interviews,  projects

Interview // Christian Tresser On Creating The Air Max 97 and Nike Taking a Risk On His Design


words and interview: Ray P.
photography: Kevin Sanchez

Take off the blazer, loosen up the tie, throw on a windbreaker and the Air Max 97 is alive. Back like it never left, today marks the launch of the second original colorway of the Nike silhouette that celebrates its twentieth birthday.

For many, this is the first time you’ll ever own the Air max 97 and for others it’s like we’ve jumped into a hot tub time machine and songs like Biggie’s “Hypnotize” or Big Pun’s “Still Not A Player” is in heavy rotation on the radio while we lace up a shoe that still looks futuristic even in 2017. It’s one thing for a designer such as Christian Tresser to create a sneaker, it’s another to have it stand the test of time and be one of the hottest sneakers of the most recognized brand two decades later.

How does it feel to have that kind of impact? What was said in those initial boardroom meetings to get the Air Max 97 approved? Many questions come about when celebrating an iconic design and Tresser, who no longer works at Nike, has remained silent for the most part until I got a hold of him.

Read ahead for the most in-depth and open conversation Christian Tresser has had on public record yet as we discuss the inception of the Air Max 97, its impact twenty years later, insight into his design style, and much more.

RAY P: In my opinion I would categorize you as a legendary designer, so it’s an honor to share your time and allow me to pick your brain today.

CHRISTIAN TRESSER: I’m a pretty humble guy, I try not to think about that stuff much [laughs], but thank you!

RP: Let’s get straight into it Christian… How does it feel that your 20 year old design is one of the hottest sneakers of 2017 from the most recognized brand on the planet?

CHRISTIAN: How does it feel? [Laughs]. Gosh, you know it’s amazing that the shoe continues on the way it does. It’s really nice to know what I did had some type of impact. I love seeing the excitement around it. It’s great seeing the young generation getting to know that shoe, it’s crazy.

RP: Do you own a pair of the 2017 Air Max 97?

CHRISTIAN: Nope! Surprisingly, I don’t. I don’t even own the original pair. I do have one, but I’m not sure what year it’s from. They’re sitting in the box right behind me with cloudy air bags, though. You’d think I’d have more, but I really don’t.

RP: Wow, that’s really surprising! But I guess one pair is all you really need. You designed the shoe and I’m sure that’s enough validation.

Since 1997, style has changed drastically. Many retros don’t stand the test of time because they don’t fit with current tastes in fashion. However, your Air Max 97 still stands out on a shelf at a store amongst every other shoe. When you designed this sneaker, were you thinking about making something futuristic or were you just living in the moment?

CHRISTIAN: I was just going with what I felt in the moment and what excited me and got me inspired. I wasn’t thinking about twenty years down the line, to be honest. I weirdly have a vision that I feel I need to pursue and just do it. That’s my style of design– living in the moment, doing what feels good and doing what excites me. I push everything away and it’s weird because I don’t look at other designs as inspiration to me. I usually look toward nature and materials. No disrespect to anybody, I just don’t look to any other designs to get influence. I don’t know, I’m weird like that [laughs].

RP: Nah… that’s not weird, that’s cool. It’s funny when you say that because I can totally relate on a photography level. I get asked about my inspirations and honestly I don’t look at what other people are doing. I just shoot what I like and think is fresh. And when you said nature inspires you, that hit home as I really enjoy taking walks because I’ll look at trees, flowers, and mountains just to see how colors look together. I don’t know, it’s really cool, haha. I wouldn’t consider your process weird at all. Everyone has their own way of creating and when you spend time looking at the work of so many others, you start to lose sight of what’s unique about yourself.

CHRISTIAN: You’re right, Ray. When I go to a sneaker shop, I try to seek out the shoe that stands out the most. It’s rare that you see that these days. There’s so many shoes, the processes are all the same, and the brands are seeing the same vendors for materials. Everyone’s now trying to do 3D printed midsoles and knitted uppers, but when you put everything together, some lines may be different, but they’re all looking relatively the same. Whenever I’m designing stuff, I always try to find a different path and make things that stand out.

RP: I can dig it and totally agree with you. When it comes to sneakers in my collection, I purposely go for stuff that doesn’t look like anything else in my closet. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, you were with Nike just over a year?

CHRISTIAN: Yup, just a year and a half.

RP: Now here’s why I think you’re a legendary designer… In such a short amount of time, you brought so much innovation to Nike. So speaking to how brands are taking the same approach and in essence all creating the same products, I see what you did at Nike and brought so many different and new ideas to the table.

