The story begins with a winged champion named Nike. She was known to be victorious, quick on her feet, and contained strength unrecognizable by man. Her excellent attributes landed her a position at the right hand of Zeus during the war against the Titans. Nike’s resilience and determination made her recognizable throughout her time, eventually naming her a Goddess. As times started to progress, the name Nike became synonymous with another creation. The adoption of the name wasn’t given to a singular individual, instead, the name was given to a checkmark and a pair of shoes that soon evolved into a historic story of its own.
This creation ended up becoming a multinational brand, paving the way in footwear technology and design. During the year 1964, two men set forth on a sneaker journey leading them to triumph. Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight joined forces to create shoes that were made by athletes for athletes. The small idea of creating a better running shoe slowly evolved into a movement and lifestyle. What started off as Blue Ribbon Sports transformed into the sneaker and sportswear powerhouse known today as Nike.
No matter where you are in this world, Nike’s name resonates with you, creating a sensation of nostalgia, success, sportsmanship, and overall victory. This January, Nike will be turning 56 years since its inception, a true milestone along the brand’s journey. The historic footwear brand has developed some of the most iconic shoes and technology to date ranging from sportswear, lifestyle, and high fashion. As the company progresses forward, we would like to commemorate its upbringing and the evolution of the iconic Swoosh.
Bill Bowerman Coaching / Nike News
THE BEGINNING: BLUE RIBBON SPORTS
Born in Portland, Oregon, Phil Knight grew up in a household where hard work was held upon a pedal stool. Knight’s father worked at the Oregon Journal, where he denied his son’s work and forced him to venture onto his own path. This angst made him work for the competing newspaper, the Oregonian. With his journalism background, it’s no surprise that he also ventured into reporting while he was attending the University of Oregon. His contribution to the Oregon Daily Emerald was notable for his informative sports updates and reports. It came naturally to Knight as he also had a passion for sports, track and field to be exact. Coinciding his journalism journey, he also participated within the University’s track team.
Over time, Phil Knight won varsity letters upon his performance and placed his personal best running time, one mile in four minutes and thirteen seconds. His accomplishments made him good at the sport but his coach, Bill Bowerman, made him memorable.
Bill Bowerman's passion for running began in 1948 when he was named the head track coach of his alma mater, the University of Oregon. After settling into his coaching position, he then visited New Zealand in 1962 and became more affluent in the art of running. He wrote manuals and books promoting the beneficial attributes of the sport. Bowerman always had a fascination with running, which also led to its accessories: shoes. Bowerman would create and develop improved soles in hopes of adding a more pleasant running experience as well as speed. He just so happened to work at a place that allowed him to test his prototypes. As he was coaching, he met Phil Knight and understood his potential, and asked him to test his homemade shoes. The outcome was fantastic, but the main question is brought to reality: how can we provide shoes like this to everyone else?
During Knight’s final entrepreneurship class, he wrote a paper discussing the evolution of shoes and how they’ve grown from a necessity to an all-out obsession. This led him to venture onto his own quest when he graduated: to provide quality shoes with minimal cost. Knight was also intrigued by Japanese footwear and the unique quality that they brought to the table. Learning more about Japanese shoes, he decided to fly to the city of Kobe in hopes of meeting with the renowned Japanese manufacturer, Onitsuka Co. After securing a meeting with them, he struck a 50/50 deal on January 25, 1964, to become the exclusive United States retailer of Onitsuka Co. Borrowing $50 from his dad to secure his first purchase of shoes, Blue Ribbon Sports was officially born. After arriving back in the States, Knight knew he would need a partner and reached out to Bowerman with Blue Ribbon Sports’ proposal. Bowerman was quick to commit as he fell in love with the unique shoes and thought they would be perfect for his track team.
With the newly found business and the shoes selling like crazy, they both began working on improving the initial design. Within a year of their partnership, Bowerman proposed a silhouette that provided appropriate support for runners, and within two years that shoe came to fruition and was titled the Tiger Cortez. Headquarters were based within Knight’s apartment but in 1967 they were able to move into their first real office. Going into their 5th year, they were absolutely thriving and their shoes’ popularity grew immensely, building even more awareness for Blue Ribbon Sports.
