Call him what you will – king of cool kicks, shoe scientist, even street footwear wizard – but one thing’s certain about Nike Air Max creative director Dylan Raasch: he knows how to design high-tech fashion trainers the whole world wants.

Presiding over the iconic Air Max, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2017 and is enjoying a resurgence into the zeitgeist thanks to the two-pronged sneaker freak and ’80s hip-hop shoe trends, is no easy feat. Not only is Nike officially number one when it comes to the global sports footwear industry (reports suggest it sold almost US$20 billion-worth of shoes in 2016 alone) but the Air Max is the jewel in its street cred crown.

Beyonce wearing the sell-out Liquid Gold Nike Air Max trainers in 2013

Credit: Getty Images

“When I was tapped to be the Creative Director, it took some time to sink in as I was not only given a rare opportunity but a huge responsibility,” Raasch told GRAZIA. “Shaping the future of Air Max – a model with so much history – might intimidate some people [but] or me it has opened the doors of possibility.”

We spoke to the sneaker maestro about trends present and future, where he looks for design inspiration and how growing up the son of a motocross champ has influenced his design ethos. Don’t shop another sports shoe until you read this…

The King of Cool Kicks: Nike Air Max Creative Director Dylan Raasch

Do you ever look to street style OR icons for design inspiration and if so whom? I actually make it a point not to pull inspiration from street style or fashion icons for a few different reasons. Most of the time we work 24 months out and if I’m referencing something now, two years later it won’t be relevant. Secondly, inspiration pulled from someone else isn’t going to move the needle for a category like Air Max.

Where does your inspiration come from in that case? I prefer to pull from insights, cultural moments or things that are resonating with me or the team. This leads to an authentic inspiration that serves a purpose.

Street style: model Pauline Krokeide wearing Air Max trainers outside Oslo Fashion Week in January 2018
Credit: Getty Images

What’s the biggest colour trend COMING THROUGH FOR sneakers? Right now the biggest trend I’m seeing in colour is the clash or interaction of colour and how it’s applied. I think a lot of designers are using the colour shift that naturally happens with different material application and playing up that juxtaposition. We can see this with the Nike Off-White collection, as well as Undercover x Nike React Element to name a just few.

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What’s your take on the chunky ‘dad’ trainer trend permeating high fashion street style right now? I think it’s interesting only because this is one of the first times we are seeing a high fashion brand [Editor’s note: Balenciaga with its sell-out Triple S Platform Sneakers] making a statement in the sneaker market across both genders, which has traditionally been dominated by streetwear brands. It’s clear the boundaries between street style and high fashion have been torn down and are now one and the same.

“Personally, I think this [chunky dad trainer] trend will be short lived as it’s based on aesthetics and not function, which naturally puts a pretty short lifespan on it.”

How have sneaker trends changed over the past decade and what will the big looks be for next year? In 2008, we were coming out of an era dominated by retro basketball silhouettes with leather uppers and overt colour and detailing. It wasn’t until 2012 with the introduction of the Roshe [style] that simplicity and comfort took over – sneakers shifted to easy-to-wear, all-day comfort runners. Over the past two years, we’ve seen that trend fade away in favour of a huge resurgence of mid to late ’90s models, especially Air Max models. Over time though, I think this trend will start to move into a more thoughtful space of functionality over aesthetics, especially with some of the tech advancements we’re seeing.

An image from the Nike Air Max 270 campaign shot by Evan Sheehan

What is it about the Air Max that in your opinion makes it so timeless and what do you consider the signature Air Max shape? Air Max has a long history of breaking the rules and bringing dozens of never before seen innovations into the footwear world.

“In the ’90s alone, which many consider the Golden Era of Trainers, Air Max redefined what running shoes were through storytelling and innovation.”

I think that defining vision has allowed the name to become so timeless. As for the signature Air Max shape, it’s safe to say there isn’t one. If you were to black out every iconic Air Max, each silhouette would be as iconic as it’s colourway. That would be a fun test to take.

“Air Max has a long history of breaking the rules,” says Raasch. Example: clashing zebra, leopard and tiger prints 

What’s your favourite colourway in THE current NIKE collection? The University Gold Air Max 270 is my favourite because early on it set the personality for the shoe. It [the university gold] had energy, newness and really made the shoe pop.

What’s the most radical Air Max iteration you’ve ever created and why? The Air Max 270, [because] we were told it couldn’t be done. The airbag we wanted to make was too big to manufacture, but we … made it happen. We were also told by some people that women wouldn’t wear it. I’m happy to say that it has been adopted equally across both genders. Lastly, the team created the design purely off of insights gathered from talking to people and innovating on how they could push things forward, as opposed to just following a trend. I think those are all pretty radical challenges to face and overcome.

Raasch’s sketch of the ‘impossible’ Air Max 270, so-named for the 270 degrees of visibility in the air unit

You’ve included a fantastic corduroy fabric in the current collection, bringing to life the winning 2017 Vote Forward design. Are there any styles, fabrics or prints you’ve not tried yet that you’d love to do? This is a perfect example of how important storytelling [in design] is. That material was chosen because the winner of the Vote Forward contest, Sean Wortherspoon, wanted a vintage look that would fray over time. He also wanted the shoe to be vegan. This story was authentic and I believe it’s what made the shoe so unique and successful.

Sean Wotherspoon’s winning Air Max 97 x Air Max 1 vegan hybrid design features a corduroy finish inspired by vintage Nike hats from the 1980s

How many pairs of trainers (and Air Max in particular) do you own? I recently paired down my collection and only own about 30 pairs of trainers now. I’m somewhat of a minimalist, but I think it’s important to wear the shoes you work on to figure out what can be improved on. It’s also important to see what does and doesn’t last the test of time.

your father was a motocross rider in the 1970s. Has that extreme sporting influence in your early years affected your design ethos? It definitely has. I grew up in a culture where the main goal was to do something that hasn’t been done before. The evolution of extreme sports is due to that same mindset of continuously pushing the boundaries of what can be done. When I started as a footwear designer at DC Shoes in 2000, I specifically remember my boss at that time saying he didn’t want to see anything that’s been done before. That mindset is what brings us the unexpected and has been something that I have carried with me since I was young.

Raasch was told women wouldn’t buy this Air Max 270 shape. He proved them wrong

What’s the biggest pinch-me moment you’ve had so far in this role and why? I spend most of my time working with the team in Beaverton, Oregon. Beaverton is a pretty mundane city in terms of sneaker culture, but when I travel to launch events around the world, the energy can catch anyone off guard. I recently travelled to South America for a shoe launch and for the first time, I had a bodyguard and an assistant. I told them it wasn’t necessary, but they politely disagreed. Once we arrived at the launch event, I was ushered through a crowd of people that couldn’t fit in the space, many asking for autographs, all while a barrage of press photographers were jostling to get photos of me. Out of naiveté, I asked who the special guest was and they said it was me.

“It was then that I realised my role was a little bigger than I had assumed back in Beaverton.”

FINALLY, What would you say to people who throw their trainers in the washing machine to clean them? Well, it will shorten the life of your trainers but they will be cleaner than they were before. If your shoes are nice and you want to keep them around for a while, I would go with a good hand wash.

Dylan Raasch, who started his career at DC Shoes, here sketching in his Nike studio
Credit: Supplied