The ZX running shoe series was designed for runners when it launched in the 80s and numeric designations were initially given to each shoe, starting with the ZX 500 and ZX 800 in 1984 and 1986, and moving up to the ZX 4000 and ZX 5000 in the late 80s.
Led by French designer Jacques Chassaing, the ZX series was also a platform for adidas to amplify biomechanic driven technologies such as the brand’s Torsion system or Soft Cell cushioning. The resulting ZX silhouettes and colorways are considered by many to be iconic examples of footwear design, with OG ZXs becoming a collectors item. We had the chance to talk to the original designer Jacques Chassaing who was asked by adidas’ Gary Aspen for his input on the re-release of the ZX 4000 series in SS 2019.
Lodown: You were probably designing ZXs from scratch back in the day… today it’s more about recycling what was good from before, from a heritage point of view, whilst adding new technology. What was your inspiration for the shoe’s design (back then), seeing as you didn’t have the blueprint of looking back at previous models to glean from?
Jaques Chassaing: My inspiration was a guy called Adi Dassler, my inspiration at that time was the history of the brand, I tried to understand it and I put a lot of books together, gathered some documents, and tried to understand this guy. How did this guy create the brand? How he created the products, how he spoke to athletes, how he came up with ideas - these things were fascinating to me. I learned a lot from Adi and his products, and putting them all together was what was going on in the 80s. The brand had some running shoes which were fine, but there were running shoes which jumped from one technology to another, the only common thing was the cushioning. You had the APS system, you had the FIRE system, you had a micro pacer, you know what I mean, you had a lot of innovation. These were some of the trends from then… the 80s were a time of trying to bring ideas to innovate ends, like an escalation. Everybody was trying to come up with a different cushioning system… but for me, the main issue was that brands were basically deciding for the consumer rather than the other way round. For me that was the starting point, we wanted to look at athletes and consumers and then decide or define that there was not only one type of runner, there are at least 3 types of runners. One was looking for stability or support, the other was looking for nothing in particular because he was running normally, and the next was a different type of running altogether… there were different needs and I asked myself, how can I satisfy these guys? That’s how I started ZX. When you look at old catalogues, you have these kinds of columns defining each ZX, you have the stability column, the cushioning column, each shoe has different levels so you could decide which shoe for which need. I built up the range, with some kind of logic behind it rather than jumping from one thing to another. Each shoe had some kind of connection in its objective.
The 80s were also innovative under the influence of biomechanics, we worked together with analytic doctors, the ETH Zürich, and the University of Calgary in Canada. You had these labs checking each sport and looking at the problems in each sport, so we did the analyzation of running as an example, that’s how we came up with different types (of runners), this influenced us in a big way whereas it’s a totally different story today.
I remember doing ZX, we always sent the first shoes to UC and ETH, they tested it, they gave us their feedback - the shape of the midsole, if it has to be more like that or more like this. They could define the best angle. This was a major help in creating ZX. Besides that, you had to have ideas. ZX was built according to materials which we could afford, like the EVA mold, then ZX already 600 or 700 started with EVA inserts, ZX 1000 to 8000 with some molded inserts. There is kind of a growing influence or importance of materials, and the changing of materials, because materials are also getting more sophisticated.
LD Regarding the designs, did you get inspired by technical developments like the look and feel of it? Before it was stripped leather shoes and it became more and more layered… when you design shoes how do you pick up the structure of the look?
JC When you design a shoe, you need to think about where you want to go, if we take running as an example, as I said before, you want to do a cushion shoe - what is the best criteria for a cushion shoe, do a lightweight maybe, so that you don’t do the whole shoe in leather, then you split it down to a mix between leather and another material which is lighter, like nylon. It’s a kind of thinking process according to the requirements or needs of what you want to achieve. I don’t want to say it’s about inspiration, maybe you can say it’s inspiration if you say: I want to use the colours of the jungle, then you can say it’s inspiration. When you speak about the technical part, you have to take it from the needs and requirements of what you want to achieve or propose to satisfy, to fulfil the needs of runners - that was the past. Today, this still exists but it’s not just about the functional aspects - it’s also emotional.
LD I have the feeling that designers take what the factories offer…
JC No, it’s not about the factory, that’s not Adidas, I want to say it’s probably a part of the history of Adidas too, but Adidas went through its time of problems which is a fact and nothing confidential. Compared to Nike, which was more a designer marketing driven company, Adidas was a pure sports company. It comes from back when Adidas was the only sport brand in the world. Basically you created something and you sell it, you were almost alone in the market, no problem.
When guys like Nike came, it was different, it was reversed. You created first, you proposed it, then when you got the opportunity to sell it, you produced what was ordered. That is a different story, it’s a marketing mix I think.
So, that’s the thing, it’s not about the factories - maybe it was in the past, but now it’s about design and having an idea, an idea about material. My principal is always to ask for the extreme that you will never get, but if you ask to compromise you get less. So when I was doing my job I was always asking for the craziest things, I was sure I could get something, maybe not exactly what I wanted, but at least not be compromised from the beginning. When you look at Adidas today, you have designers, people taking care of materials, you have people taking care of long term research, or short term concepts… so it’s a totally different thing, but in the end, you can have all the facilities and it’s up to the designers to have great ideas.
LD I’m just saying this because today the sneaker world is driven by fashion and desire… where’s the innovation today is what I’m asking… that’s what I don’t see so much of because you only see lifestyle products.
JC What kind of innovation do you expect? I think innovation could be something technical, but it also carries a message, if a consumer understands the message, that’s great. When we started Torsion, at the time it was very technical, but to get a consumer to understand you needed to explain it. For me, today the best innovation is when a consumer looks at a product and he can make a connection to what he knows. Boost is one prime example, because when you look at it, it doesn’t look like EVA material because it’s got a different texture, but then he makes the connection with something he knows like polyester or styrofoam or all of these things, this is also important. Going back to Nike, Nike did Air where there is nothing to explain, because the consumer understands it. This is a success of innovation that is easy to understand, easy to explain.
So Boost, it gives you a different look, I think it’s a bit of an appealing thing because consumers understand how they are made, there’s an emotional connection and what better place than in ZX? Today’s lifestyle consumer is searching for an appealing look and, in addition to that, for comfort. It’s interesting for me to say, this is also the objective as a designer. You have to take risks, you have to go all the way. It’s like, “Why not do a shoe with a heel on the toe?,” this is probably innovative but it doesn’t mean it works just by breaking the limits. I think it’s the right direction, as Boost is a statement technology.