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 nearly seamless shoe uppers. It paid off. Nike has since sold scores of Flyknit shoes and now makes products like sports bras using the same manufacturing process.
Now, Nike is 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 with a limited number of Air Force 1, Air Max 90, Cortez, and Jordan 1s available.
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 pieces 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 pastelike material, which can be dyed or imprinted with patterns for a textured feel, is then bonded to a light scrim to make Flyleather.
Nike teamed up with British company E-Leather, which pioneered this process to make seat covers for the transportation industry. E-leather claims its can be up to 50 percent lighter and five times as durable as typical leather, because it has structural strength and stability built directly into the material. This tunability is useful for making more-personalized shoes. As with 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,” Bignell says.
Flyleather was born out of Nike’s sustainability arm as a way to reduce the amount of waste and carbon associated with leather, which is the second most harmful material the company uses in its shoes. “We’ve always struggled to find ways to address the leather environmental impact,” says Hannah Jones, chief sustainability officer 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. “You can take what would’ve gone to a 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. In her mind, it has all of the material benefits and none of the drawback. “It’s leather,” Jones says, “but better.”