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Interview: Nike ACG Senior Design Director Matthew Millward

Talking work with Errolson Hugh, the modern athlete and internal directives on the launch of the Spring 2015 collection


Blending complex, rich design narratives into every product is one of the reasons that, since it’s start in 1964, Nike remains one of the world’s most fascinating brands. A passion for innovation lives in the halls of the Beaverton, Oregon-based sportswear behemoth and it’s a creative culture that has made way for some of the most beloved athletic designs in history. While this spirit lives in every product Nike produces, it’s perhaps most alive in the world of NikeLab where designers are given the tools to usher in the next wave of innovations in form and function.


Over 30 years ago Nike ACG was devised to suit a consumer who wasn’t hitting the gym or burning calories pounding the pavement. Instead, the ACG line focused of giving outdoor enthusiasts a decidedly more athletic option than the market offered at the time. In December of 2014, the brand was jumpstarted with an entirely new aesthetic. Along with Nike Senior Design Director Matthew Millward, the brand tapped Errolson Hugh of celebrated Munich-based menswear line Acronym. Reimagining the ACG brand while keeping essential values intact, the result is a study in the potential of balanced collaboration. And after testing new pieces from the 2015 Spring drop—especially the sleek, progressively cut and layer-friendly Bomber jacket—the ACG revamp is more than just aesthetics. We caught up with Millward to talk balancing design briefs, creativity and innovation.


ACG has shifted focus with this new launch. Where it used to be very outdoors focused—snowboarding, hiking—there’s now more of an urban design sensibility. Can you expand on the decision-making behind this shift?

I think from the onset it was a very clear sort of focus, but the city is now really the ultimate landscape. It’s celebrating the urban athlete approach. The whole of Nike ACG really defines sports utility for the city and that was a very, very clear brief that we also worked to from the very beginning. Within the urban environment, athletes are transitioning between many activities.

On the street, you’re on a bike, walking, shopping, commuting—so all these activities sort of come with their own individual challenges, then factor in the weather. We strive to solve for the many demands with new solutions, so it’s a much more modern approach. Very far removed from the top of the mountain, but where the city is now just the true focus of it all.


Despite this shift toward the city, the line still has a lot of outdoor ready features and capabilities.

I think first and foremost, the principles at the very beginning really remain the same. It’s just approaching outerwear in this line from the athletic perspective. The design inspiration or the environment, if you like, has shifted from the mountain into the city. The principles are always very much the same. In terms of technicalities, we were always very adamant that it had to be the ultimate in performance fabrication. This is obviously the most elevated, pinnacle product that we offer at Nike, so it was very important that we used technical materials such as Gore-Tex fabrications, and also using our own innovations in terms of fabrics.


We were keen to use our Tech Fleece fabric for pants and tops. Dri-FIT wool is also obviously a fabrication that we use heavily within the running and men’s training categories. And then also a nod to the Flyknit technology that we use within footwear. We wanted to try and see if we could use some of that knit within some of the jackets, which we used especially in the 2 in 1 Jacket that [released] December 2014. The line is composed of pretty much all performing fabrications so that they really serve a purpose.


What were some of the creative inspirations behind this collection?

It was always really the urban environment—or the urban athlete really—at the core, at the heart of the inspiration. It was really about defining sports utility for the city. We think about our athlete not necessarily always as the performance athlete; at the core of our product is just how they move. It’s about movement within the city, what the individual person will encounter. Key to Nike is we’re always about problem-solving, so it’s always about what are we doing to try and solve for that consumer, that athlete, and fix and design that for a specific sort of goal.

How does the creative process at ACG differ from other departments at Nike?

I think it’s very key within this project, it was always about what its approach is—a sort of 50-50 partnership. It was less about putting any one designer on a pedestal and more about a mutual kind of understanding and an adventure. I always remember something [Nike President and CEO] Mark Parker sort of alluded to in a conversation we had about the nature of collaboration. It should really be a joint kind of partnership. Of course you have a future goal, you know what you’re striving for, but it’s quite exciting to know where the actual end result might end up. So it’s like each of us brought sort of specific learning to the table.


