Before Nike launched Flyknit in 2012, the business spent years of research into building the machines and applications that designers could use to weave the artificial yarn into a virtually seamless shoe uppers. It payed off. Nike has since sold dozens of Flyknit sneakers, and now makes products like sports bras with the same production procedure.
Now, Nike’s extending the procedure to some other substance: Flyleather, a denim leather material modeled after Flyknit. The first batch of Flyleather shoes will be sold in an all-white tennis classic, and will later be extended to a larger line of shoes such as the Air Force 1, Air Max 90, Cortez, and Jordan 1.
Flyleather feels and looks just like regular leather, but comes from a totally different procedure. Unlike traditional leather–produced from an animal hide that’s been cured, soaked, and tanned–Nike’s substance joins leather pieces and polyester blend fibers. While conventional leather-makers discard portions of the hide which are faulty or overly soft and stretchy, Nike takes those bits and grinds them into a fine dust prior to blending it with polyester fabric and water. “It is somewhat like baking a cake,” says Tony Bignell, VP of Nike’s footwear invention. This paste-like substance, which may be dyed or imprinted with patterns for a textured feel, is then secured a light scrim to create Flyleather.
Nike did not invent this technology all by itself. Rather, Nike awakened with the British firm E-Leather, which initiated the procedure to generate seat covers for the transport market. E-leather asserts its material could be up to 50 percent lighter and five time as lasting as typical leather as it has tensile strength constructed in. This tunability is helpful for creating more personalized shoe, also. Like Flyknit, designers may use software to construct additional strength into specific regions of the upper where the foot needs additional support. “Really what we’re trying to do is be more exact and engineered,” Tony says.
Best of all? The new material is more sustainable, too. Nike’s carbon footprint from leather is 8.5 million metric tons per year, which makes it one of the very harmful substances the firm uses in its own shoes. “We have always struggled to find ways to tackle the leather environmental effect,” says Hannah Jones, VP of sustainability at Nike. As opposed to stitching together the best pieces of hide and throwing away the rest, Nike uses a system to cut an upper from a single bit of Flyleather and reuse whatever is left over. “You can take what would have gone to landfill and put it into the material, so it is a constant cycle,” Jones says.
Jones believes Flyleather is close enough to traditional leather which most folks won’t see the difference. It is soft and supple like regular leather, and even lighter to boot. In her mind, it’s all the material advantages, and not one of the drawback. “It is leather,” Jones says, “but better.”