Why Nike Designed A Disposable Sneaker
Reduce, reuse, recycle.
If you think you’re pressed for time right now, spare a thought for the mayfly. The dolania americana is a particularly short-lived insect species in which adults emerge, mate and die in the space of half an hour. It might not seem immediately obvious how this slightly tragic form of existence connects to an age-old legacy at Nike, but bear with us.
Anybody visiting Nike’s archives in Beaverton, Oregon, might find themselves too dazzled by all the technology on show to spot the truly priceless artifacts that the brand was built on — rough-hewn, DIY carved running shoes and spikes altered by company co-founder, legendary track coach, jogging pioneer and decorated combat hero Mr Bill Bowerman. Mr Bowerman was a man at war with weight on race day — he saw drag with every excess gram, and with it lost seconds that cost victory. He had a vision: of a running shoe that was just light enough to last from the starting pistol to a few metres past the finishing line. Nothing less and nothing more.
Mr Bowerman passed away on Christmas Eve 1999, but his obsessive mindset formed design mantras for what would follow. In the early 2000s, a team of running footwear veterans including Messrs Sean McDowell (the designer responsible for the Euro street-level staple that is the Air Max TN), Jerry Crowley, Kevin Paulk and Tony Bignell took up Mr Bowerman’s challenge and began experimenting with a running shoe design that could last for 100km (ie, just enough to last an entire marathon and its pre-event training before self-destruction beckoned.)
Early experiments in an ultra light upper utilised the hard-to-tear material Tyvek, most commonly used in FedEx envelopes. It was effective, but hardly breathable — not an ideal quality in a performance athletic design. That was resolved with a different ripstop fabric, bolstered with perforated synthetic suede overlays for an aerodynamic, minimal structure.
The original 2003 Nike Mayfly. Photograph courtesy of Nike
For a sole, standard foams like Nike’s proprietary Phylon (which was originally inspired by the contents of a soft toy) were made to last 500 or 600 miles. That was unnecessary for this short-term intent. Expanding the air pockets in the Phylon foam stretched it membrane thin, while 10 distinctive perforations in the outsole increased airflow and decreased the weight a little more. The end result – named the Mayfly, for its intentionally short lifespan – was something three times lighter than a conventional running shoe, weighing in at a relatively featherweight 135g. (To put it into perspective, the super-light Nike Flyknit Racer is 160g. In 2003, a standard running shoe would have been three times heavier.)
After being road tested by the likes of Ms Paula Radcliffe, the Mayfly’s initial release was carefully controlled. A key launch make-up was a striking yellow, with patterning inspired by the doomed insect’s wings, packaged in an unusual sloped box and accompanied by a bag to return the battered pair for recycling. For all the marathon talk during it’s development, it was sold in as footwear for a three to five kilometre run when it debuted in 2003.
Sadly, for anyone actually hoping to run in a Mayfly, hype and burgeoning internet collector culture led the race. Fashion’s ephemeral nature paralleled the beautifully designed planned obsolescence it offered and with only 2,000 pairs originally allocated for Europe, shoe connoisseurs quietly descended on specialist running stores to pick up low-priced pairs to pose in — thus minimising wear and tear — or horde. Still, for those who actually put in the miles, feedback regarding the ride was positive.
Mr Bill Bowerman had a vision: a running shoe that was just light enough to last from the starting pistol to the finishing line. Nothing less and nothing more
Special editions were created — Union Jack patterns, collaborations with Japanese toy manufacturer MediCom and an unreleased variation for Bono’s Project Red. For a 2007 reissue, it was pitched as a sprinting shoe. Then it was gone. The Dragonfly, a loose sequel of sorts, hit shelves around 2005 before disappearing, too.
However, unlike the fate that befell its namesake, there was a fairytale ending for Mr McDowell and his team’s creation. In 2012, the lifestyle market’s appetite for lightweight running shoes led to a cautious reissue of the Mayfly for Nike Sport. Retired from running, the Mayfly NSW applied incorporated premium leather on the upper and lining, with the sole restored to the more resilient lightweight Phylon foam formula. That release was barely acknowledged, but 2013’s Mayfly Woven was the right shoe for the moment — a suede remake of the appealing form that sheer function had produced a decade earlier, built on that newly amended sole unit.
The weave that runs the length of the shoe echoes that original commitment to ventilation, but it nods to 2000’s Air Woven, a collision of avant-garde and traditionalism that helped define the modern sneaker market on its debut. Nike has been knowingly careful with allocations of the Mayfly Woven – though we’re happy to announce we have a limited number available on MR PORTER from today – and it’s a model that attracts a devoted audience. Its provenance might be performance-led, but this iteration of the silhouette has far outweighed the original shoe, both figuratively and literally. In short, the sneaker that was created for a fleeting moment, but has ultimately achieved immortality.