A few decades ago, you had two choices when it came to sneakers. You could either get a functional running shoe that was designed to take you places (if not to necessarily look good as it did it), or you could get a street style sneaker, which was less about support and energy responsiveness than it was about fashion. But then the lines started to blur. In the years since, they’ve blurred even more, with the result that footwear designers can’t get away with making functional shoes look any less stylish than fashion sneakers anymore. Case in point – the Nike Presto, an iconic silhouette that was designed for athletes, but which found as much of a market as a street fashion shoe as it did as a runner. Since its launch in 2000, the Nike Presto has become a staple of sport style. It’s been featured in art galleries, worn by some of the world’s top athletes, and wormed its way into a fair share of our closets. Its lightweight, form-fitting construction has also had a profound impact on Nike itself. Natural motion is no longer just a vague theory: it’s an integral part of the brand’s design process, something that can be attributed almost entirely to the Nike Presto.
Back in 1996, a Nike footwear designer by the name of Tobie Hatfield set out to create a sneaker that fitted like a glove and was comfortable in a way no sneaker had been before. At that point, even the most forward-thinking styles still had a score of limitations, resulting mainly from the inflexibility created when the materials of the upper were bought together with stitching. Runners were demanding a new type of sneaker, a sneaker that didn’t compromise on either comfort or flexibility. Hatfield’s design sketches eventually led to a prototype he named the ‘V’ notch, which featured a carved-out ‘V’ on the ankle that was intended to enhance the shoe’s fit.
As kickspotting.com says, Hatfield didn’t want to run in the sneaker himself as he wanted to get unbiased feedback. So he asked a colleague to try it on instead. There was just one problem: the prototype was a size 9 and his colleague was a size 11. As it turned out, Hatfield needn’t have worried. When his colleague tried on the sneaker, he found it so comfortable, he was surprised to find it was a whole 2 sizes too small. It seemed that as well as improving the heel fit, Hatfield’s ‘V’ notch was also working to reduce collar tension and create a lengthening effect that allowed the sneaker to adjust in size to fit the wearer’s foot. The implications were profound. If someone could wear a sneaker several sizes smaller than their usual size and not notice, what did it mean for Nike’s conventional footwear sizing? “We don’t do half sizes for our T-shirts; we do small, medium, and large,” Hatfield says. “So what if we tried the same thing for footwear? What if we gave the athlete a range?”
In 1998, Hatfield’s prototype got its first outing in the shape of the Nike Air Gauntlet. With a V-notch, a single layer stretch mesh upper, an almost seamless interior, and a spring steel heel, the Gauntlet offered a customizable fit and superb comfort. The foot could move naturally, a feat that, at the time, was remarkable. In line with Hatfield’s sizing ideas, the sneaker was available in sizes from extra small to extra large. But the Gauntlet didn’t mark the end of Hatfield’s vision. He kept refining the style, adding a midfoot cage and external heel counter for support, along with a toe bumper for comfort.
Several revisions down the line, he’d perfected the shoe. All it needed now was a name. After deciding to put the decision over to the design and development community, Hatfield received over 300 suggestions. He eventually decided on Presto, a nod to how the shoe would fit seamlessly onto the wearer’s foot as though by magic. “When you put the shoe on, it fits so perfectly that it’s almost like a magician saying: ‘Presto’,” he explains via Nike News.
After finalizing on a name and a design, all that was left for Nike to do was decide on a selection of colorways (it eventually plumped for a series of playful choices that were as remarkable for their names – “Catfight Shiner,” “Trouble at Home,” “Abdominal Snowman” and “Rabid Panda,” to name a few – as they were their colors) and launch its new design on the world. In fall 2000, the first lot of Nike Prestos hit the shelves. They didn’t stay there for long. Thanks to the cutting-edge tech, the lightweight, form-fitting design, and the minimalist construction, the Presto was an overnight sensation. As appreciated by elite athletes as it was by your Average Joe about town, Nike’s new offering flew off the shelves. The tongue-in-cheek humor of the accompanying advertising campaign didn’t exactly harm matters either. If you wanted a shoe that could be run in, jumped in, and worn without losing an ounce of style in the process, this was it.
The Evolution of the Presto
It may be over 20 years old but the Presto has never lost its allure. These days, buyers have a whole catalog of Presto options to choose from, including the Nike Presto Ultra Flyknit (a complete reworking of the classic design that still manages to keep the comfort, fit, and flexibility of the original firmly intact) and the Nike Presto React, a sneaker that combines the style of the Presto with Nike’s proprietary React technology, a revolutionary foam that’s specifically designed to offer unparalleled levels of flexibility, softness, comfort, and responsiveness.
As Grailed writes, the Nike Presto was born out of the need to buck conventions to solve problems that no one else was seeing. It took Hatfield four years to create the perfect solution. So impactful has the result been, it’s easy to forget that such problems ever existed in the first place. The Presto gave us a sneaker that managed to fit our feet like they’d been made for them. It was comfortable, it was flexible, and it had a style that didn’t limit its wearability to the gym. In short, it was iconic. Over 20 years after it was first launched, it still is.