Nike hot air

 

SPORT obsessed New Yorkers have a new temple. Situated in the heart of Manhattan, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, NikeTown opened its enormous doors this month to display the latest "retail experience" from the giants of the athletic footwear world.

The atmosphere of NikeTown with its gleaming glass and steel interior composed of columns, tubes and spirals, is a cunning combination of ancient Sparta and Cecil B. De Mille. It is not the first NikeTown - the cities of Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta already have one - but as Lee Weinstein of Nike puts it: "New York is where it's at as far as style is concerned."

The idea behind the new NikeTown is what the company's creative department call "the ship in the bottle effect". The ship is a carefully reproduced imitation of a 1930s gymnasium the sort of place where the young Joe DiMaggio might have knocked about a punchball. There are old fashioned ventilator shafts wooden floors, cranky old clocks and chalked over scoreboards - and every bit of it is the product of the Nike design team. There is an artful coating of rust over the ventilation shaft suggesting years of sad decay; it's entirely fake though, as Lee Weinstein rather frostily points out: "The Nike term is faux."

The Nike legend makes liberal use of faux: there's even an invented history including an imaginary 1930s baseball team called the Knights, after Nike founder Philip H. Knight. Under the marble floors of the central hall, they have even enshrined in glass The Knights' battered old ball. Your sense of reality can go a bit shaky in NikeTown: after about an hour in there I wasn't entirely sure what had existed and what hadn't.

If the ship is about the great heritage of sporting values, the bottle is about the triumph of modern technology: there are 26 tubes that take individual pairs of trainers from one floor to another, encased in metal as if they were gold bullion; every 30 minutes, a gigantic screen opens in the main atrium to show a five minute Nike film; sporting results from around the world are beamed on to a huge computer screen. The pantheon of photographs of Nike athletes straining to win is like a roll call of saints (or as Lee Weinstein puts it: "the key icons in the Nike timeline"). There are even precious objects such as Andre Agassi's very own sweaty tennis shoe, spinning miraculously, held up by a magnetic forcefield.

The shoes themselves are displayed singly on glass pedestals like Faberge eggs, over floors engraved with the mottos "Courage", "Commitment", "Honor", "Teamwork".

All this suggests that Nike might have been supplying footwear for the ancient Greeks. In fact, it was founded only 20 years ago in Oregon by Philip Knight and former coach Bill Bowerman, with £500. Now, they control a multi milliondollar empire which employs 200,000 workers in Asia. It was Bowerman who invented the famous waffle sole when he accidentally poured molten plastic on to his wife's waffle iron; needless to say, a replica of that very same iron is proudly displayed in NikeTown, in a showcase designed to look like Bowerman's garage all those years ago, with the requisite faux oil smears.

Things can go wrong - even in the empire of perfection. When I was there, they confessed to having problems with a mechanism that makes Pete Sampras's trainer spin round, and a man with a very large foot said the computerised foot measurer was playing up. A Nike assistant rushed forward looking stricken and apologising profusely: "We're having teething, troubles - we're so sorry to let you down."

The purpose of NikeTown is more messianic than mercenary - Lee Weinstein freely admits the company expects to make no sales profit from NikeTown: what they are counting on is reaping the rewards of propaganda that will make Nike the most sought after brand of footwear for every style conscious teenager in the country.

Nike may sell the image of physical perfection, but they have also been highly successful in making the trainer represent far more than simply comfortable; shoes for running in. Few of the customers browsing round NikeTown looked as though they put their trainers through much more than a walk to the subway: these elaborate concoctions of latex, plastic and leather are serious status symbols. And Nike has shown itself to be no mean player when it comes to playing games with symbols.