Jeff Johnson / LA Magazine
A TURNING POINT
In 1970, Blue Ribbon’s partnership with Onitsuka was coming to an end. But with their growing demand Knight wanted to continue working with the Japanese manufacturer and flew back to Kobe asking for another 5-year contract. As successful as they were, not every dream has a happy ending. When the Tiger Cortez’s desire grew, the relationship between Blue Ribbon Sport and Onitsuka Co. began to sour. With the overwhelming demand for their shoes, Blue Ribbon Sport started developing reiteration of the shoe under a brand named Nike. With the newfound revelation, Onitsuka and Blue Ribbon Sports went their separate ways but not long after Onitsuka filed a lawsuit against their once partner in 1971.
In troubled water, the companies were taken to court where the judge gracefully settled the case by allowing both companies to sell their own reiteration of the sneaker. Later to be known as the Nike Cortez and Tiger Corsair. After this pivotal moment, it was brought to Blue Ribbon’s attention that in order to move forward after the lawsuit they would need to completely rebrand their company.
Knight decided that a change was required and abandoning the name Blue Ribbon Sports will be the first step forward. It was Jeff Johnson, their first official employee, that presented the name, Nike. The Greek Goddess presented herself in his dream and realized the attributes that coincided with her name. Because of this, he put forth the name but it took some adjustments in order to get everyone on board. When this name was being presented so was another name, ‘Dimension Six.’ Knight was quite passionate about the name ‘Dimension Six’ and initially turned down the name Nike. Other names were suggested including ‘Bengal’ and ‘Peregrine’ but none of them struck a chord with Knight. When it came down to the wire, Phil Knight went along with the name Nike but wasn’t completely sold on the idea. The fight for the name Nike really paid off, it was unique, short, and followed along with their company’s aesthetic.
Development of Nike's Logo / Work Design Group
To complete the rebranding process, a logo was also needed to coexist with the newly created name. A name can get you so far, but an image representing the company and brand can get you even farther. To accomplish this task, Phil Knight reached out to students at Portland University and was introduced to Carolyn Davis in 1970. Davis was studying design during that time and provided sketches for the company. After digesting all of the options, the group settled on a simplistic checkmark, but Phil Knight wasn’t completely sold on this design either, as he hoped that over time it’ll grow on him. To compensate for her time, Carolyn Davis was paid $2 an hour and in total was paid $35 for creating the logo.
As time progressed, this simplistic and idyllic checkmark became the face of Nike and helped the brand grow in popularity as it surfaced on each shoe and marketing campaign. Without their iconic logo, who knows where Nike could be today. Davis truly helped Nike solidify their brand and it didn’t get unnoticed. Years later in 1983, they celebrated the iconic Swoosh and awarded Davis 500 shares in Nike which are roughly worth $1 million as of 2019. Every shoe, apparel item, and campaign produced by the company showcases the Swoosh and will forever be the image coinciding with the name Nike.
Nike's Waffle and Cortez Marketing / Nike News
NIKE CORTEZ + WAFFLE SOLES
With their newfound name and logo, it's back to the drawing board for both Bowerman and Knight. Stepping away from the previous creation they needed to create something that was new, inviting, and appropriate for their market. During this time Bowerman’s track runners were having a hard time adjusting to the newly implemented urethane track. The runners were experiencing hardship; they couldn’t solidify themselves to the ground and their metal spikes were tearing up the fresh rubber. It was at this moment that Bowerman knew he had to think of something that would benefit both of his teams.
One Sunday morning, Bowerman was troubled and was running out of ideas but when his wife placed a freshly made waffle upon his plate, it came to him. He thought to himself, “what if the sole of the shoe was the same pattern as a waffle iron?” Bowerman rushed to his workshop with his warm waffle iron and got to work. His well-intended idea came to an abrupt halt when Bowerman forgot anti-stick spray and the melted urethane glued the iron shut. This didn’t stop him - instead, he went into town and picked up more waffle irons to start again.
In 1970 the waffle sole was ready for practical use and needed to be implemented within a silhouette. When the first model was developed Nike strategically debuted the shoes during the 1972 Olympic Trials Marathon. Only 12 pairs were given out to the US track and field team. The reviews were outstanding as the runners felt traction but also complete comfort like walking on the moon hence the nickname ‘Moon Shoe.’
