Nike Free Hyperfeel – A Genealogy

Writer Gary Warnett
Photography Aaron Last and Dave Potes

The Art + Science of Feeling by Emrah Gonulkirmaz
Nike Free Hyperfeel

Released today, the Nike Free Hyperfeel Run and Nike Free Hyperfeel Run Trail evolve an emphasis on natural motion, light weight and speed. Merging Nike Free and Lunar innovations, what looks completely contemporary actually stretches far back to the brand's early days.

To provide some historical context on Free Hyperfeel's inspirations, here's a genealogy of sorts that looks at early experiments in sock-like fits, trail running, and concept car style experiments in protection, minimalism and performance.

Looking back over four decades, the intent has always been there – under Nike's athlete serving mission statement – but new breakthroughs in athletic and scientific insights, construction and cushioning have created new notions of what the running shoe can do.

Boston '73, 1972

Originally a late 1960s Onitsuka Tiger shoe called the Obiri, the Blue Ribbon Sports deal meant that a Japanese-made Nike Obiri – that applied a Swoosh to a similar design – dropped in the early 1970s. This sock-like runner, which was available in nylon or suede, was worn by Jon Anderson in his Boston Marathon victory, which resulted in a name change to the Boston '73. The Waffle Training from 1974 was this upper on a Waffle sole, while the New Boston from 1977 was an upgrade on a design that had spent half a decade as a performance favourite for Nike.

Pre Montreal, 1973

The Nike Pre Montreal spike design is significant for a number of reasons – it was custom-made for Steve Prefontaine in his quest to conquer the distance running events at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, but it's also a superior example of the relationship between Pre's coach, Bill Bowerman and the athlete as both a designer and mentor. The Pre Montreal's forefoot was seamless to maximize comfort and performance in line with Pre's feedback, while that patriotic colour block was incredibly distinctive too.

Sadly, Pre's passing in a 1975 road accident meant that potential was never realized. The innovations that were pioneered here live on in contemporary one-piece constructions, while the 2012 release of the Nike Sportswear Pre Montreal Racer paid tribute to this creation by turning it into a road flat but retaining the key features.

The Sting, 1976

Taking the Pre Montreal's seamless box toe concept and translating it to a more conventional running concept, the Nike Sting preempted the bold neon palettes of shoes from the decade that followed with its green nylon rear and orange suede forefoot. D-ring speed lacing and the thin road racing sole with a gum outsole completed a design that was a reflection of its time, with Nike engaged in a constant race to dominate the market against more established rival brands as well as a hint of what was to come.

Bermuda, 1979

The Nike Bermuda's innovations are both overt and subtle – now, we take the viable width lacing for granted, but in 1979, it was a breakthrough for footwear fastening in the running shoe realm. However, what really stands out in the Bermuda is that lightweight nylon mesh toe that's sock-like in its execution for an eccentric look that was incredibly comfortable. Nike's design division were constantly trying to find ways to use more mesh for lightweight breathability during this period. Nike Sportswear's Nike Air Berwuda remix of the Bermuda is proof that this shoe's look remains relevant.

Escape, 1984

In the development of shoes like the Free Hyperfeel Trail, several shoes deserve mention – the classic Nike LDV (Long Distance on the Vector last) from 1978 was worn by John Roskelley and Rick Ridgeway at base camp during their historic K2 climb that inspired Nike to create hiker/sneaker crossovers like the Lava Dome in the early 1980s and ultimately birthed ACG in 1989. The Nike Escape, however, was a trail running breakthrough. Designed by Mark Parker (now the Nike, Inc. CEO), the breathable, tear and water resistant nylon, TPU heel counter, dual-density midsole and wrapped, reinforced take on the Waffle outsole offered extra traction and protection for a more rugged mode of athletic performance.

