Apr 27, 2022
by James Roberts
The Nike ISPA Link Breaks the Mold … Literally
by James Roberts
Apr 27, 2022

You’d be forgiven for not remembering every Nike design team, initiative, sub-brand and campaign. But, if anything, it demonstrates the brand’s appetite to create new, problem-solving products and ideas.

ISPA is one of those Nike design teams. More specifically, it’s a philosophy: Improvise; Scavenge; Protect; Adapt. It’s an internal challenge to break the mold, defy conventions and search for solutions that reduce waste and care for the planet.

It’s been a couple years since we’ve seen anything from the ISPA department. In 2020, Nike released the ISPA Zoom Road Warrior, ISPA Overreact FK, ISPA Overreact FK Sandal, ISPA Flow 2020 and ISPA Drifter, plus an apparel capsule. It was a collection of strange new silhouettes. This year is no different.

This latest iteration of ISPA shoes have the circular design principle of disassembly at their heart. The products can be taken apart in order to recycle their contents. This is one of the biggest obstacles to recycling footwear. Glue and other bonding elements are traditionally used to make shoes durable and flexible. But that makes them difficult to pull apart and instead, they are generally shredded in an energy-intensive process. The challenge to the ISPA team was to create a shoe that overcame this.

And this is what they came up with: the ISPA Link and ISPA Link Axis. Two shoes that challenge the way footwear is made (and unmade). The sneakers are made with interlocking modules connected without glue. Its innovative construction process actually means the ISPA Link takes less time to assemble than a traditional shoe. And with no need for cooling, hearting and conveyor belt systems, the process is much more energy efficient. When you’re done with them, simply take them apart and drop them off at a Nike store where they’ll be recycled or donated.

This construction method doesn’t forgo comfort though. The functional design of the ISPA Link results in a stable and breathable midsole with an exceptional fit. Nor does it forgo aesthetics. The ISPA Link has a desert planet-like look with its bulbous, organic shapes and is finished in a range of colorways made up of yellows, beiges and bronzes. It wouldn’t look out of place on the feet of Timothée Chalamet in Dune.

The ISPA Link Axis is, for now, a prototype. It features a 100 percent recycled polyester Flyknit upper and 100 percent recycled TPU tooling that uses scrap airbag material. The resulting object is a bubbly and futuristic shoe, with a multi-colored finish.

The functionality of a shoe that can be disassembled came before any idea of what that might look like. “It really is a case of form following function,” says Darryl Matthews, VP, Catalyst Footwear Product Design. “Our hope is that these ideas and aesthetics become normalized, accelerating our ability to imagine how shoes will continue to evolve in the future.”

The next step for the ISPA team is to develop these methods at industry scale to reach a wider audience and create a business model that allows customers to recycle any of Nike’s products easily. No small feat. But then again, breaking the mold is never easy.

The ISPA Link is set to drop in June while you’ll have to wait until early 2023 for the ISPA Link Axis.