The Nike Huarache almost never existed. The shoe, made of a sock-like bootie encased in a supportive exoskeleton, was definitely unusual when Nike began showing around the prototypes in the early 1990s. Practically nobody placed orders, and Nike seemed to have little choice but to kill the idea.
Lucky for Nike, one product manager didn’t listen.
Nike design legend Tinker Hatfield tells the unlikely success story of the Huarache in the new book Sneakers, a wide-ranging survey of sneaker culture compiled by journalists Howie Kahn and Alex French and designer Rodrigo Corral. The book is based on interviews with more than 50 industry figures. Hatfield, who created iconic shoes such as the Air Max, several of the Jordan franchise’s biggest hits, and—yes—the Huarache, says in the book that the Huarache has become Nike’s top-seller globally.
“This past fiscal year, we will have sold over four million pairs,” he states in the book, which was released Oct. 24. “We’re planning to sell a similar number this coming year. It’s our number one shoe and at one point it had zero orders.” (Nike would not confirm the figures when contacted.)
The idea for the shoe came to Hatfield while he was water skiing. The neoprene booties he was wearing conformed to his foot, and felt stable. He went back to his studio and sketched out a shoe made up of a bootie covered by an exoskeleton.
The shoe dispensed with a number of conventional ideas in sneaker design. It had no heel counter—the firm backing of the shoe that wraps around your heel to support it—opting instead for the distinctive, harness-like strap, similar to a sandal. (A “huarache” is a kind of Mexican sandal.) It also used neoprene, which Hatfield says had never before been done in a running shoe.
A lot of people thought the concept was “nuts,” he says. He pushed on anyway, winning the skeptics over. But when no one placed orders after seeing the prototypes, Nike decided not to make the shoe for release.
Hatfield explains what happened next:
But one of our product managers actually thought it was awesome, and without proper authorization, he signed an order to build five thousand pairs even though there were no orders. He stuck his neck way out there. He saw what I saw. And he took those five thousand pairs to the New York Marathon, not a place you typically went to sell shoes, and he sold them all in like three days at the exhibition hall right there near Times Square. Word got out. They went like hotcakes. In a month, we went from zero orders to orders for half a million pairs.
The product manager, in case you’re wondering, was Tom Hartge, as Hatfield has noted in other interviews.
The Huarache debuted in 1991, and the design quickly spread beyond running to other products, such as basketball shoes. Now it’s mostly considered a casual shoe, and has recently enjoyed a resurgence. It’s been growing in popularity in the US since at least early 2015, as writer Cam Wolf detailed in GQ.
“Some silhouettes become the foundation for whole movements and new ways of designing sneakers,” Oliver Mak, co-founder of sneaker shop Bodega, told GQ. “The Huarache is one of them.”
An earlier version of this article named the Nike product manager as Tom Archie instead of Tom Hartge.