For Nike, it was a larger part to bring in our innovation around fabrications and just everything that we can do from a sports perspective. With Errolson, he was able to bring his unique understanding of the body in motion, unique knowledge of fit and apparel construction. In terms of brand, he constructs in a specific and accurate way. So I think the fusion of our two minds or levels of understanding, if you like, was really made for a very sort of great and exciting partnership.


So this brought in new perspective to the world of Nike?

Exactly, I would say so. Sometimes if there’s a collaboration, it’s very much about the collaborator and maybe what they have done for Nike. This is more about what we could not necessarily do for Errolson, but almost how we can just bring as much to sort of help steer and drive him. He was always very excited when he came to Nike and I took him around our original two yearly seasonal kickoff rooms. He’d never seen anything like it before because he ideates in a very different way.

Basically we build a room and it’s got the whole creative story for the year ahead, and he just found it immensely inspiring. There we’re presenting new ideas around what we want to talk about for the season in terms of fit, color, silhouettes and fabrics, so to him, he kind of went away with a wealth of information before we sort of started. He obviously knew what old ACG was about, but it was kind of as much a learning curve for him as it was really for us when we started to work with him.


How did you balance bringing in technical features and materials with urban styling?

Because of it being so stealth as a sort of a design directive when we spoke with Mark [Parker], I think the connotations around the word “stealth” and “modern,” we always wanted to convey this look of very architectural and very clean. With that it was almost like choosing fabrics that we knew would cut well and shape well, that look clean to the face. So we didn’t want a fiber or fabric that was very textured or very sort of hairy. It should have a very kind of clean aesthetic.


So when you look at Tech Fleece, when you look at the Gore fabric we chose, everything just resonates with a really nice kind of sculptural look about it. Tech Fleece is inherently a fabrication which is obviously a fabric with a space, a mesh in between. When cut and constructed, it holds its shape really nicely. So you can do very sculptural, tailored fits with the sleeves. That was really important, because fit was a huge part of it. Obviously, Errolson is very keen to bring fit to the core, so we needed fabrics that could be sculpturally shaped. With the collection, we have All Conditions fit, which was built in a way that conveys the universal stance of an athlete. Where you’re sort of mentally standing and getting ready almost to go and to pounce. It’s a bit like when an athlete is sort of half-crouched and their about to embark on a run. That was something that Errolson was very keen to also bring to this—the All Conditions fit—where it meant we had to use fabrics as well that could build this.


What does the future hold for ACG?

I can’t really comment on absolute specifics. We are still working with Errolson and we’re going to be into the next season. It’s key that whenever we do something like this that the future can also be represented through the rest of our line within Nike Sportswear. We will take definite lessons from what we’ve learned from working with him. Then it sort of trickles down and influences the rest of the line as we continue in sportswear.


How does ACG fit into maybe not just the Nike ecosystem, but the larger sportswear marketplace?

Sportswear is such a huge influence right now in the marketplace, many of the collections that we see on catwalks right now, you can just see how important sportswear and its influence is. I think many brands are going in this direction of reinventing that look, but getting a much more stealthy look. It’s a look which is kind of uniform. You can wear it anytime within the day, within the city, and that is one thing we wanted to sort of imply. It wasn’t just for when it’s chucking down in New York or there’s a howling wind. It’s something that is kind of evolving throughout your day. It fits with every sort of event that you’re doing throughout your day, certainly a look that is completely wearable and I think a lot of people are starting to take that look.


Has the ACG consumer changed from the early days or just the style?

The intention is always for the athlete, so that really has not changed at all. And it’s funny, it’s a question we sort of get asked a lot. What has changed more in this whole project is really the environment and the brief, if you like.

Twenty-five years ago, it was designed for the athlete on the mountain. Today it’s engineered for the athlete in the city, so really the key person—the core of it hasn’t changed a lot. I think it’s funny how we’ve had a lot of great interest from a person who bought the original ACG gear. They have some extremely exciting, positive feedback in terms of just how they’re still into the brand, even though the work has evolved and is a much more modern approach. I think there’s such a love for ACG. There’s a lot of passion spoken about it, but I think how it’s moved forward. It’s been received very positively.

NikeLab ACG Spring 2015 hits select retailers and NikeLab’s webstore 12 March, 2015.

Images by Hans Aschim


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