You were the first to introduce: 360 degree 3M piping, full length Air Bags, hidden Lace system, fully mesh uppers and that was just on two sneakers– the Air Max 97 and Spiridon which are certified classic designs. These things you introduced are still being used by pretty much every brand, not just Nike.

How does that make you feel that the innovation you brought to the table plays a larger roll today in design culture?

CHRISTIAN: Ahh… gosh. It’s kind of crazy [laughs] to have some impact that way. I don’t know. I try not to over think it. It’s cool! Things that I’ve done have a long lasting impact, it’s pretty great. I just get these ideas, work on them, execute, and move on from them. I have a big appetite for innovation and design especially in footwear. I keep trying to create and keep going. I’m like a shark in the water, I have to keep swimming or I die.

RP: I feel like when you’re born with the desire to create, one of the things we as creatives fail to do is take the time to appreciate the stuff we put out into the world because we’re always onto the next one. That’s why I’m more interested in how you feel about the impact of your innovation because the premise behind why we create originates from a feeling. We’re trying to create a better experience for people and when you finally express those feelings into something tangible that you can see, touch and use, you’re right it is crazy.

Now, with footwear designers, you can be onto the next one but we live in Generation Retro. You’re creation breathes new life and for many, it’s the first time they get to experience it. With the 20th anniversary of the Air Max 97, it has to bring back some feelings from day 1 in that initial sketch session?

CHRISTIAN: If I think back on it, yeah. For me, there’s a lot of ideas that went into the Nike Air Max 97. From performance ideas, to aesthetics, materials, and design language. I was trying to take all these elements and turn it into one thing that’s a simple read and create excitement. I think of the consumer, the foot, the performance, what materials are going to stand out, what am I highlighting and what am I lowlighting. A shoe should read like a book, it tells a story.

When I was designing the AM97, because it was a maximum cushioning project, I felt it needed to look like cushioning and say something about cushioning.  Part of that comes from the uppers and down into the air bag. A lot of my inspiration came from nature seeing water dropping into a pond and the waves radiating out and that’s how I came up with the concept to place the 3M. I was trying to build on that story, then I had mountain bikes which wasn’t really part of the design inspiration, but it did inspire some of the metallic materials I used. At that time mountain bikes were becoming very popular and they have a lot of metal finishes which I thought was cool and loved it. I collected modern looking materials which metal finishes and that’s why I chose the 3M and silver metallic mesh. I knew I wanted white in the shoe, but didn’t want a flat white, I wanted something pearlescent in it. Everything had its nuances even down to the mono-mesh on the side of the shoe behind the mini Swoosh. It’s a combination of all these things.

I honestly don’t remember a lot of meetings around this shoe. I was just told to make the best possible shoe I can make, so I did! I put my blinders on and focused.

I’ll never forget the moment I was presenting to the top executives of Nike. The Air Max 97 was so uniquely different that people in the room were uncomfortably sliding around in their chairs [laughs]. It wasn’t a normal shoe and I didn’t want it to be normal. I wanted an impactful shoe. I could tell you it definitely made people uncomfortable and there’s one person who makes all the calls at Nike and that person gave me the thumbs up and the green light to make the shoe. And we did it. Shortly after that, I left for my passion to design Soccer product, so I never really heard the conversations about the future of the AM97.

Some of my friends who were still there would tell me, “Dude your shoes are blowing up,” and I had no idea, haha.

The real art in designing is actually getting the shoe made.

RP: Man… that was so cool hearing you relive the moment. When I look at sneakers I try to imagine all the things that went into the final production and you painted that picture so well.

I feel when people buy a shoe, they take the technology, colors, and story for granted. But when you hear the ins and outs of the design process directly from the creator, it makes you say, “Wow!” The Air Max 97 looks good sure, but I can’t believe most people in that presentation room didn’t get it.

CHRISTIAN: I wouldn’t say they hated it, but they were probably expecting something familiar and that’s not what I delivered. But, it was unique enough and exciting enough for one person to take a risk on it and thank God that happened. You need someone at a brand with enough vision to make a decision like that. It’s important to have people believe in you and trust you, it means everything. It gives you confidence and it’s tough because some brands don’t have people like that which makes all of the difference in the world. As a designer you’re putting yourself out there to face criticism, so when you have someone high up in the brand who believes in what you do and has a vision, it’s really important. You have to have thick skin as a designer.

