words // Nick DePaula:
Earlier this week, Baltimore-based Under Armour announced grand plans of theirs to move their entire footwear design and development teams to Portland, Oregon. Portland is of course already home to Nike, adidas, Li-Ning, Columbia, Keen and several of the footwear industry’s top footwear and apparel talent.
The brand will be moving into the former YMCA building at 2815 SW Barbur Blvd, a nearly 70,000 square foot facility just south of downtown Portland that not only includes ample flex space to be used for design and innovation teams, but also swimming pools, running tracks and basketball courts.
Some 30 years ago, an architect-turned-sneaker designer named Tinker Hatfield could be seen often at that exact YMCA, participating in everything from hoops to racquetball to even yoga.
As Tinker told me back in 2009, for an interview with Sole Collector Magazine, it was that multi-sport experience of his and the insights he captured that helped to inspire his Air Trainer 1 design. As he wrote in a quick handwritten note to a then-developer named Mark Parker, “Noticed something at the Barbur Y…people bringing several shoes for several sports. Seems like a pain in the ass!”
The epiphany spawned what began to be known as “Cross Training” shoes — versatile sneakers that could be used for multiple sports.
***portrait courtesy Nike
Tinker Hatfield explains:
“Because Nike didn’t have a campus place to work out at at the time, I was also working out at the Metro Y in Portland, which at the time was a very new, big, beautiful multi-sport facility. One of the first in the country. Even today, after all of these years later, it still holds up today as a pretty innovative building. It had an indoor track and tons of activities that you could engage in.
“I was trying to stay in shape, and I was still playing basketball, so I’d go to the Y, and they had a couple of really nice basketball courts there. You could also jump into a racquet game, and aerobics was really starting to pick up, and they had a really nice weight facility, too. … So with me working for Nike, I would always go over there with three or four pairs of shoes — not really knowing what I was going to do. Maybe I’d play a little basketball, you know, then get in a fight and have to go and do something that was a little less aggressive. [laughs] Well, you know, guys are yippin’ and yappin’ at each other, and basketball is a very macho sport. Sometimes it would get really contentious. For me, anyway. [laughs]
I would go to the [YMCA], and I’d actually have three pairs of shoes in my bag. I was not gonna go for a five-mile run in a pair of basketball shoes, but people were doing just that. My observation was that most people would show up there with one pair of shoes, whether they were running shoes or basketball shoes or tennis shoes, and try and do multiple things with one shoe. Well, it just doesn’t work that way, and a basketball shoe is a terrible thing to run more than wind sprints in. It’s one of the worst things you could jog around in. So people are doing that, and I’m going, ‘Well geez, now I see a path to a project.’
“That project would be to take the activities that were going on in that club and design a product that would actually be somewhat reasonable for performance purposes for a number of activities. I knew immediately that if the shoe was going to be the ultimate shoe for everything that you would have to compromise a bit in each sport. It wouldn’t be the world’s best basketball shoe, the world’s best running shoe, the world’s best aerobics shoe, or the world’s best weightlifting shoe or whatever, but it would be good enough in each one of those where you could go get a safe [in the locker room] and go get a workout.
“That was the epiphany for me. I didn’t want to have to pack around two or three shoes, and I didn’t want to wear one pair of shoes that was really inadequate for something. That’s how I looked at it. I actually started sketching, and if I am not mistaken, I think the first person I showed the sketches to was Mark Parker. I told him about my experience at the Y, and I said, ‘You know, we should do like a training shoe for all of these different activities that would work pretty well for everything.’ That’s how it got started, and that was the beginning of it.”
Nike’s entire Cross Training category may have been birthed some three decades ago at the Portland YMCA, and next year, Under Armour will be moving into that exact same YMCA building, looking to lead their new foundation of design and innovation in footwear.
As everyone here in the Portland footwear community has been buzzing this week, the locally designed yet global industry just got quite a bit more competitive.
Check out Tinker’s transcendent note to Mark Parker below, dated June 18, 1985.
Under Armour is expected to move into the SW 2815 Barbur Blvd facility sometime in 2016.
image via SC