After sitting down with Leo Chang and Kevin Durant, Nike Sportswear is giving us another exclusive sit down, this time with the designer of the Air Max 95 Ultra Jacquard, Ben Yun. Do check out this exclusive interview and learn more about the shoe and the man behind the updated aesthetic.
Who are you and what do you do at Nike?
My name is Ben Yun. I’m a senior designer for Nike Sportswear running footwear.
How long have you been with Nike?
I have been with Nike for about 19 years now.
What was it about Nike that made you want to work here?
Before I came to Nike I was working with another footwear company. After being there a few years I came across two Nike shoes that really caught my attention, the Air Rift and the Air Max Squared. I was really inspired by their design but it wasn’t until the Air Max 95 released that I knew I needed to come to Nike. To me the Air Max 95 totally changed the industry. My first thought when I saw it was “Whoa, this isn’t a normal shoe design for a sport shoe. I want to come to Nike.” Not too long after that, I was here.
Was there anything specific about the Air Max 95 that elicited such a strong response?
When I first saw the shoe I wasn’t totally sure what was going on until I could go to the store and hold it. I wanted to know what the designer was thinking, and understand his process which I eventually got to do. I learned how to create shoes from a pattern engineer, a very old-school type of shoemaking. They way Sergio broke all the traditional rules amazed me and inspired me to constantly try and challenge convention.
Is the Air Max 95 Ultra Jacquard the first time you’ve worked on the Air Max 95 franchise?
No, I have created a few different iterations of the 95 before. Most of those involved applying new innovations and keeping with the iconic design of the original, like the Air Max 95 Engineered Mesh. The Air Max 95 Ultra Jacquard is the one that really pushes the envelope.
What makes what you’ve created for the 20th anniversary of the Air Max 95 different from the models you’ve previously worked on?
All of the previous models were created to intentionally not stray too far from the original design language. All we wanted to do was alter the method of make so the shoe is a bit lighter and more flexible. The Ultra Jacquard really ups the ante of how we upgrade our icons by focusing on material, weight, flexibility and comfort. I knew there was a lot of history attached to the 95 and that a lot of people love that style. What I didn’t want to do was change it too much or take it too far from the original. The question was how much is too much. I had already worked on the Air Max 1 Ultra and Air Max 90 Ultra so I brought that mentality to the new project.
You mentioned speaking with Sergio Lozano, the designer of the original Air Max 95, how did he describe his original inspiration?
We never went very deep on what inspired him to create the original but we did talk about a few aspects of its design. I remember discussing his color choices and how he used color to do something that had never been done before. Running shoes never used black midsoles before the Air Max 95. I think I also told him the shoe reminded me of an insect because the TPU shank on the outsole resembled an insect’s abdomen. It was something he had never noticed but still appreciated.
After speaking with Sergio how did you approach designing what was to become the Air Max 95 Ultra Jacquard?
I started by talking to my team. We discussed what we were trying to achieve at the end of the day. We knew we were attempting to re-design a very successful shoe and trying to make it better in some way, but we needed to figure out exactly how to do that. We ended up focusing on increasing the flexibility and weight of the shoe to make it something that could be worn all day long. That became our north star.
The first step was to figure out how to remove excess weight and to do that I looked at what could and couldn’t be changed. Obviously, the Air-Sole units had to remain the same because that is the essential part of the entire shoe. What we could alter is the midsole that wrapped the Air-Soles. In 1995 Polyurethane was the material used in most midsoles, we updated that to injected Phylon that is much lighter.
The upper was a tad trickier to figure out. I remember thinking about Sergio’s original design and how he would talk about the muscles, the skin, and the ribcage as design inspiration and thought “what would happen if I took the skin off the human body, what would I see?” The answer is muscles, but not just one. I did some research and looked at a few anatomical drawings of the human body and that’s where I found my inspiration for the upper. I wanted to create a print based off the various muscle fibers I saw in those drawings but from a different perspective. I wanted to depict what one might see if they were inside of a muscle.
On the final product I used three colors to represent different muscle fibers interlaced with each other. If you look closely you will see black, green, and black/green lines that represent those fibers. I chose 3 colors as a nod to the original gradient. In the end I managed to deliver a similar anatomy story without using multiple layers of material, it was actually just a single layer.
Next, we added Nike Mag Wire to take the place of the molding. If the Jacquard were the muscle fibers I wanted to continue to use the inside-out perspective and asked myself what would be the next thing you see. It wouldn’t be the ribs, it would be the fascia or ligaments, which are both soft tissue. The mag wire is dynamic and moves with the foot as it secures it inside the shoe. You could say they are perfect match.
At this point we had already reduced a good amount of weight and added a great deal of flexibility. We were reluctant to start adding overlays that would push us in the wrong direction but we knew the vamp was a important characteristic that couldn’t be overlooked. We chose to utilize the translucent films. We had worked so hard developing the one-piece upper so I wanted to make sure it could be seen. The film also takes cues from the original, which used dark colors to mask dirt, as a form of protection from wear.
Is the process for manipulating Polyurethane and injected Phylon different?
To use PU(Polyurethane) you put your Air-Soles into a mold and pour the PU liquid into it. The PU foam will take shape around the Air-Soles and create the midsole. The process of using injected Phylon is much more precise. We can inject it to one side of the Air-Sole and leave out all the excess material that isn’t really needed. From there you can put the Air-Sole directly on the outsole, drastically reducing weight.
The original Air Max 95 was known for not featuring the Nike Swoosh. Was there any pressure to make the Swoosh more visible than it was then?
No. We didn’t get any pressure to change that aspect at all. In fact we wanted to keep it that way. It’s the only detail that’s OG about the Ultra Jacquard, that and the tongue design with the oval logo. We had already changed so much that we wanted the small details to really be recognizable. Actually we did make one small change to the tongue. The way the jacquard uppers are made there are four shoes woven at once, and the pattern is then cut out of these bigger sheets. We actually used some of the leftover fabric to build the tongue.
The neon green/grey/black/white colorway is very iconic. Did you ever think about changing the colors?
The first color I thought about was that neon green colorway. I often think of it as the color that brought me to Nike. I didn’t even think about the white really. The contrast between the neon and the black is so strong it is all I wanted to use.
The Nike Air Max 95 Ultra Jacquard is still available at Sole Academy.