Mike Friton has an unassuming, quiet presence. He recently travelled to Hong Kong to teach a five day innovation workshop with Dutch footwear school SLEM, and attends to students in a careful and considered manner. Yet underneath this quiet demeanor, Friton possesses a stellar portfolio of footwear design work in career spanning thirty years. His journey started at the Bowerman Lab, an athletic think tank created by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, before he joined Nike in 1998. During his time at the company, Friton created iconic models such as the Nike Presto and the Nike Woven, before leaving the company in 2011 to establish his own company, Friton Design. We talk to the man about the future of footwear, why he loved (then left) Nike, and the reason athleticism isn’t everything anymore.
YOU GREW UP IN PORTLAND OREGON, WHICH HAD A STRONG RUNNING CULTURE. WHAT DID THIS MEAN GROWING UP ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS?
Well I actually I grew up in Eugene which is south of Oregon, where the University of Oregon is located. When I was young, Steve Prefontaine was the rockstar of running and every kid knew about that. The schools that I went to, the coaches all were runners and ran with Bill Bowerman. The sport was so popular primarily because of the favourable environment, which brought the sport to a new level.
WHEN WAS THE FIRST MOMENT IN YOUR LIFE THAT YOU THOUGHT TO YOURSELF THAT YOU COULD MAKE A CAREER OUT OF DESIGNING FOOTWEAR?
I grew up in a family of stonemasons, artists and building fireplaces, so I was always around hands-on craft. Also with stone masonry, you have to learn how to see things in a three dimensional from. So you are looking at a positive shape and seeing how it will fit into a negative shape in a three dimensional space. That was sort of the basis of the appreciation. And then when I started running a lot, I was always questioning what was going on with the shoes I was wearing. I started cutting shoes up and playing with them before I started working at Nike. Bowerman saw that and appreciated that, and he took me into his shop and I started working with.
AND WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE LIKE WORKING WITH BOWERMAN?
My first experience was actually with stone masonry. He wanted to build a water fountain on the track. Runners had to go a long way to find water so he wanted something right on the track to hydrate. He showed me the stone and materials and said he would see me in a couple of days. I finished in almost one day and he came back and was surprised.
AND WHAT WAS YOUR IMPRESSION OF HIM AS A PERSON?
He was a very strong man. He was one of the best coaches the United States has ever had in track and field. He was also a person that knew how to bring people together and accomplish things. Even at Nike, people saw him as independent and on a path of his own. But he didn’t do it alone, he had a community of ten doctors he worked with as well as athletes who were involved. He knew how to bring the right people together, and that’s what I really appreciated about him.
WHAT ARE SOME LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNT THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?
There are so many lessons I’ve had, its hard to pick one. When I was younger it was really about being an athlete and what I could do to achieve a higher level of athleticism, including what I could do with the product of the shoes. Now it’s about doing the right thing in a healthy way– trying to find a better way to make things healthier for people, such as working with orthopedic companies, making braces, working with people of disabilities… Not just elite athletes but people with disabilities. I actually learn more from them than I do with athletes, since there is a challenge.
YOU LATER WORKED AT NIKE FOR A GOOD NUMBER OF YEARS AS PART OF THE INNOVATIVE KITCHEN. WHAT WAS SPECIAL ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE?
Well it has changed a lot and is part of the reason why I left. In the beginning, we played and learned. It was more open to exploring any direction we wanted to go. It was also only a small number of people, but now it’s huge! There are hundreds of people and it has gotten more focused, partly because of the size. But as it got more focused, it wasn’t as appealing to me because I couldn’t explore or go off on different tangents. I wanted to go out and do it on my own and it’s been a great experience ever since.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN DURING THAT TIME IN THE INNOVATIVE KITCHEN?
It was really about having the willingness to play as an adult. As a child you have the freedom to play. But as an adult, you are expected to have serious approaches to things. And it’s unfortunate, because you really need that play zone to let your mind and your body and everything participate and bring out new ideas. It’s much more difficult to taking a serious approach to solving problems than it is with a playful approach.
