Marc Dolce left Nike for Adidas in 2014—and is just getting started on envisioning the future of the Three Stripes.
It’s impossible to talk about The Sneaker Wars between Nike and Adidas—the prolonged period of aggressive competition between the two brands, with the Three Stripes making up unforeseen ground on the Swoosh—without taking about Marc Dolce. From 2005 to 2014, Dolce was the global director of Nike Sportswear, overseeing its football and basketball divisions, and in that time was credited with designs like the Nike Lunar Force 1 (and updated version of the classic Air Force 1). In the industry, he's just one of a handful of sneaker designers with actual name recognition, alongside guys like Nathan Van Hook (the man behind the Nike Air Yeezy 2) and Tinker Hatfield, the godfather of almost every classic Nike sneaker in existence. But when he decided to leave Nike, his exit was messy and litigious. In late 2014, he and two other designers working in Nike’s “Innovation Kitchen” jumped ship to Adidas, citing a “repressive” attitude at Nike, and in doing so set the cutthroat tone the rivalry has taken in recent years.
Upon signing with Adidas, Dolce, along with designers Denis Dekovic and Mark Miner, were personally met with a $10 million dollar lawsuit from Nike. The brand claimed they brought proprietary Nike secrets with them to Adidas. All three denied the claims and the suit was settled for an unknown amount, but the bigger price Dolce paid was that he was sidelined from designing for a whole year—meaning he didn’t actually start working on Adidas kicks until March 2016.
In his time off, Dolce says he focused on his personal art projects, traveling, and reconnecting to New York City, where he hadn’t lived since 2005. There, he works at Adidas’s top secret “Brooklyn Creator Farm" in Greenpoint, where he’s been tasked with envisioning the future of the Three Stripes. And so far, he’s been up to the task: In his time there, the brand has introduced innovative basketball sneakers like the Crazy Boost You Wear, a riff on the Foot You Wear series from the ‘90s, as well as shoes like Futurecraft 4D, which have the potential to change the way sneaker soles are made, period. But at least right now, Dolce needs my help—sort of.
Inside Adidas’s pop-up Maker Lab, one of the many attractions at Adidas’s massive 747 Warehouse Street compound in downtown Los Angeles built for All-Star Weekend, Dolce and other Adidas designers are helping customers translate their idea of a new Adidas sneaker from into sketch form, and then into a physical shoe. I’m here to learn what makes Dolce the $10 million dollar man, and one of the biggest guns in the Sneaker Wars.
Before we can get to the sneaker making, we hover over a piece of paper and a pencil. “I want to know as much as I can about where you’re at in life and what you’re thinking before we start actually sketching,” Dolce, who is wearing a pair of the aforementioned Adidas Crazy Boost You Wear sneakers, says. He asks me what my favorite sneakers of all-time are (even if they happen to include ones made by his former employer), and my favorite colors, and then shifts to some questions that make me feel like I should be horizontal on a leather couch, like what motivates me and what my goals are. He writes all this down on a paper he calls “the Brief.” He sketches as I talk in the way a police sketch artist does, turning some of the ideas swirling around my head into beautiful, fluid lines. I tell him I want to create a low or mid-top design with a more structured, less futuristic upper, and that I want to use the brand’s new Boost You Wear sole. Several sketches, a few sewing machines, a laser cutter, and three hours later, Dolce and I have created the “Jakey Boost 900.”
This process is a truncated version what Dolce and his team do every day in Brooklyn, and of their overall philosophy. For example, Dolce says the brief for a given shoe normally takes about two or three days to complete, which helps curbs my disappointment when the Jakey Boost 900 prototype feels only about 40% complete. But Dolce and the two dozen or so full-time designers at the office are basically adults who do full-time arts and crafts, stitching and cutting and gluing pieces together into what they hope are game-changing shoes. Even in an abridged format, at times the process felt tedious and boring—sewing a piece of suede onto some mesh isn’t as riveting as it sounds. But Adidas gives Dolce all the time in the world he needs to cook up the next generation of Adidas sneakers.
That isn’t to say Dolce and his team don’t have deadlines or a specific purpose. Right now, he says the team is working on everything from 2019 basketball sneakers to projects for the 2020 Olympics. Still, from its inception the Brooklyn Farm was meant to be a place more focused on big ideas, and with connecting to the local community to better understand what people actually want to wear. “Our office is known to be secret because of the work we do, but we are on the ground floor, and we have 30 or 40 people coming in every week for workshops,” he says. “747 is a great example of what we do in terms of connecting with artists, influencers, and celebrities. But it’s not even about celebrities. It’s about the community and what we can do at the local grassroots level. We had kids from high school and colleges come by yesterday. Most of the kids studying art hadn’t even considered footwear design as a potential career, to show them that was the most rewarding part of this weekend.”
One of Adidas’s taglines for the weekend was “Calling All Creators”—the sort of vapid phrase that feels custom-built to connect with a generation of Instagram Creative Directors™. But beyond that vague language is a genuinely interesting idea: Adidas is working from the idea that top-down design is antiquated in 2018. Rather than speculating about consumer needs from a conference room on the outskirts of Portland, the best way for Adidas to figure out what kids want to buy is simple: just ask them. You may not take what they say literally, but inside every answer is a kernel of something deeper.
When James Carnes, VP of Global Strategy at Adidas, stops by the Maker Lab, he echoes these sentiments. “You can’t be relevant from afar,” he says. “There are lot of brands that do an amazing job, but you can’t participate.” He then takes what I interpret as a shot at Nike’s own All-Star workshops (some of which are taking place simultaneously), where customers are able to customize their own Air Force 1 sneakers using zip-ties, laser prints, and markers. “They might invite you to some little thing where you put some sequins on a thing and play decoration, but we actually wanted to understand what people are thinking. And that’s why we have a permanent space in Brooklyn,” he says. And, it’s fair to assume assume, that’s also why they hired Marc Dolce.
Towards the end of our time together, I ask Dolce about his own childhood—namely if he always drew sneakers, and if he always wanted to design shoes. “I would draw action figures or wrestlers, and for me it was a way to show my strength. I would create characters that had powers, because I felt like they were things I was missing in my own life and I wanted to close that gap. I was making up for whatever insecurities I had,” he says. It’s frankly a more honest and vulnerable answer than I’ve come to expect—or ever gotten, really—from any executive or designer at a major sportswear company. Then again, from his design philosophy to his office, everything Dolce does is a departure from the way things have traditionally been done in the sneaker business.
For a minute, The Maker Lab feels like a genuinely novel bubble where creativity and ideas are paramount—and then reality then sets in. Our session ends because Dolce, who to his credit has been super attentive to my vanity project for the better part of three hours, is pulled away to tend to James Harden, who just arrived at the Maker Space and who Adidas pays $200 million to wear their sneakers. As differently as Dolce works from other designers and executives in the industry, some things, like making sure star athletes are happy, will never change. The Sneaker Wars will keep raging, and Adidas needs Dolce to put up a fight.
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