words & interview // Nick DePaula
It wasn't until last summer that the general consumer began to take notice of Under Armour's Running category, and that can largely be attributed to the polarizing design of the Charge RC. The breakthrough runner introduced a timely lighter and more minimal platform, and just as importantly, it incorporated a textile-based comfort story through the upper that spoke to the brand's longtime dominance on the apparel side.
This summer, Under Armour Running is launching a complement to the Charge RC that they hope can start to capture even more attention from runners and general athletes alike, with the new Spine RPM sitting right in between the lightweight and support categories that have long defined the running industry.
To hear all about the new platform, which will soon be making its way into Basketball, Football and even Baseball, we recently caught up with Dave Dombrow, Under Armour's Creative Director of Footwear and designer of the Spine. Check out our detailed conversation ahead, along with several exclusive concept designs straight from Dave's personal sketchbook.
Priced at $100, the Spine RPM launches today in six colorways for Men over at UA.com.
Nick DePaula: What was the initial insight around the Spine?
Dave Dombrow: The initial insight really started from looking at the retail wall actually. We were doing some market travel, and at the specific space we were at, one side of the wall was all about lightweight, and the other side of the wall was all about structure and stability. We looked at each other and wondered why the market had to be so black and white. We know that consumers want shoes to be light, but most of us also need some sort of support. The idea initially was, “How do we blend those two into a new technology?” That eventually led to the creation of Spine.
NDP: That’s real cool. One of the things that I was curious about too, is was there a notion around doing something that was more visible and communicative visually?
DD: Of course, and we wanted a shoe that obviously could perform technically, but we wanted it to be able to communicate to the consumer that idea almost instantly. In some ways, the shoe has to sell itself, and we knew that would be a major component behind the success of it and that shaped how we designed it.
NDP: Did the idea start with the name Spine, or did that come later? What were some of the original ideas once you talked about naming it?
DD: Yeah, it came later, but when we started looking at this idea of combining lightweight and structure, we looked at different inspiration that was both flexible and rigid. We looked at things like a bat’s wing or even helicopter rotors, which look very structural, but they’re actually bending when you see them in slow motion. Eventually we came back to the idea of Spine because it captured everything this was about. If you look at the spine of humans, and all creatures for that matter, it’s definitely one of the most dynamic motion systems ever created. It’s combining all of these attributes of something that’s flexible and rigid at the same time. Luckily, it was a perfect world and we were able to birth it with the name of the technology.
NDP: Under Armour Running began by using the Cartilage cushioning setup. Was the idea to have a link to that anatomic naming story that you guys were looking to build on?
DD: Not intentionally. [laughs] The idea of always coming back to anatomy, especially if you look at Under Armour’s DNA and how we leverage apparel and how we are all about the human body, it’s only natural, even it was subconscious [laughs], that we came to the idea and name of Spine. I guess you could say there is some sort of evolutionary thing going on there.
Below: Concept designs from Dave Dombrow's sketchbook.
NDP: Can you break down the foam compound a little bit and the way the tooling is actually interlocked and constructed?
DD: The first component to look at is the structural frame [seen in neon yellow to the right] on the outside. That is a foam compound, so it does have some elasticity and cushion to it, but it definitely serves as a structural frame. What we did then, was drop into that frame a core of Micro G foam. [Seen in grey to the right.] The idea around that is that Micro G is going to give that great cushion and rebound, and then the structural frame is going to support you as you need it. I think the one thing with the frame to take an extra look at is that we really cored it out. We went through prototype after prototype and took out as much as we could to not only bring the weight way down, but it also gave us a lot of natural flex by doing that. It does a great job of blending that support, flexibility and lightweight.
NDP: I’ve definitely seen enough shoes to get that concept visually, but I also like how targeted you were in placing rubber only where you needed and adding in nice insets throughout. Did you guys use a soft strobel as well?