HAS YOUR BEST SHOE MODELS AND IDEAS COME FROM PLAYING?
Yes. And it can be playing as in participating in sport and being an athlete and doing things. I think to be a great athlete you need to have that play instinct at a pretty high level. You can’t just be a robot, you have to make a little magic happen.
YOU LEFT NIKE IN 2011 AND SINCE THEN HAVE PLACED A GREATER EMPHASIS ON TEACHING, SUCH AS THIS WORKSHOP WITH SLEM. WHAT ARE SOME KEY PRINCIPLES YOU TRY TO COMMUNICATE?
Well it’s not just about what they get, but also about what I get. I actually learn a lot more from them than they learn from me. So that’s really important for me. It helps to keep the excitement alive in what I do. You show somebody some basic thing that you learn and all the sudden if you allow them to, they go off into a million new directions. I show people things and then let them go, let them play. I don’t try to control them. I tell them here’s a tool you can use, use it any way you want. So I see a lot of things that inspire me. And I see things from today’s workshop that I could incorporate into my explorations as well.
The best play is a sharing process, and in a big environment when you have a lot of people, play can become more selfish. But if it’s a smaller more collaborative group, it’s very positive. I think that’s the nature of human begins, if the bubble is too large its too hard to manage.
RIGHT NOW WE LIVE IN AN INCREASINGLY CORPORATE CLIMATE WHICH PLACES GREATER EMPHASIS ON THE DOLLAR LINE. DO YOU FEEL THIS DISCOURAGES AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE PEOPLE CAN PLAY?
Not necessarily. I think there are companies who are better at it than others. I mean if you look at Google or even Nike in some pockets, it works. Even in the Innovative Kitchen, there are some groups. It depends a lot on how the manager handles it. There are people who are good managers, and there are others who are not. I see it in the corporate world, where there are people who aren’t really ready or don’t make good managers and they are promoted anyway.
I’ve seen a lot of great designers promoted and put into positions where they have to manage and I ask why. They were doing such a great job and now they have to manage to get a promotion. Why not just promote them as they are? But that’s the corporate policy. I don’t think everybody is cut out to be a manager. I don’t do well as manager. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I have to manage a lot of people, but I love to play and I love to teach.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME KEY INFLUENCES THAT ARE CHANGING THE WAY FOOTWEAR WILL BE DEFINED IN THE FUTURE?
I see a lot of textile innovations especially in knitting and weaving. Those are things we worked on in Nike many years ago, so we’re seeing it coming to the forefront now, which is pretty amazing. When we started, the technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now so we were struggling. But now you can see things happening that we wish we could have done then. There’s still opportunities to see this progress more, with new textiles and techniques. But what I’ve seen over the years with fashion trends, things can change really drastically at times. So with this whole textile phase, you never know. We could go back to leather, or plastic.
YES, FASHION DOES HAVE A PROFOUND EFFECT ON THE EVOLUTION OF TRENDS, AND DICTATES THE DIRECTION OF PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT.
Yes, in athletic footwear, fashion and manufacturing processes come before fit and comfort unfortunately. But that’s the same with high-end fashion shoes like pumps and high heels. Fashion rules. It goes back to human nature and ego: we want to look good. But for designers, and that’s where I’m pushing, if there is an awareness of the health aspect, they can improve this and do a better job. But if you leave this to the manufacturer or a high-end fashion designer who doesn’t have that knowledge, then you might as well go back to foot-binding [laughs]. You’re just destroying people’s health.
AND DO YOU FEEL THIS NEEDS TO BE TAUGHT MORE IN SCHOOLS?
Well that’s my part, I‘m trying to do that with students I teach. I’d like to get more information out on my website. But I don’t want to do that alone, I don’t want it to be just my opinion, but also those from the medical and biomechanics community as well. My opinion is constantly evolving as I learn more, so it has to be supported in a positive way to reach it’s full potential. That’s what I learnt from Bowerman.
Image Source: Mike Friton, SLEM