UGLY BUT GOOD
I have an aversion to laceless shoes. I think I tried to wear Pump Furys once and I liked the HTM2 Run Boot to the point that I wore it for a few hours. There was a phase of Huaraches without the strings too, but on the whole, the slip-on shoe — from loafers to Chelsea Boots to Wovens to Aqua Socks — can’t grace my feet. Laceless shoes make me feel itchy. Maybe something happened that I blocked out involving them, but it seems to be an irrational thing. I don’t dislike them — it’s just if they were on my feet I would end up acting out-of-character. I wish I could wear cowboy boots or Air Kukinis.
2000’s Nike Air Kukini is an important shoe because it represents the 2000 era when Spine Magazine let me write for them and jump started the career I have now. I used to read Chris Aylen’s pieces there and a pivotal feature was the Kukini one, which captivated me with a breakdown of colourways of this shoe with a rubberised web instead of laces, but beyond the Coca-Cola and Junya Watanabe collaborations and co.jp collector stuff, I never really got the lowdown on the shoe’s purpose until recently (all the good insight seemed to be in Japanese publications). Vibe pushed that shoe hard in early 2000 too.
After a trip to Portland, the good folk at INVENTORY let me compile a feature that talks about some shoes I’ve loved over the years, (including the Kukini) which you can read right here. It’s sort of a prequel to something else on paper. During the interview stage, I got the opportunity to get some background on this cult classic from the man who designed it — Sean McDowell (who you can also thank for the Air Max TN and Mayfly). He’s a good guy and the role of the sole here reiterates why the recent Free version missed the aesthetic and functional purpose of the shoe.
SEAN McDOWELL ON THE NIKE AIR KUKINI:
“The Kukini started with Picabo Street. She was qualifying for the Winter Games and she was sponsored by a company that had a huge spider web on the side and seeing it on my television screen you could see it from miles away. It was the most bold, incredibly interesting thing, so I wondered if you build a shoe out of a spider web.
I started putting it on the sides of shoes with a web here and there plus a normal lacing system. Then I decided to pull that out and start making the web a stretchy material then connect them and tape the web to the top of the shoe and have the circles coming out from the centre. We tested it and you have a lot of protruding bones at the top of the foot so it becomes really irritating. At the same time, we started to get a lot of briefs on how we’d bring the shoe to market and triathlon was starting to become really popular.
We had just signed the Iron Man triathlete Mark Allen and we thought it would be a good shoe for him. I took the early prototypes and flew down to Texas and met with him, talked through the project. He told me, “Well, I kind of think of myself as an amphibian — I’m in and out of the water.”
I thought that was great and so I went and did all of this research on amphibians and changed the pattern completely, working with the NSRL (Nike Sport Research Lab) to change the pattern completely and map pressure points and we wound up spacing out those bars to distribute that pressure and still support — wrapping around the tooling.
The original had tons of holes in the bottom — tons. One of the big insights from Mark was that he would pour cups of water over his head and it would run down his body and pool in his shoes, so we put holes in there so the water would drain out. Then we had a long discussion about how we would build the midsole for him. He’s running after about six and a half hours of competing, in the water, on the bike and into the run. We looked at his biomechanics and he started getting pretty sloppy — anyone would, right? You’re running a marathon after five hours competing! So he’s tired and he’s starting to break down, so we switched to a polyurethane heel which is a much more stable heel system and we added the Max Air in the heel which is a good long-term cushioning system for him.
We kept Phylon in the forefoot and we made the whole outsole Duralon so you get blown rubber that’s very, very soft for a comfortable sole. On the first versions, the spiderweb came over the outsole and there was a small adjustment system so you could micro adjust the forefoot, the midfoot and the heel. There’s several prototypes there and that was on the first one — the little tabs were flies! They had little wings and little heads and you’d peg them. It became very stiff, very heavy and totally didn’t work and so we stripped the whole thing out, redesigned it and went over the midsole instead.”