Off the Beaten Trail: A History of the Nike Air Humara
Off the Beaten Trail: A History of the Nike Air Humara
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date October 26, 2017
If you hadn’t heard of Nike’s Humara silhouette until word started leaking out that Supreme would be using the model for its newest collaboration, that’s perfectly normal. While the Air Humara—and its successor the Terra Humara—are well known among diehard ACG fans, the silhouette had been largely relegated to the proverbial back-burner, making an appearance every few years in a new color that wasn’t always guaranteed to make it to market. If the model were to have been originally released in 2017, the names associated with the shoe would virtually guarantee an instant hit, but, in a testament to how much has changed in 20 years, the shoe almost didn’t make it to the shelves back in 1998.
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Relatively unknown in the late 1990s, Peter Fogg is now considered one of the most important footwear designers to roam the hallways of Nike’s headquarters in Portland, having worked on the brand’s running, ACG, Sportswear, and basketball lines. For someone with such a deep portfolio, Fogg never seriously considered footwear design until he stepped on Nike’s campus. Over the decade and a half after he graduated from school, Fogg worked for seven different companies as a designer and model maker, with his penultimate gig coming with Boeing as an aircraft interior designer. He left that job when he was diagnosed with cancer.
After seven arduous months of treatment, he started looking for a new job. He reached out to a former San Jose State classmate, Dave Schenone, who happened to be Nike’s Design Director for Footwear and was invited to visit Nike’s headquarters to interview for a position as a footwear design. Having never designed a shoe before, Fogg taught himself how to sketch shoes in the lead up to the interview. “I knew they would not be interested in aircraft stuff”, he explained to The Shoe Game in 2011, “so I started drawing shoes and roller blades every night. Somehow I convinced them I could design shoes.”
It’s indicative of Nike’s philosophy that a designer with no experience in footwear ended up with a job as a footwear designer —the brand feels that a lack of concrete footwear design experience is not necessarily a negative, but rather that the designer’s other experiences allow them to think outside the norms of conventional footwear design and push the envelope. That was certainly true for Fogg, a man who moved to the basketball division as he neared retirement but still managed to design one of Nike’s most popular contemporary models—the Hyperdunk—without any previous experience in performance basketball shoe design.
Fogg’s most influential work came during his years with the running division, which saw the birth of silhouettes like the Albis and Sertig. His first design, however, was the Air Humara, which Fogg still considers to be his favourite work to date. To understand the birth of the Humara family, you have to understand Nike’s mentality in the 1990s.
Nike sought to maintain the market share they had claimed thanks to Michael Jordan’s signature sneakers and the introduction of the Air Max family by expanding their product offering; this move included branching into football, baseball and by elevating their product design. By the mid-’90s, Nike’s VP of corporate communications was claiming that they were “not a shoe company”—those inside the company’s Portland headquarters considered Nike to be a design and marketing company rather than a straightforward sneaker manufacturer. That’s important to remember when examining the history of the Humara, because, according to Fogg, the shoe owes a tremendous amount to Nike’s marketing department.
Tasked by marketing with creating a shoe that embodied “technical precision” to gel with the brand’s newfound desire to pursue hyper-functional design, Fogg started as all great footwear designers do: by taking one element of the shoe’s raison d’être and going off on one heck of a tangent before eventually finding the inspiration needed to bring the silhouette to completion. While the shoe draws its name from Mexico’s Tarahumara, a Native American people inhabiting the Sierra Madre Occidental and known for their long-distance marathoners, its design cues come from an unlikely place: a motorcycle’s front wheel.
Taking cues centered around safety and stability (which are necessary attributes of any decent trail running shoe) Fogg found himself examining a motorcycle’s front-wheel and the accompanying disc brake system. “I was inspired by a front disc brake and wheel on a motorcycle,’ explains Fogg, “the fingers on the shoe radiate out from the center of the shoe like spokes on a wheel.” That specific radiating design is more obvious on the Terra Humara, though the Air Humara does feature a webbed cage designed to offer added stability, mimicking a hand holding a foot—or, the spokes on a wheel.
