They Do Feel Like Socks

Nike Sock Dart SE Premium

Which came first: the sock or the shoe? Fashion historians don’t always agree on that one. Problem is, early shoes, by appearance alone, could be deemed socks since they were basically a piece of fabric (mostly from pelt) used to wrap the feet. But since the enfolded hide may not be comfortable, they were stuffed with grass. The grass (presumably as dry as hay), to historians, could, therefore, be considered socks, which means, there is the possibility that shoes and socks came concurrently. If that were so, why couldn’t one dispense with the other by making footwear as durable as a shoe and as comfortable as a sock?

In the field of modern sneaker design, this conundrum has constantly interested and inspired sneaker makers since the ’70s. As one of many stories goes, the co-founder and serial innovator of Nike, Bill Bowerman, was on a mission to create a sock on a sole for athletes who suffered from blisters wearing the company’s stitched and seamed shoes. That led to the Sock Racer of 1985—an unusual sheath of a sneaker that was strapped down on the outer arch of the foot. There was, unsurprisingly, no stopping the evolution of that concept, and soon the Air Flow (1988), Air Huarache (1991) and Air Presto (2000) came out successively with much success.

The latest sock-sneaker to join the family of slip-ons at Nike is the Sock Dart. This is, however, not a new shoe; it first appeared in 2004, in six colourways, with virtually no hype about its strengths. It is not clear if the fist-gen Sock Dart was a success, and many now think it was not since the strange-looking shoe was discontinued. Then came 2014, when a limited-edition version was released as collaboration between the newly conceived Nikelab and Fragment Design’s Hiroshi Fujiwara. Nikelab, a new entity of parent Nike, basically creates fashionable styles of both footwear and apparel based on current or previous design ideas; it must distinguish itself from the main line with quality and the ability to set trends.

How did Hiroshi Fujiwara get himself involved in this? According to the story that circulated around the time of the re-imagined shoe’s launch in 2004, it was Mr Fujiwara who prodded Nike’s design master Tinker Hatfield to consider reworking the Sock Racer’s form factor into a new shoe. At that time, Mr Hatfield was reportedly exploring the possibility of a born-again Air Presto, as well as developing a circular knit construction for shoe uppers that were similar to socks (apparently, a prototype emerged that was based on a real sock). The latter, as we now know, is the Flyknit.

Nike Sock Dart SE Premium pic 2

When both sneaker gurus were pouring over the Air Presto—as early as 2000, Mr Fujiwara was presented a sample of the Sock Dart. As followers of game-changing sneaker fashion will know, Mr Fujiwara has quite a weakness for shoes with not terribly conventional, feet-flattering shapes. His enthusiastic reaction to the Sock Dart was probably enough for Mr Hatfield to consider the shoe’s post-Yeezy appeal and potential. This is, admittedly, speculation since we don’t know Nike was aware of Adidas’s design plans with Kanye West.

We will also not shy away from acknowledging that we did not immediately take a shine to the Sock Dart when it first appeared. At our initial encounter with the shoe in Tokyo in 2015, we thought that it was a little too formless and broad, a bit too low-tech, too orthopedic, in fact—which meant that we could not ignore its geek leaning. Truth be told, we were a little too preoccupied with the Air Max Zero, that unborn older sibling of Air Max 1 belatedly delivered that same year.

We met the Sock Dart again last year in the Sneaker Space of Dover Street Market in London. This time, the meeting was totally amiable.  The Sock Dart was a version that came suffixed with “SE Premium”. Despite its better-grade branding, this still looks like what we came across a year earlier. But now, the “sock-like mesh upper”—as Nike calls it, rather than the similar Flyknit—was a two-tone weave not unlike an Oxford cloth. That, paired with the speckled midsole, makes this Sock Dart especially appealing and an ideal companion to jeans. The oddness, this time, oddly just didn’t look so odd.

Once the feet went inside, the comfort level was indisputable. However, they felt like socks rather than fit like socks. Like regular sneakers, there was room between toes and the mesh, which wasn’t such a bad idea since the lack of snugness meant the feet could enjoy natural motion, and you might forget you’re wearing shoes. If you need the Sock Dart to be secure (for running, for instance), you can adjust the perforated silicone forefoot strap by pushing the small nubs on the bottom piece against any of the holes. With no lacing needed, this sneaker is always ready to be slipped into and go. Who does not appreciate such ease?

The Sock Dart SE Premium is unusual and quite unlike other Nike footwear such as the Air Jordan in its lack of blaring branding. The Swoosh does not appear as a massive smile along its sides, not even in the rear. Instead, Nike’s trademark is but a tiny tone-on-tone tick at the base of the forefoot strap and a little lick in white at the top of the tongue. To those unfamiliar with the Sock Dart, you could be wearing a pair of Muji shoes!

The Nike Sock Dart SE Premium, SGD225, is available at select Nike stores, as well as Photo: A.B. Tan