DD: Yeah, we did, and anything we can do to add to the cushioning and rebound we’ll do. When you look at it, we spent a lot of time on that bottom because that’s the hero of the shoe, but even on the upper, it’s a very seamless and ultra light bonded upper. The idea around that was zero distractions, and we really wanted to maximize the cushioning in the tooling and then have that aspect of sensation when you put the upper. The upper is quite seamless in that sense.
NDP: Obviously Under Armour is known for textiles and construction. Did you guys go through a lot of different kinds of meshes, and where did you land on the sandwich mesh that you landed on?
DD: Like you said, we’re known for that, and we can leverage our apparel DNA. We looked at a lot of our MPZ constructions, and that stands for Modular Protection Zone. Those will a lot of times work with a sandwich type construction, and what we did was develop something that we thought would be the ultimate in pure comfort and still capture our DNA. There was definitely a lot that came from our apparel in that sense.
NDP: I know at the launch event that you guys had Tom Brady and Kemba Walker on hand. What different athletes were involved along the way, whether it was just in terms of general feedback or actual weartesting?
DD: All of the athletes have seen Spine at a few earlier stages along the way and have tested various iterations. The thing that’s great about Spine is that a guy like Tom or Lindsay Vonn, who was also there, or Kemba, is that they can all wear it and get something different out of it. It’s light enough for Lindsay and Kemba, but it’s also flexible enough and will adapt to how much flex you need. What Tom needs is different than what a guy like Kemba would need, but as they tested it adapted great for their different needs. That was real encouraging, and our mission is to make all athletes better, and that’s really what Spine captures. It’s making Tom and Kemba better in their training.
NDP: How does this also complement the Charge RC, which is a more minimal shoe?
DD: The Charge is really all about mindshare [and creating awareness for the brand]. It’s had a great impact for us and I think it really made a statement in terms of how we can leverage our apparel DNA and how we approach design. Where the Charge was really a bit more niche and a little more targeted to a specific consumer, I would say the Spine is a little bit more broad and really goes after making all athletes better. We have different pillars in all of our performance categories, whether that’s in Basketball, Baseball or our on-field. In Running, we have Go Fast, Go Far for more of the endurance side, and then also Go Natural, which is all about natural motion. Each one of the products that we’ll launch goes after and fits in one of those pillars.
NDP: In terms of color, the versions that you guys unveiled were more muted grey uppers with brighter Spine platforms. Is that the idea for the first season, or will you guys switch that up quite a bit?
DD: Not really actually, and you’ll start to see a pretty good range where we’ll do bright colors on the upper instead and white on the tooling too. We launched with bright colors on the tooling because that is where the focus is, and we wanted to highlight the Spine technology. But you’ll see that shift and we’ll be bringing colors to the uppers going forward as well.
NDP: A lot of brands have in recent years been designing one platform and then have had that live on several seasons with different uppers. Is that the idea here, and will we see variations on this Spine platform?
DD: Yeah, and Spine will be much bigger than just a running shoe. You’re going to see it in Basketball at the end of this year. You’ll probably see it on players even before that, but you’ll see it in retail at the end of the year. [laughs] You’ll also see it actually make its way into Baseball and Football as well [through our plates], and it’s going to be quite a broad platform for us. It’s going to not just make a runner better -- it’ll make every athlete better.
NDP: As the designer, do you have a favorite detail or design cue of the shoe?
DD: For me, I think I’d go back to the philosophy of it. I don’t know that there’s one piece, but if you look at the bottom of it, you can see that Micro G through it and it’s very cored out. I always love designs where you strip everything away and you’ve left just the essentials for the optimum performance. It’s like a F1 car, and you’ve taken everything away to get to that optimum performance. Of course I always want it to look great and be very stylish, but the idea of getting to that optimum performance through design is what I’m really excited about and what I think going forward Under Armour is excited about. We’re an innovation brand and premium brand, and we’re going to get there through performance design.