Former Footwear Design Directer for Adidas Basketball, and current Studio Noyes designer, Erik Hernandez is next up for our “Last Comes First” series.
Giving us a detailed account of he and his team pushed adidas Basketball last shapes into a totally new direction, the importance of efficient pattern making, how certain designs “cheat” to create a more unique silhouette, and much more, below.
One of the most important things I ever learned about footwear was on the first slide of a “Shoes 101” PowerPoint that was given to me during my first shoe internship at K-Swiss almost 12 year’s ago – “the last comes first.” I’ve stayed true to that statement ever since and it’s been a huge impact on how I go through my creative process.
The evolution of lasts in the athletic industry has been extremely slow, every brand I have worked with goes through the motions of moving millimeters here and shaving millimeters there to make the most subtle of changes. But in the past few years brands like adidas have started to push beyond the standards, swinging from extreme toe spring in shoes like the Ultra Boost, to absolutely no toe spring in archival remixes like the EQT Support ADV. For adidas, a company rooted so deeply in heritage and traditional shoe cobbling, it is a huge departure from their norm to make these kinds of moves, but it seems to be working by giving consumers provoking new silhouettes at a time where everything was starting to feel homogeneous.
During my stint with adidas Basketball, our design team pushed to create a new last for the FW16 season, as the lasts being used in the category were all based on a last shape that was over 25 years old. At the time it was required that the request be processed, tested, and approved through an 18 month timeline, which would have put us at least year behind our schedule even if everything went perfectly. Around that time, the Ultra Boost has just ignited the running industry and elevated beyond performance footwear and into a cultural phenom.
Our team decided to propose designing our FW16 line around the Ultra Boost’s last, a proposal that freaked out every developer, engineer, and tester that we brought our request to. But we felt that the last was perfect for how basketball was evolving. The running-influenced high toe spring promoted playing on your toes, aligning with the run and gun offenses that were dominating the NBA. The flat and wide forefoot offered better lateral stability and room for a player’s foot to splay during landing after jumping, while also resolving a long-standing issue of adidas Basketball shoes having roomy toe boxes that played sloppily. The low in-step and long collar of the Ultra Boost last was perfect for sock-like constructions and getting the shoe tighter to the foot, helping allow us to push the trend of low top basketball silhouettes while maintaining ankle stability and security. After we finally received (hesitant) sign-off to use the last, it only took a couple wear tests to realize that the Ultra Boost last was just as good for basketball as it was for running, if not better. And it looked damn good at the same time. The Crazy Explosive was the first adidas Basketball shoe to be made on that last, followed by the Harden Vol 1 and the Dame 3. All of those shoes have helped adidas Basketball gain back momentum and have been praised for their elite performance and unique on-court silhouettes. Since that FW 16 season, nearly all Basketball models have transitioned onto an iteration of that last.
Even though the last will always make a huge impact on the way a shoe looks and feels, designers have always taken liberties to “cheat” or “hack” the last to make more striking and somewhat impossible silhouettes if you depended solely on the last. If the last comes first, smart pattern making comes second. On a shoe like the Ultra Boost, the knit pattern is actually undersized by nearly two full sizes in order to give that taught, extreme toe shape that makes it look like it’s always in motion. The distinct triangular shape of Pharrell’s NMD Human Race is accomplished by removing the internal toe reinforcement and typical vamp pattern splits in order to make the upper material ramp directly from the rubber toe tap straight towards the back heel rather than follow the top curve of the last. On the adidas Rick Owens Runner silhouettes, oversized foam packages were used to form extreme collar shapes and add volume to the silhouette. adidas has been using these tricks very well to push silhouettes on both performance and lifestyle shoes recently, but this can also lead to a shoe just not fitting well – with a lot of these examples causing things like toe pressure, toe x-ray, heel slip, lace pressure, etc – all pet peeves of mine when it means putting aesthetics above good fit and function.
One of my favorite executions of cheating the last is the Nike Haurache; its combination of a collapsed heel pocket and the TPU heel strap create one of the most drastic silhouettes in athletic footwear that’s built for purpose. The heel gets its sucked in aesthetic by removing a traditional heel counter and undersizing the neoprene panels, which stretch to cup your heel once you slip your foot in. And the TPU strap that almost floats without a foot in the shoe becomes a supportive lockout point once your foot slides in the shoe. It’s an amazing example of how a shoe can have unique off- and on-foot silhouettes just through a smart combination of construction, materials, and last shape.
My favorite last (and shoe) will probably always be what was the base for the original Nike Free from 2004. That last and design brought the concept of ergonomic shape and natural motion to the masses, and made that broad, sprawling, round, oblong forefoot a mainstay for the footwear industry. Nike has always played with this concept – be it through the Sock Racer, Footscape, or Presto, among many others – but the Free did it in such an effortless manner. And even though ergonomic lasts have always been around as comfort and orthopedic footwear options, the Free made that weird, curved, wide foot shape into an acceptable centerpiece of footwear culture.
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