Why The Hello Kitty Sneakers Are So Important

May 22, 2022 by Joey Birch

Why The Hello Kitty Sneakers Are So Important

The recent release of the Nike Air Presto ‘Hello Kitty’ has been a divisive one. With an IYKYK feeling to the project splitting the sneakerheads from casual footwear fans, and understandably so. 

However, the story of the Hello Kitty x Nike Air Presto is a little more intriguing than it may appear on the surface.

Nike Air Presto Prototype, 1996

Turn the clock back to 1996, during a production meeting in Korea, the beginnings of the Nike Air Presto had begun. With a prototype that uses the midsole from the Air Spiridon (which was released just a year later in 1997), the feedback on the model wasn’t as positive as Nike would have hoped for with the side panels splaying out when the sneaker was on foot leading to an unusual fit. 

“Everybody was given a pair of recently released shoes. When I put the shoe on and stood up, the collar splayed out”, says Tobie Hatfield, brother of the legendary Tinker Hatfield and designer for the Air Presto as well as the more recent ‘Flyese’ technology, in a 2016 Nike article on the history of the Presto

Following the meeting, Hatfield went back to a recent focus group he had held with runners to better understand exactly what it was that they were looking for in a running sneaker. The response was straightforward - they wanted a sneaker that would mould to the shape of their foot in conjunction with providing slipper-like comfortability. 

Nike Air Gauntlet, 1998

This idea was developed into the Nike Gauntlet. Released in 1998, the silhouette's most notable features included a ‘V Notch’ around the ankle, a reason why the Gauntlets are also coined the 'V Notches', as well as a stretchy mesh around the toebox and heel which would go on to be developed into the Air Presto we know today. An additional feature allowed the wearer to open and close the forefoot and heel clip, an idea which has been developed for the latest Nike ‘Flyese’ releases allowing easier access and a reliable fit. 

“The goal was for the shoe to be seamless and customisable,” Hatfield tells Nike. “When you combined the V-notch with the heel clip, the foot could move and behave more naturally.”

After the Nike Air Zoom Drive in 1999 which furthered the ‘98 Gauntlet, the design for the Presto was born in 2000. To find the optimum material for the upper, Tobi Hatfield first looked at a design from his brother Tinker with the Air Huarache which was released in 1991. For the design of the Huarache, Tinker took a waterskiing boot thanks to its neoprene sock-like demeanour that hugged the wearer's foot. 

However, due to the lack of breathability, Tobie decided to opt for a Spacer Mesh over the neoprene seen on the Huarache, a material used within the medical industry which would continue to offer the stretchy t-shirt like material.

This would later be used within the marketing campaigns for the sneaker, noting that the shoe was “A T-Shirt for your Feet”. The inspiration taken from a t-shirt stems back to the design of the prototype for the Air Presto in ‘96 after the wear tester, who was a size US 11, had to try a US 9 sample. Much to their surprise, the sneaker was still able to fit thanks to the stretchy material the silhouette was constructed from. This is also why Nike still to this day does not produce half sizes in the larger Nike Air Presto. In conversation with Nike, Hatfield says:

“We don’t do half sizes for our T-shirts; we do small, medium and large…so what if we tried the same thing for footwear? What if we gave the athlete a range?”.

OFF-White x Nike Air Presto, 2017

Since its release, the Air Presto has been used on several high key collaborations that include two colourways with OFF-White as part of ‘The Ten’, various ACRONYM colourways as well as the ‘Safari’ atmos pack. 

One of the most intriguing collaborations on the Nike Air Presto came in the form of the Hello Kitty pack. Designed by way of celebrating the 30th anniversary of the brand in 2004, the project is best known for its all over print design featuring the synonymous cat character.

While the sneaker was made as a way of celebrating the anniversary of Kitty White, the character's actual name, cartoons and illustrations already played a huge role in the Nike Presto’s history. Upon their rollout in 2000, each of the 10 colourways was accompanied by its own character that was used in print and television. 

OG Hello Kitty x Nike Air Presto Advert, 2004

Featuring four pairs of the Presto, the Swoosh called in two big designers for their take on the collaboration with Hello Kitty founder, Sanrio. The first of which, and the one widely regarded for their work on the shoe, is Hiroshi Fujiwara - founder of Fragment, cited as the godfather of streetwear. 

The second collaborator in the partnership, while creating some of the biggest silhouettes ever released, is widely overlooked for his participation in the project. Steven Smith, the mastermind behind the Reebok Instapump, New Balance 1500, Nike Air Spiridon Cage 2 as well as the adidas YEEZY Wave Runner, who is now working as the Executive Designer at YEEZY, has been coined the godfather of sneakers - particularly the dad shoe.

While the pack consisted of four pairs of sneakers, it was the pink, blue and white pair designed by Fujiwara and the monochrome black and blue pair that was designed by Steven Smith.

With Hiroshi's natural connection being Japanese culture, being a Japanese designer, it made sense that he would be called up for his take on release. However, Steven Smith’s involvement in the project may seem a bit left field on the surface. 

In an interview with Highsnobiety, Smith describes: “Mark Parker [now Nike CEO, then co-president] knew how much I loved Japan and Sanrio…I would bring in my Hello Kitty waffle iron and make everyone Hello Kitty head waffles once or twice a year just for fun. I brought my lunch every day in a Hello Kitty or Bad Badtz-Maru lunchbox. It just seemed natural that I should work on the special project for Hello Kitty's anniversary.”

Going forward, the plan was that the sneakers would be limited but accessible, with around 500 of each pair set to be produced. However, when it came to the actual release, the numbers were drastically reduced. 

Steven Smith

“I think we sampled seven of them,” Smith discusses during an episode of the Complex Sneakers Podcast, “and then Sanrio picked, like, four or five that they went through with. And they were supposed to make 500 I think of each of the different styles, and it turned out that it didn’t work out that way, that they only did somewhere between 10 and 24 pairs of each style.”

The sneakers never saw a public release with pairs going to friends and family of the designers and Sanrio, leading them to become a major grail for many collectors, including Leon Witherow (@prestology - Instagram) who has an incredible collection of Nike Air Presto's including all of the released Hello Kitty colourways, despite still searching for a fifth blue and white sample pair. 

At the time of writing this, it is near impossible to find a pair from the original release. However, it appears that Nike was able to make good on its promise of a wider circulation for the collaboration, with the 2022 version of the Hello Kitty x Nike Air Presto. 

With the design being closer to that of Fujiwara’s pair from 2004, the release holds a strong significance to those that are in the know. While the collaboration may not seem like a big deal to those who aren’t a fan of the original pack or simply don’t know about it (now you do), it’s the story behind Steven Smith’s lack of recognition in conjunction with the heavily limited release of the collaboration that makes these so much more than just another Hello Kitty product. 

While ​​Smith supposedly has kept sample versions that Nike never ended up producing and still has all of the graphics files he used to help design the shoes, the original pack appears to be left in the ether of sneakers that never officially came to be.