Before Nike launched Flyknit in 2012, the company invested years of research into building the machinery and software that designers could use to weave the synthetic yarn into a nearly seamless shoe uppers. It payed off. Nike has since sold scores of Flyknit shoes, and now makes products like sports bras using the same manufacturing process.
Now, Nike’s extending the process to a new material: Flyleather, a sustainable leather material modeled after Flyknit. The first batch of Flyleather shoes will be sold in an all-white tennis classic, and will later be extended to a larger line of shoes including the Air Force 1, Air Max 90, Cortez, and Jordan 1.
Flyleather looks and feels like regular leather, but comes from an entirely different process. Unlike traditional leather—made from an animal hide that’s been cured, soaked, and tanned—Nike’s material combines leather scraps and polyester blend fibers. While traditional leather-makers discard parts of the hide that are blemished or too soft and stretchy, Nike takes those scraps and grinds them into a fine dust before combining it with polyester fabric and water. “It’s a little like baking a cake,” says Tony Bignell, VP of Nike’s footwear innovation. This paste-like material, which can be dyed or imprinted with patterns for a textured feel, is then bonded a light scrim to make Flyleather.
Nike didn’t invent this technology all on its own. Instead, Nike teamed up with the British company E-Leather, which pioneered the process to make seat covers for the transportation industry. E-leather claims its material can be up to 50 percent lighter and five time as durable as typical leather because it has tensile strength built in. This tunability is useful for making more personalized shoe, too. Like Flyknit, designers can use software to build extra strength into specific areas of the upper where the foot needs more support. “Really what we’re trying to do is be more precise and engineered,” Tony says.
Best of all? The new material is more sustainable, too. Nike’s carbon footprint from leather is 8.5 million metric tons a year, making it one of the most harmful materials the company uses in its shoes. “We’ve always struggled to find ways to address the leather environmental impact,” says Hannah Jones, VP of sustainability at Nike. Rather than stitching together the best pieces of hide and throwing away the rest, Nike uses a machine to cut an upper out of a single piece of Flyleather and then reuse whatever’s left over. “You can take that what would’ve gone to landfill and put it straight back into the material, so it’s a continuous cycle,” Jones says.
Jones thinks Flyleather is close enough to traditional leather that most people won’t notice the difference. It’s soft and supple like normal leather, and even lighter to boot. In her mind, it has all of the material benefits, and none of the drawback. “It’s leather,” Jones says, “but better.”