RP: Back tracking a bit because you did touch on exactly what inspired the shoes… Nike used the nickname “Silver Bullet” for the retro of the AM97 which makes people believe the rumor that the shoes were inspired by Japanese bullet trains, do you care to speak on that at all? Is there any relevance?

CHRISTIAN: I’m not sure how that came about. Maybe I’m not remembering if that was on the design board, but it definitely was inspired by nature. When you look at the shoe, you can definitely see the resemblance of water dropping in a pond, but it also resembles something going very fast and that’s cool, too. Either way, it’s great [laughs].

You know so much goes into a footwear design. And you don’t always hit the home run. The Air Max 97 captured a moment in time and people loved it.

RP: This shoe did a lot. For me, every time I look at the shoe it makes me want to buy a fresh windbreaker suit. Then there’s another part where the nostalgia hits and I’m from the Bronx, NY, so the only people who could afford the AM97 at 0, which is the most expensive Air Max at the time, was the hustlers who were the trendsetters. When I wear your design today, I feel cool. I truly do.

When you see your shoe in 2017, what do you see in it?

CHRISTIAN: I feel like it’s a shoe that looks cool worn with anything. I haven’t really seen many people wearing it lately and I imagine it’s because they are very hard to get it. It’s hard to explain that validation. I’m happy it’s still relevant, people like it and wear it.

RP: Talk about the experience when you were tapped to create the next Nike Air Max.

CHRISTIAN: It was the Air Max. I didn’t know the pressure that was on me, but someone did tell me that this shoe would make my career. I didn’t think much about that. I just knew I had to create a great shoe.

RP: Do you feel like the AM97 made your career?

CHRISTIAN: No. Not at all. I think it helped, but it was definitely the one of the most notable shoes I’ve worked on.

RP: Your original sketch looks pretty close to the final product other than the DPI changes on the air bags. Did you go though a bunch of changes based off your original sketch? Was it an extensive process?

CHRISTIAN: Nope! From the point of ideation drawings to the sampling stage, it stayed pretty true to my original design. Minus a few things here or there, we nailed it. Regardless, You never hold a design tight in your hands, at least I don’t. Because it hurts really hard when people start changing your design, so I try to stay open minded with it. It’s a lot less stressful that way. Always look for a plan A, plan B, and plan C. Sometimes you design something and it’s hard for the factory to make. You need to be able to adjust the design and still have it look good.

The real art in designing is actually getting the shoe made. Like how are you going to make that thing? You have to be savy about shoe making. I’d even go back to my designs during the wear-testing phase and see where things can be made better. It’s not always about making things aesthetically beautiful, you want to make the shoe wear good and perform good.

One thing I would want to tell young designers is that this goes beyond just designing the actual shoe. That’s just one part of the process. You have to become more aware what you’ve created and improving it.

RP: You’re like a fountain of knowledge. I feel like you’ve dropped so many gems in this conversation so far. I appreciate how open you are.

I see you’ve worked with most of the top tier footwear brands such as Nike, Reebok, and adidas. Which was your favorite experience?

CHRISTIAN: I’ve had great experiences at all the brands and for different reasons. Even though during my time at each brand I was designing footwear and building product, they have different cultures in them. I can’t say there was a favorite one, my experiences are remembered by people that I’ve worked with. Each place I’ve been, it wasn’t about who had better resources, the most impactful thing to me was that I’ve been able to meet great friends. I still continue to keep contact with them.

You travel a lot, take many meetings with the same people, you laugh together, argue together and this becomes your second family.

Reebok was a magical time for me. I was involved in creating the Soccer category. The leader at the brand let us do whatever we needed to do to make great product. As a former player and lover of the sport, it was a dream come true to create Soccer footwear for the best players in the world and work with them.

RP: When people think about Reebok, Nike and adidas, they pit them against each other in a competitive manner. But, when it comes to creating, you didn’t see them as competition, you saw them as platforms to execute in your design ideas. You kept an open mind. I think that’s awesome for a young designer to hear because you’re not there to worry about anything else other than designing the best product you can make.

It was so cool to allow me to dive into your world and understand how you design and how you feel about your designs. I know you don’t do many interviews, so I’m really honored. I think everyone who loves the Air Max 97 will appreciate the man behind the shoe too.

CHRISTIAN: Thank you, Ray! I appreciate you wanting to highlight my story.

  • You can follow Christian Tresser on Instagram, but we can’t guarantee he’ll accept all incoming follow requests.