Sock Racer, 1985

An early Nike experiment in a barefoot model, the laceless, comfortable feel of the Sock Racer made it a running tight for the foot. Still a curious looking shoe 28 years after its release, this model was a triathlon and distance running favourite, worn by Ironman legend Mark Allen and marathon and 10,000 meter champion Ingrid Kristiansen. That flagship black and yellow makeup was as offbeat as the design itself, while the Sock Trainer was released around the same time as the Racer to increase the Sock concept's versatility. Somehow, this was the sum total of its predecessors but something completely different at the same time. The concept of this running shoe was also echoed in notably eccentric favourites like 1989's Aqua Sock – which took it to water and became a bestseller – and the Air Moc, a base camp cult classic from 1994.

Air Flow, 1989

The running tight concept of the Sock Racer was made more literal in the Nike Air Flow, as worn by triathlon champion Mark Allen (six-time Ironman winner) and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Bruce Kilgore's vision of the running shoe's future included a stretch neoprene-style toe box but a more conventional rear.

This eccentric model's looks make them tough going for anyone who doesn't want to see their toes poking from a shoe, but it was instrumental in ushering in a Lycra-like fit to feet during the 1990s, as elasticated fabric became a frequent solution to achieving the comfort required to go the distance. For those wondering about the connection between both models, the Swoosh-free Nike Air Current was the sibling of the Flow.

Air Huarache, 1991

Named after the Mexican sandal, the Nike Air Huarache was an unconventional shoe that became a bestseller. Tinker Hatfield's bizarre neoprene and leather creation was an evolution of 1980s experiments in stretchy, sock-like performance, but the lack of Swoosh and trademark colour schemes the Huarache dropped in created a language of their very own.

This was a shoe that was canceled before its release due to sale concerns, but some risk taking meant that designer Tinker Hatfield's masterpiece made production. Runners and the general public embraced the idea of this particularly stylish hug for the foot and the Nike Huarache line was born, with soccer, tennis and basketball getting their own stretch fit releases. Look at running shoes pre and post Huarache for a greater understanding of how this release changed how sports footwear was designed.

Air Terra ACG, 1991

The Nike Terra ACG was another pioneering off-road running shoe that evolved the Escape concept with a raised beveled sole, air cushioning, the mysterious forefoot deflector shield and a lightweight feel. Part of the wave of performance pieces that would take All Conditions Gear beyond its weightier, boot-like origins, the Terra ACG's wilfully odd colourway – with the most famous variant's purple and black accentuated by orange and a sole that came pre-speckled before it ever met a puddle – made it memorable.

Air Mowabb, 1991

This is a model that could have been the ACG Huarache, but delivered something very different. Tinker Hatfield's Nike Air Mowabb design was named after the city of Moab and was made for running and mountain biking in harsh conditions. Made mid-cut by the sock-like neoprene collar that defined its fit, gave it ankle support and kept detritus out of the shoe during any of its intended activities, the Mowabb was a curious looking shoe – those salmon-inspired sole speckles and a sand, orange and purple colourway gave it extra identity and have been heavily homaged over the last decade on models from other brands as well as other Nike shoes. A strong sequel followed, but the original remains iconic.

Air Rift, 1994

The Nike Air Rift's crossover appeal was an example of a design going so far into pure performance that it looked avant-garde enough to be a hit with a fashion audience too. That was never the intent though – Kip Buck, an ultra-marathon runner and model maker at Nike had an idea for a shoe that could reflect the barefoot-style that Kenyan distance runners excelled in and working alongside Tinker Hatfield, this curious split-toed stretch sandal took shape. Named after the Rift Valley and best remembered in its Kenyan colourway, the shoe quickly became popular but hard to find due to both sporting demand and fashion retailers buying up stock from specialist stores and applying some severe markups.

Zoom Haven, 1999

Zoom Air's reactive, slimline nature made it the ultimate ingredient for running shoes when it debuted in that category during the late 1990s. Richard Clarke's Nike Zoom Haven design echoes in the latest Nike Running designs, with a dynamic strap system that surrounded and cradled the foot as part of this cocoon-like innovation. Low to the ground, synthetic and ultra technical, a decade on, this concept car of a shoe seemed to make more sense. While it might not have been a bestseller, other territories took note and the Zoom Haven was available in some restrained Junya Watanabe makeups to see in a new millennium.

