The knitted upper is the next wave in sneaker innovation. To some it’s a matter of who is going to execute the idea best. adidas fans say Primeknit. Nike fans say Flyknit. Others just want to figure out who is responsible for dreaming up the idea. Looks like this argument needs to be sorted out.
We talked with James Carnes, Head of Design for Sport Performance at adidas, about the origin of the Primeknit, how it was developed, how the brand felt about Nike’s rollout of Flyknit, and what adidas says to the claim that they hopped on the knitted bandwagon instead of driving it.
CounterKicks: What was the most difficult aspect in creating the technology and manufacturing process behind adidas Primeknit?
James Carnes: The first difficulty was working with the suppliers who traditionally make things like office furniture and explaining the concept to them. It took a while to get their heads around it and have them see what we saw. Eventually though, they brought some of the most interesting insights. After four years of work, I would say that the biggest challenge was keeping our internal standards of performance with such a new manufacturing technique. We don’t put performance products on the market that won’t enable an athlete to be better. This commitment shapes the adidas ethos, and in this case the way it’s done is truly superior. You can see up close, for example, that by knitting fused yarn in designated areas, we can fine-tune the exact amount of flexibility, comfort, and support needed in every part of the shoe. No lining or reinforcements are necessary as the strength comes from the yarn combinations, digitally knitted in distinct grid patterns to provide ventilation, stretch, and shape.
CK: Knit process seems to give something for everyone: new manufacturing process, performance benefits, sustainability in both environment and economic sense, increased profit margins, etc. What do you see as the single most important benefit Primeknit provides to adidas or the industry at large?
Carnes: This unique seamless engineering ensures precision construction and eliminates additional materials thereby producing less waste, but to answer your question — I think it’s all of the things you mention combined that will create a new future for innovative performance footwear. This project proved for us that sustainability and high performance can create a new synergy — not compromise each other. We will continue to invest in this.
CK: Did Nike’s Flyknit announcement in February place any added pressure or change Primeknit’s release timetable within adidas?
Carnes: We always planned to celebrate this during the Olympic Games. The World Cup and the Olympics are the biggest platforms for us to launch new product innovation.
CK: What was the internal company or team feelings when you saw Nike unveil a knitted manufacturing technique first back in February when adidas had been working on their own knit technique for a number of years too?
Carnes: We would not have changed our approach.
CK: What were the other names offered for the knit concept before adidas decided on “Primeknit”?
Carnes: There were some other cool names that suggested the potential of what this new process will offer. My favorite was “infiknit” because knitting has such potential that we don’t see an end to the possibilities of knitting a single upper all at once — and eventually a single, complete shoe. Primeknit refers to the idea of reduction. It comes from Prime numbers as they can’t be divided any further, so in that sense they are pure and singular with their own character — like the shoe.
CK: What do you say to people who’ve seen the recent adidas Primeknit unveiling and have equated it to essentially a “copy” of Nike’s Flyknit? It’s said Primeknit has been in development for four years now, but how do you quell the large general public sentiment right now that Primeknit looks like a me-too product or worse? Are there documents or technical drawings or otherwise that can date Primeknit has been in development for multiple years now which could easily settle the public’s thinking on the subject?
Carnes: There are a couple of things to take into consideration. The first is just a pragmatic realization that it would have been impossible to copy this process in a matter of months. We have four years of documentation in the form of prototypes, tech drawings, samples, etc. Second, I’d like to separate media timing from the real value of the concept. Timing is important, but not our only priority. We’re concerned with making the world a better place through sport, and this gets us a step closer.
Simply stated, it’s responsible to be looking into alternative ways to construct shoes. It’s always been the case that great ideas break to the surface at the same time because we live in an interconnected world with environmental, economic and societal pressures. If, as a company, you are paying attention and at the top of your game, you are always searching for the next breakthrough discovery to meet these needs. It took us four years to get here, and you’ll see us continue to pioneer innovative processes like this. I hope people enjoy what I think is a next stage in performance footwear and a new era in sneaker culture.
CK: Do you think “game changer” is an appropriate term for the footwear industry’s new knit manufacturing?
Carnes: For sure! — but knit technology is just the start. This knit technology is going to be one of the future ways to make high performance footwear, but more than anything it’s a good step toward high performance innovation and sustainability coexisting.