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Over in the Jordan building a 32-year-old designer named Bill Worthington held up his latest invention and stared at the object as he spoke. "It took nearly seven months to happen," he said. "It took a lot of screaming and team-building and refusing to give up. There was skepticism over whether the consumer could appreciate its technology or understand its...personality."
The startling shoe in Worthington's right hand looked like the hoof of some great purple, silver, black and green beast. Deep grooves subdivided the sole of the shoe into separate pods—a word that comes up often at Nike. The pod idea cooked up by the techies down in advanced product engineering is intended to replicate the natural design characteristics of the 26 bones, three arches and innumerable ligaments and muscles inside the foot. A zebra-skin pattern ringed the cross-training shoe below several arrangements of designer synthetics that were glued or sewn to the "oxidized-green"-colored shoe.
Worthington pointed out a huge Velcro strap designed to replace the laces, and another strap that led up to yet another silver, black and purple Velcro strapping device at ankle height, this one an "anti-inversion" apparatus designed to keep athletes from turning their feet inward while airborne and breaking bones or straining ligaments when they land. A former industrial design student, Worthington decided to call his new baby Air Carnivore. "I'd played around with shoes inspired by dinosaurs before," he said. "I imagined calling one the Air-Odactyl. But the idea of the Carnivore was to make something that looked more like an animal than a man-made consumer product."
Nike's chief shoe designer, Tinker Hatfield, a former world-class pole vaulter, likes to say that one's mission within the matrix includes a "license to dream," to shock and dazzle the company's developers, who field the design concepts and shepherd them along a sampling process. That process extends from Beaverton to China, Argentina, Indonesia and South Korea. As press and labor-group criticism of Nike's business practices abroad has increased, the company's public-affairs officials have emphasized that from the beginning Knight envisioned designing shoes for athletes in Oregon and having them made in Japan. Moreover, only a handful of the departed 65,000 U.S. shoe-manufacturing jobs that the Made in the USA campaign's anti-Nike rhetoric referred to in 1992 were ever connected to Nike.
"We're not gouging anybody," Knight says. "Our gross profits are around 39 percent, right on the industry standard. We make our profit on the volume. A country like Indonesia is converting from farm labor to semiskilled—an industrial transition that has occurred throughout history. There's no question in my mind that we're giving these people hope."
But when Nike points out that its 2,800 rupiah ($1.35) entry-level daily wage in Indonesia is five times that of local farmers, it is comparing factory wages to farm incomes, only a very small portion of which are cash. Explaining the cost of molds, packing, freight and hefty duty fees—or pointing out that the U.S. never had an infrastructure of high-tech athletic-shoe manufacturing, and that all athletic-shoe companies are in the same boat—is not always satisfying to a public that's reminded daily of the fat endorsement contracts Nike has with scores of athletes.
Nike presents its foreign factories with a set of standards that include antidiscrimination clauses and demands for health-care programs, but enforcement is difficult to monitor. For Nike, wages in the third world remain subordinate to the creation of high-quality shoes that can be sold for reasonable prices. As long as that is the case, the foreign-labor controversy—for Nike and any other U.S. company that manufactures products abroad—will not go away.
The designers in the Jordan building know that the average pro soccer player runs 10 kilometers during a match. They know that Jordan runs about 2½ miles per game and that after an average leap he lands with a force that's three times his body weight. (Barkley comes down with a force that's seven times greater than his weight.) Because tennis players often drag their toes when they serve, Nike technicians helped develop a material that can be placed against an abrasion wheel for 3,000 cycles without wearing down. When wearers of the first generation of all-purpose cross-trainers complained that the soles of the shoes wrapped around the pedals of their mountain bikes, Nike technicians came right back with the Air Revaderchi, a shoe with a thermoplastic shank that permits the sole to bend only one way.
"You can't create an emotional tic to a bad product," Knight has said, "because it's not honest, and people will find that out eventually." But Knight adds that one of the lessons of "the hard times" during the 1980s is that "what the shoe looks like is important. We didn't put any emphasis on what those outside Nike call fashion then. We thought that looks didn't matter."
"I designed the Carnivore for serious athletes," says Worthington. "When it comes out, there won't be any advertising, and there won't be an athlete to help promote it. The shoe"—he turns his invention pod-side up—"will have to sell on its merits. People will tell each other about the Carnivore. They'll say, 'Here's a new shoe that represents the aggression of sports.' "