Air Kukini, 2000

Created with insight from Mark Allen, the triathlete who ran in Air Flows and Sock Racers, designer Sean McDowell's laceless, bizarre and bold Nike Air Kukini design was made for some of the toughest races on earth. Inspired by alpine ski racer Picabo Street's outfit and sponsor's spider logo, a rubberized lattice was applied instead of laces, for a webbed, bio mechanical look that held the foot in place. Early prototypes included fly themed fastenings in the outsole to make the web concept more literal and a ventilated sole to release water when the to athlete pours cups on their head to cool off. Popular in Japan, the Air Kukini was available in a Cherry Coca-Cola variant as a reward to those guzzling down the sweet stuff.

Air Woven, 2000

The Nike Air Woven was significant for its traditional method of construction that Mike Aveni and the shoe's design team utilized (handmade on the initial runs). Without ads or expensive marketing, the Nike Air Woven caused queues and fetched hefty resell prices before eBay culture on shoes was cemented. Nike Probe (the proto Tier Zero) accounts were frugally scattered globally, birthing the current boutique approach to retail and the HTM project that Hiroshi Fujiwara, Tinker Hatfield and Mark Parker created was a new way of partnering on product design and distribution. 

Air Presto, 2000

The Presto, with Richard Clarke on lead design, represented a new approach from Nike – a sock-like fit with reinforcement only where it mattered, an emphasis on movement and the T-shirt style XXXS-XXXL sizing rather than the more traditional numbers. Part of the Nike Alpha Project collection introduced in the late 1990s as a place of pure creativity, the Presto might have been the most accessible release from the range. 

Commercial and collector appeal was guaranteed and while spin-offs like the Presto Cage, Presto Clip, Presto Faze (a successor to the Nike Air Kukini) and Presto Tent never made as much noise as the original, elements of those shoes are still present in contemporary releases. Dropping in a variety of materials and colours, the Presto was also an early inclusion in the Nike iD program. After a few barren years of iconic, innovative shoes to follow up a slew of post-millennial cult favourites, a new classic emerged. 

Mayfly, 2003

You can’t gauge what’s too minimal until you’ve created the ultimate one-race shoe and the Nike Mayfly was Bill Bowerman’s finish-line-then-fall-apart vision realized. Named after the unfortunate insect that lives, breeds and then dies in a single day, this shoe was made to cover 100km, meaning it could have a sole and upper that was lighter than anything that had gone before. 

Early prototypes were created by Sean McDowell and his team using materials as offbeat as Tyvek mailing envelopes, but a thin, tent-like ripstop nylon was the final choice and the key component to the shoe that ended up on Paula Radcliffe’s feet. Almost a decade later, the look of the Mayfly was resurrected by Nike Sportswear and merged with the Nike Woven construction concept in premium fabrics that were made for more mileage in everyday wear. While at a performance level, the Mayfly insights were useful in developing the 100 gram Zoom Victory Spike for the 2008 Olympics.

Free 5.0, 2004

When track coach Vin Lananna told Nike designers that he was sure barefoot running created stronger feet he was working on a hunch. When the team took it back to both the Nike Sport Research Lab and the Innovation Kitchen after commissioning the first studies on the topic the hunch became science. Running barefoot in a city would be suicide though. Cutting away at foam with a craft knife, designer Tobie Hatfield realized that the midsole could be the outsole too and move with the foot to work those muscles. Nike Free was born. Created as a training shoe, 5.0 was pitched halfway between a barefoot and a conventional running shoe. Over time, this shoe's siping and flexible form became a new norm across categories.

