The Nike Huarache sneaker exists thanks to a disobedient employee — Quartz
The Nike Huarache almost never existed. The shoe, made of a sock-like bootie encased in a supportive exoskeleton, was definitely unusual when Nike started showing prototypes in the early 1990s. other choice than to kill the idea.
Luckily for Nike, one product manager didn’t listen.
Nike Design Legend Tinker Hatfield Tells the Huarache’s Unlikely Success Story in New Book Sneakers, an extensive survey of sneaker culture compiled by journalists Howie Kahn and Alex French and designer Rodrigo Corral. The book is based on interviews with over 50 industry figures. Hatfield, who created iconic shoes such as the Air Max, several of the Jordan franchises greatest hitsand – yes – the Huarache, says in the book that the Huarache has become Nike’s best seller worldwide.
“In the past financial year, we will have sold over four million pairs,” he says in the book, which was published on October 24. “We expect to sell a similar number this coming year. It’s our number one shoe and at one point there was no order. (Nike did not confirm the numbers when contacted.)
The idea for the shoe came to Hatfield while he was waterskiing. The neoprene booties he wore fitted his foot and were stable. He returns to his studio and designs a shoe made up of a slipper covered with an exoskeleton.
The shoe renounced a number of conventional ideas in sneaker design. There was no heel counter – the firm support of the shoe that wraps around your heel to support it – opting instead for the distinctive harness-like, sandal-like strap. (A “huarache” is a type of Mexican sandal.) It also used neoprene, which Hatfield said had never been done before in a running shoe.
Many people thought the concept was “crazy,” he says. He went ahead anyway, winning over the skeptics. But when no one placed an order after seeing the prototypes, Nike decided not to make the shoe for the release.
Hatfield explains what happened next:
But one of our product managers thought it was great, and without proper authorization, he signed an order to build five thousand pairs even though there were no orders. He stuck his neck there. He saw what I saw. And he took those five thousand pairs to the New York Marathon, not a place you usually go to sell shoes, and he sold them all in three days in the showroom just off Times Square. The word is out. They left like hot cakes. Within a month, we went from zero orders to orders of half a million pairs.
The product manager, in case you were wondering, was Tom Hartge, as Hatfield noted in other interviews.
The Huarache debuted in 1991, and the design quickly expanded beyond running into other products, such as basketball shoes. Today, it is primarily considered a casual shoe and has seen a resurgence recently. It has been gaining popularity in the United States since at least early 2015, as writer Cam Wolf detailed in GQ.
“Certain silhouettes become the basis for entire movements and new ways of designing sneakers,” Oliver Mak, co-founder of sneaker boutique Bodega, told GQ. “The Huarache is one of them.”
An earlier version of this article named Nike product manager Tom Archie instead of Tom Hartge.