As successful as the ‘Moon Shoe’ was, their original concept they developed with Onitsuka still weighed heavy on their minds. Therefore they decided that they would release a redesign of their first shoe instead of the Waffle silhouette. Realizing how successful their Olympic Trials marketing tactic was, they decided to present the first Nike Cortez during the peak of the 1972 Summer Olympics. Upon the raving compliments, it was only natural to develop the shoe for the general public. Later that year, everyone had an opportunity to purchase their very own pair of Nike Cortez’. They continued tailoring the shoe and eventually developed a women’s version in 1976. This opened up a new market for Nike as they specifically provided a shoe designed for women. The ‘Senorita Cortez’ paved the way when notable actress Farah Faucet wore it in her popular show Charlie’s Angels. In the episode, the actress is seen skating downhill in the shoes and since then sales skyrocketed.
Michael Jordan with the Air Jordan 1 / Highsnobiety
The 70s were truly a significant year for Nike, aside from the shoes and growing notoriety. Nike took their company one step farther by dabbling into another sport: basketball. During the time of the waffle sole, Nike was also developing basketball shoes, eventually releasing the Nike Blazer. The unique design and bold Swoosh placement set the shoe apart. Seeing the potential they had within the sport, they decided to look into different marketing avenues. Other brands within Nike’s industry were reaching out to athletes to support their products and champion their label. During this time, a young and highly capable athlete named Michael Jordan caught Phil Knight’s attention. This star player had a lot of offers and Knight did not want to pass on this opportunity. Jordan had a range of proposals from Adidas, Reebok, Converse, and now Nike.
Michael Jordan finally decided between all of the offers presented and signed with Nike in 1984. The selling point to Jordan was the fact that Nike gave him the opportunity to create his own signature shoe. He preferred having control of his own shoe design whereas the other companies wanted him to be a spokesperson for an already established shoe. This helped him accept the contract and move forward with Nike. The contract lasted for five years promising $500,000 each year but as we know today, this five-year contract will live on much longer than anticipated. Signing Michael Jordan to the Nike brand was one of their greatest decisions as they were able to accumulate over $100 million within the first 12 months of their contract.
Initially, Jordan did not like the shoes Nike provided, instead he preferred a sole close to the ground where he was able to feel the court below him. Nike knew this could be easily fixed and presented their creative director Peter C. Moore the task of designing Michael Jordan’s first shoe. Jordan wanted to stand out and be different but the initial design was not taken kindly as he referred them to clown shoes. But that design eventually grew on him and was introduced to the world in 1985 as the Air Jordan 1. To get a better and more detailed understanding of the Air Jordan 1, visit our editorial here where we delve into the history of Michael Jordan’s iconic silhouette.
Investing in Michael Jordan opened the doors for Nike but also created more competition amongst similar companies. Since then Nike has accumulated a roster of athletes that champion the brand and hold Nike in their highest regard. Cristiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and the late Kobe Bryant are all listed within Nike’s repertoire. Understanding the influence athletes and celebrities have on the general public allowed Nike to pave the way for footwear and athleisure.
Nike's 2020 Forum / Dazed Digital
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
As a company, they have contributed to milestones including the development of the saying ‘Just Do It.’ In 1988 they produced their first ‘Just Do It’ campaign featuring an 80-year-old avid runner named Walt Stack, making his way across the Golden Gate Bridge. The commercial motivated communities to become active and created self-realization that no one is stopping you, so just do it. With this message at the forefront of their initiatives, they have enlisted a variety of people with diverse ethnicities and races for their ‘Just Do It’ campaigns, eventually utilizing superstar athletes to the mix like LeBron James, Serena Williams, and more.
Heading into their 56th year, Nike is continuing to grow, improving on their already renowned products, developing new technology, and focusing on activist movements, including enhancing their use of sustainable products. Paying homage to their Oregonian roots, Beaverton, Oregon, still homes Nike’s headquarters. The 19-mile office offers its newest technologies and designs with a team of over 70,000+ collaborators and designers locally and overseas. What once started in a small apartment has grown into a global sensation. Nike’s future can only get brighter as they continue developing innovative silhouettes and breaking footwear and fashion boundaries.
Since its inception, Nike has diversified its portfolio and has continued to evolve and innovate their product, marketing tactics, and iconic partnerships. Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman had a passion, ran with their idea, and didn’t take no for an answer. They came out victorious and now champion a name recognizable by all. Their humble and straightforward idea started a loyal movement and we can only wonder: what’s next for Nike?