required. A rubber cage was installed over the upper for structure and a place to thread the laces, and a rubber cap at the toe added protection from debris. The malleability of the upper maintained the flexibility of sizing that Hatfield noticed on the first prototype, so instead of confining themselves to the normal numbered sizing, Hatfield decided the shoes should run from XXS to XL, like T-shirts. Pretty quickly Nike began calling the shoe a “T-shirt for the foot.”
Now Hatfield had a shoe but he didn’t have a name for it. Of course it’s impossible to tell the story of the shoe without saying what it’s name became, but up to this point neither Hatfield, nor Nike, nor anyone else had a name for the shoe that stuck. And they weren’t getting anywhere with it. So instead of delaying the sneaker further, Nike sent out a call to creatives all over the country soliciting ideas. Out of the more than 300 submissions that Nike received, one floated to the surface: “Presto Magic.” Inspired by the magical fit, the idea was that the shoe was such a marvel it might as well be the breathtaking reveal of a magic trick that comes with a magician’s utterance of “Presto!” That name stuck and the shoe was ready for the public.
After four years in development, Nike was not about to just release the sneaker with little fanfare. The rollout was legendary. Thirteen colorways of the sneaker released all at once, and each colorway had its own bespoke animated TV spot featuring designs from Monica Taylor, nicknames courtesy of Dylan Lee, all created with help from Wieden & Kennedy, the advertising agency responsible for almost all of Nike’s messaging through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Twelve of those thirteen colorways had unexpected names that Wieden & Kennedy used as inspiration for the spots: Abdominal Snowman, Brutal Honey, Catfight Shiner, Jack Mackerel, Migraine Fly, Orange Monk, Presto Bill, Rabid Panda, Rogue Kielbasas, Shady Milkman, Trouble at Home, and Unholy Cumulus. The thirteenth colorway remained unnamed (how unlucky!).
The imaginative names with companion advertisements, plus the timing of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, made the sneaker an immediate success. But strangely, as we’ve seen with other Nike silhouettes, the brand pretty quickly cannibalized their own momentum. Nike dove deeply into a different running sneaker program, Nike Free, that was an almost direct off-shoot from the Presto and it took a lot of the energy away from the shoe. Ultimately the Free program dominated Nike’s running sector after the Presto’s initial release and the Presto never grabbed it back—at least not from a running perspective. It would be at least another decade before the Presto would return to the culture from a different angle.
In the meantime, there were some bizarre moves from the Presto.
In 2001, Nike created a handful of pairs for Eric Clapton who wore them on his world tour, with pairs from that tour appearing at auctions in the years since. In 2002, the periodic collaborative trio known as HTM (Hiroshi Fujiwara, Tinker Hatfield, and Mark Parker) reconfigured the Presto into the HTM Air Presto Roam that brings a much more rugged look with a suede upper. Fujiwara got his hands on the Presto again in 2004, collaborating on the sneaker with a duo of designs featuring Hello Kitty who was celebrating their 30th anniversary. Rumors state that there are fewer than a dozen pairs of Hello Kitty Prestos in the wild. In 2008 a pair or two of Prestos surfaced with official branding for the Sex and the City movie that no one really knew what to make sense of, but they exist anyway.
The best moment from this bizarro decade and a half of Presto history was a follow up TV spot for the sneaker - arguably one of the best sneaker commercials of all time: “Le Poulet en Colere” (“The Angry Chicken”). In an attempt to get in on the ground floor of the new French trend of free running, (a.k.a. parkour), Nike convinced one of the sport’s founders, Sebastien Foucan, to be chased around a city by a chicken. The spot is narrated in both French and English, and is an iconic must-watch.
You’ll notice that the Presto on Foucan’s feet are different from the Air Presto that was released in 2000, different from what you see on the shelves today. Even as Nike shifted focus to other lines, the Presto did continue to develop, with Utility versions and Mid silhouettes, but they found limited success and an even more limited audience.
Finally, in 2015 Nike began rolling the OG colorways out again and revisiting some Olympic inspired colorways in the summer of 2016. But it wasn’t until September of 2016 that we saw the full power of the Presto.
As fall hit in 2016, a collaborative trio of Air Prestos dropped with apparel brand Acronym. The German company is known for using highly technical fabrics on forward thinking silhouettes, experimenting with draping and shape. Nike let them go full out on the Presto. They raised the sneaker to a mid, added a pair of zippers at the heel, and completely shifted hyperfuse supports for seemingly aesthetic reasons. The sneakers sold out in a flash and continue to demand over $1000 on the resale market, with the olive colorway fetching the highest prices.
The success of the Acronym pairs buoyed the silhouette through some successful general releases, like a sought after pair of “Greedy” Prestos that were fashioned off Nike’s “What the” convention that blends a dozen or so past colorways onto a single pair in a cacophony of color and cultural references.
But the second major hit for the Presto came in the fall of 2017, almost exactly a year after the Acronym release, when they dropped as a part of Virgil Abloh and Off-White’s “The Ten” collaborative collection that conceptually deconstructs the shoe, bringing the insides out and forcing our expectations out as well.
The Presto suffers to be inside out in Abloh’s creation: the upper that took four years to perfect suddenly features a moccasin style toe. The seamless interior now reveals the layers of foam that make the Spacer mesh work. Everything that Hatfield and his team balanced and developed so carefully over fours years is completely turned on its head in this Off-White iteration. If it weren’t so perfect it might almost be a shame.
The Air Presto was born out of the need to buck conventions to solve problems that no one else was seeing. But the solution that took four years to create solved the problems so well that we forgot the problems ever existed. The fixes the Air Presto offered have been used industry wide thanks to their alluring simplicity to this day. But the questions posed in that Korean design meeting weren’t simple, and neither were the answers. If we take a hard look at the shoe, either in our hands, on our feet, or by what’s revealed in the Off-White collaboration, we’re invited to see that complexity and that answer.
Or we can just lace them up and go for a run.