With Mexico’s Tarahumara and their logic-defying feats of endurance in mind, the Air Humara also sought to be a shoe that could clock countless miles while still being of service to those wearing it. The Sierra Madra Occidental features harsh, rocky terrain, that is exceptionally hard on the Tarahumara’s feet. As a result, the Air Humara and the Terra Humara (you can spot the visual difference between the two models in this website retrospective over on Gwarizm) feature a rugged Goatek outsole designed to step on “rocks, roots, leaves and dirt” and a webbed underfoot which “keeps sticks and stones from bruising bones,” not to mention the “non-absorbing materials” used for the shoes’ uppers to keep water at bay. When reading all that, it may surprise you that the Humara was not a member of the ACG line, but rather—according to the late-sneaker sage Gary Warnett—an offshoot of projects centered around Nike’s own obsesssions with trail running in the late-’90s.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the Humara almost never saw the light of day. Fogg recounted to The Shoe Game that “at one point in a meeting [his] developer said he did not like the shoe and felt [they] should stop working on it.” However, Fogg’s marketing manager intervened and helped push the shoe through the sampling phase and into production. Without the Air Humara, there would have been no Terra Humara. Without the Terra Humara, there would have been a considerable void in Nike’s running and trail running category. Without the Terra Humara, there would have been no story in Vogue in 1998, detailing the background of the Humara, lauding it for its detailed design and research. While an article in a 1998 issue of Vogue may not seem like a huge deal, and may be extremely hard to find in 2017 (trust me), it meant a lot to those in Portland at the time. It solidified the brand’s drive to be a design company, and moved them squarely into the realm of fashion. Looking back on it in 2017, Vogue’s spread on the silhouette was prescient, accurately predicting the impact that it could have on fashion if only given the chance.
Like much of the rest of his career, Fogg was simply a bit too ahead of the curve when it came to the Humara. From a quasi-reject in its nascent days, to a feature in Vogue in, to being one of the brand’s heavily-marketed silhouettes in the late 90s, to being tapped as part of Hiroshi Fujiwara, Tinker Hatfield, and Mark Parker’s HTM project in 2002, the Humara has continued to defy expectations. Nike’s NSW division, which Fogg contributed to for many years following his stints with running and ACG, has continuously brought the Humara back in new colours, which has surprised even the designer, himself.
In the years since its inception, the shoe has gained a cult-like following, both among trail runners and sneakerheads alike. The late-Gary Warnett, arguably the world’s leading expert on sneakers and streetwear from the 1990s and 2000s considered Fogg to be one of Nike’s greatest designers, and counted the Humara among his favourite trail silhouettes. The shoe became a barometer of sorts in the 2000s—popular among hardcore Nike heads, and called upon by OG retail outposts like San Francisco’s TRUE in the mid-aughts for a limited edition laser camo “Trumara”, released originally in 2006, and re-released in 2009. While it’s easy to focus on the silhouette’s expectation-defying success, it also dealt with a not-so-great union with the Air Max 90 and Air Max 97. Following Nike’s Frankenstein-like experiment, the silhouette was relegated to Nike’s vault, occasionally resurfacing in a new colourway under the aforementioned NSW banner. That is, until Supreme did as Supreme does, and dug into Nike’s archives to find a lesser-known model—though one which is rich in importance for the brand, sneakerheads and fans of Nike’s general approach to product design.
The Supreme x Nike Air Humara ’17 featured an updated silhouette, and was released in a range of colours undoubtedly inspired by Nike’s ACG offerings in the 1990s and early 2000s, with neon uppers and 3M panelling on the toe box. While Supreme’s choice of the Humara undoubtedly owes quite a bit to the current trend of bulky shoes and hiking-inspired apparel and footwear, the collaboration is also an ode to a sneaker that never quite got the recognition that it deserved.
Peter Fogg was responsible for many of Nike’s greatest hits in the trail and running realm, yet worked in Tinker Hatfield’s shadow. The Air Humara itself existed largely in the shadow of the Terra Humara. Only the most knowledgeable sneakerheads appreciated the shoe, while the masses skipped on it—deeming an extremely durable shoe, equipped for the harshest conditions, to be more than what was needed. Ironically, this neglect reminds us that the shoe was ahead of its time, evolving from barely making it to market to being one of the brand’s most fashion-forward sneakers (a collaboration with a brand like Supreme means that you’ll be seeing this in plenty of street style selections). The Humara is a timeless classic that entices both runners and sneakerheads 20 years later. And 20 years later, you have to imagine a footwear developer is kicking himself for telling Peter Fogg they shouldn’t waste their time on it.