Not many designers can say they have spearheaded a new era for a global brand, but Janett Nichol isn’t just any designer. As the Vice President of Apparel Innovation at Nike, Nichol brings over 30 years of design experience within the fashion and sportswear industry. By leading the innovation team for the Apparel NXT (Nike Explore Team) organization, she is using her past experience to shape and innovate Nike’s new Forward platform.
After 5 years of research, the development of Nike Forward is a testament to Nichol’s dedication to ensuring athletes are wearing clothes that work with them, not against them. The stop-motion visuals highlight this ethos — to move ahead, to view life as half full rather than half empty, and to be in charge of the direction of one’s life as they navigate the world. More importantly, it represents the importance of living with the mindset that forward is always the best possible direction. As a leader in change-making, Forward demonstrates Nike’s commitment to climate change with sustainability at the forefront by creating their Nike Forward garments with fewer steps. All innovations created with Nichol at the helm.
Schön! Magazine chats with Janett Nichol about the goals she has in her role, collaborating with real athletes for Nike Forward, and more.
As the VP of Apparel Innovation, what are some of the things you’re aiming to do in your role?
There are many things that I aim to do in this role and these three I believe are most important:
Unearthing and unlocking new innovations that solve the problems that our athletes wrestle with every day. This is done by creating something new or hacking and re-engineering something that already exists in a new way.
Creating long-standing technologies that become synonymous with the excellence of the brand. Think Nike Dri-FIT or Nike Flyknit. Nike’s long history of creating innovations that stand the test of time and continue to get better with the advancement of science and technology is what we strive to do every day.
Leading a diverse group of innovators to dream big, push boundaries and never give up, even when it seems there is no way forward. Some of our biggest innovations were created when we stayed true to our purpose, believed with our gut, and listened to the voice of the athlete. Creating new innovations can be one of the hardest things to do because while the idea may be clear, the journey to get there can be very challenging and lonely. That requires a resilient mindset and a firm belief in the dream.
You’ve had over 30 years of experience in fashion and sportswear. How have you and the industry grown in the last 30 years? How has your experience taught you what you needed to know to approach your role at Nike, Inc.?
The industry has evolved to be more inclusive and responsive than ever before. More time has been spent listening to what consumers desire and expect from the industry. The same is true with me. In the innovation space, we always say that we start by listening to the voice of the athlete and that is very true. I have spent many hours listening to athletes around the world and one general theme pierces through which is, If I look good, I feel good and if I feel good, I play good. In my estimation, listening to our athletes and consumers is one of the most important things we do. It is one of the biggest unlocks to what we do next, and it is how we determine what problems we need to continue to solve. Equally important is having the curiosity and dreams of a child. There is no right or wrong, or too small or too big in those moments, there is only the possibility of doing the impossible and that is a magical place to be.
You started your role as a designer. How has it been to create products that grow as more innovations are made?
I am a designer at heart so designing performance-based innovative products has been and continues to be a humbling and rewarding experience. With the advancement of science and technology, the creation process is more powerful because we’re able to solve problems in a more focused and precise way. Early in my career, everything I created was made in the traditional way of designing and making garments. I designed with pencil and paper vs using a computer. I would manually place materials and colours where they needed to be to derive the ultimate benefit for the consumer. Today, we don’t have to do that because of the evolution of science and technology and design-specific software programs, and because of the advancement in digital tools, everything is much faster and more precise. As a designer, you have much control over your vision. You can collaborate and ideate with anyone in the world in real-time and accelerate the time it takes to get to proof of concept.
Can you tell us a bit about Nike’s new ‘Nike Forward’ line?
Nike Forward is a game-changing innovation platform, a new material that revolutionizes apparel creation. Nike Forward is purpose-built, and its first iteration is mainly made from recycled content (70% by weight) in a multiple thin layer construction that drastically reduces carbon output by an average of 75% compared to Nike traditional knit fleece. That is due to the use of recycled content, lower process energy use and lower lateral density.
To create Forward, the team hacked a needle-punch machine and innovated the way of using it for the purpose of making premium, sustainability-minded products. This is the biggest apparel innovation since Dri-Fit 30 years ago and has huge potential to transform the industry like Nike Air or Nike Flyknit.
What did you speak to athletes about to design this new line?
All over the world, athletes tell us that climate change is impacting them and their ability to perform at their best. This launch represents our commitment to answering athletes’ calls for more sustainable options — grounded in our authenticity in sport. We know that they never stop striving for better, so neither do we. In design, as in sport, better is only temporary—which is why we are relentless in our pursuit of both incremental improvements and game-changing innovations that help protect the planet and the future of sport.
Climate change is a serious issue, especially in fashion. How is Nike helping to alleviate the effects of climate change through their clothing?
As the biggest apparel company in the world, we have a responsibility to reimagine sustainable innovation and create solutions at scale to reduce our impact. Nike Forward is a Nike-only innovation platform purpose-built to drastically reduce environmental impact. Sustainability continues to be a key aspect of Nike’s innovation agenda. Design is a critical unlock to achieving more sustainable innovation, and our vision is to grow the business without having to rely upon scarce resources. The idea of constraint can actually serve as fuel for innovation. By establishing constraints from the beginning – like designing a product without waste or reducing carbon emissions and using environmentally preferred materials – barriers can be broken in new and unexpected ways.
What are some of the current trends in sportswear, science, and innovation that you’re seeing?
This is our most significant apparel innovation since Dri-FIT and we believe it has the potential to transform the apparel industry like Flyknit did for footwear 10 years ago. Nike Flyknit started with two shoes and is now a technology we use at a massive scale across our footwear and apparel products. The Nike Forward platform also has great potential to scale rapidly across our product engine and over the next two to three years you’ll see that in our product offerings. There is also the exciting possibility to engineer it for specific performance and aesthetic attributes. The future is very bright for the Nike Forward innovation platform.
What is the collaboration process like between you and your innovation team?
Nike Forward embodies Nike’s culture of innovation. One of relentless creativity, diverse perspectives, trial and error, and learning. All to help make athletes better and the world better for athletes. Often, our best innovations result from trying to solve the greatest athlete problems, and there’s no greater challenge than climate change. Given our size and scale, we have a responsibility to do what we can to tackle it and so, we’re embracing sustainability and how we use our choices to create change. Our teams invested half of a decade in research and development to create a more sustainable apparel solution, and that is possible because it was crafted through the mindset that makes the art, science, and magic of Nike possible.
Lastly, what do you hope wearers of Nike Forward feel while they wear the hoodie?
The bold new look and feel of Nike Forward expresses this pursuit of a better future — a sophisticated ethos that honours the raw aesthetic of recycled materials, the restraint of additive elements and ways of caring for our garments. We hope that when wearing Nike Forward athletes* can feel like they are also taking action to create a better world. We hope it can help change the way people think about the clothing they wear, the way it’s made, the way it’s cared for and ultimately, the impact it has on our planet and sport.