Free Trail, 2005

The Nike Free Trail was part of a collection of spinoff designs created to explore Nike Free's potential beyond the street or gym. Converting off-road surfaces into barefoot benefits isn't an easy task – how do you protect but liberate? By applying extra traction where it matters and toughening up the materials, but applying ventilated cutaways that improved comfort and assisted movement, the Free Trail took the sock concept to the hills, just as the Mowabb did 14 years before. That sliced, siped sole wasn't ideal in muddy conditions, but the Free Trail was an aesthetically pleasing, mostly functional departure from level ground.

Zoom Moire+, 2006

The union of Nike and Apple for the iPod compatible Nike+ system brought a sock-like fit to the forefront again with the Zoom Moire+ . In a fast-moving market starved of modern classics, it filled a gap. Tech-led but miles from the bulky experiments of the past that linked a home computer to a shoe, Nike+ would go on to be integral to the brand's digital strategy, while the 3M underlays and Free upper style fit of the Moire+ was comfortable and functional with a sole akin to 2004's underrated Sock Dart.

Two Tier Zero editions caused a stir in boutique stores, showing that there was a market in the collector culture beyond Dunks, Air Force One and Air Max, with speckled soles that harked back to the Mowabb and Terra ACG's debuts 15 years prior. Given the speed that technology moves at, seven years on, the Moire+ should look antiquated, but that commitment to minimalism and comfort has let it age with dignity.

Free 3.0, 2007

At what point does an obsession with less compromise protection? On its release, the Nike Free 3.0 seemed to be as far down as a shoe could go in grams or feel without losing comfort or function. On the Free scale 3.0 falls north of the popular midway point, making this the closest Nike shoe to a bare foot when it released, with the sense of feeling amplified but just enough of everything to make it an everyday wear. A featherweight feel, assisted by a lightweight mesh brought running spike minimalism to a training shoe.

LunaRacer+, 2008 

With the 2008 Olympics in Beijing offering a new market and global stage to showcase new innovations, the Nike LunaRacer was part of a running collection that debuted Flywire and Lunar foam. Flywire's bridge-inspired support network could hold the foot without excess ounces, while Lunar foam was a new approach to lightweight cushioning.

A master class in function creating a killer form, the purity of this flyweight take on the racing shoe was complemented by the colour options those Lunar soles offered, amplifying them as a feature (something that Nike had done with the Duellist and Mariah PR in the early 1990s). The LunaRacer's legacy is an oft-imitated new aesthetic for running shoes and ushered in a slew of new Nike Running releases with crossover appeal after years of retro obsession.

Flyknit Racer, 2012

When the Nike Flyknit Racer was introduced alongside the rest of the line, it seemed to be embraced as soon as it hit Twitter timelines and Instagram feeds. The knitted upper of this shoe is a form-fitting, waste-free, ultra light application developed by Ben Shaffer that would almost certainly pass Bill Bowerman's legendary scale test. Debuting the cradle-like support of dynamic Flywire, this shoe pushed design ahead again.

From a low-key marathon premier in an HTM form (itself, a very different approach to top tier collaborations) to the hard to avoid Volt colourway of Nike Flyknit Racers and Trainers during the London Olympics, and far too many makeups to keep track of, the Flyknit craze was born with this shoe. The Flyknit Racer might not be the easiest everyday wear for all foot types (as is the case with so many racing releases), but as Flyknit's purest expression, it's the one. For a new shoe to instigate queues in the current climate was almost unheard of, but Nike did it with this design.


Browsing the Department of Nike Archives (DNA), the lineage that leads from some of their earliest running experiments is a path that arrives at Nike Free Hyperfeel Run and Nike Free Hyperfeel Run Trail. There's been common goals throughout, but in terms of tools, each decade has its explosion of innovation that ushers in completely new solutions. The emphasis on feel is the by-product of all the shoes listed here (consider this a cross section), but the notion of reinventing nature is something very different. These Free Hyperfeel models are a set of concept cars with ideas and an aesthetic that's destined to trickle down into more than just the brand's running division – sensory engagement in footwear is just the start of bigger and wider ranging developments.