Nike turns sneaker shopping into a Wagnerian orgy of sense-surround theater

By Randy Gragg

Published November 7, 1996 7:25PM (EST)

the busiest intersection of any city is known to retailers as the "Main Main." If the world could be said to have a Main Main, it would surely be found where 57th Street and Fifth Avenue meet in New York City. An estimated 40 to 70 million potential customers pass by this corner each year, to flash their cash in shops where the rents are $600 a month per square foot.

Despite being anchored by landmarks like Tiffany's and Trump Tower, this Mecca of capitalism had yet to be honored with a truly global temple. That is, until the opening of Nike Town New York last Friday. Much as Nike's designers and marketers have transformed the sneaker and an oversized check-mark into the vestments of a global cult, so have they reinvented the retail store as a point-of-purchase cathedral. Part museum, part theme park, part opera house, Nike Town New York is arguably the most powerfully persuasive retail environment ever built.
The store, which has a kind of frightening beauty, is the perfect architectural evocation of the "Just Do It" ethos, combining the will to achieve and the desire to participate with the urge to buy.
In-house architects Gordon Thompson III and John R. Hoke III conceived of the store as a "ship in a bottle." With cinematic perfection, the outer shell suggests a WPA-era high school gym, "a gym we all know and played in" as Hoke puts it. Its facade sports limestone pilasters bracketing the huge engraved words "Honor," "Courage," "Victory," and "Teamwork." And its interior features a shoe-scuffed court floor, weathered bleachers and even water-stained rafters.

Rising inside, however, is a marketing machine worthy, in its seamless mix of nostalgia and technological supremacy, of a future world's fair. Within steps of cases displaying eight of Carl Lewis's nine gold medals and the honest-to-god, for-real Stanley Cup, a streamline moderne radio replays the greatest moments of Michael Jordan's career as magnetically charged vitrines spin sprinter Michael Johnson's world-record-shattering cleats in mid-air. An homage to Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, who engineered the company's first soles with a waffle iron, stands across from infrared measuring devices that calculate customers' shoe sizes.
Displayed throughout, in the Nike Town "neighborhoods" of "team sports," "outdoor gear," "golf," etc., is every product the company makes. Most noticeable, of course, are the shoes: all 150 versions arranged on two elliptical glass walls around a map of the globe set in a terrazzo floor.
Elegant as it is, however, Nike's new store risks playing like an arthouse movie between a cineplex and a porno palace. 57th Street's growing, disposable-income theme park offers formidable competition: The Warner Bros. Store directly across the street, for instance, invites its customers to play with lightning machines, while Wile E. Coyote morphs in an environment packed with every purchasable version of Bugs Bunny and his mates imaginable (given the extra marketing push by the wabbit's newest costar: Nike Guy Michael Jordan). Just around the corner, the Disney Store presents a pre-pubescent multiple orgasm of stuffed Pooh Bears and Pocahantas dolls heaped in a fest of swollen architectural forms. Even traditionally highbrow Gucci has joined midtown's new market of mediation, presenting its new line of seriously scanty evening wear via peek-a-boo videos visible through water-filled clefts in its storefront windows.

These stores may only be crasser versions of the "retail theater" Nike itself invented six years ago when it introduced sound effects and video broadcasts in its first store in Portland, but they're keeping the heat on. Nike Town New York will have to clear an estimated $10 million just to stay flush with its landlord, Donald Trump. And even Nike spokesman Lee Weinstein admits the other Nike Towns across the country, despite their popularity, have not been "wildly profitable."

Yet if there's any doubt the company plans to stay ahead of the pack, keep your eye on the clock — the giant digital one in the rafters of the store's 60-foot-high atrium. Showcasing the kind of championship moves with which the company sold $6.5 billion worth of products globally last year, Nike begins a competition-crushing rally every twenty minutes when the clock shows one minute left.

The aerobically relentless electro-pop pulsing throughout the store is suddenly replaced by seductive tribal drumming and soccer chants. A 50-foot screen slowly descends as a kaleidoscopic light show draws the customers to the balconies overlooking the central atrium.
As the game clock hits zero, six video projectors begin a montage of winning moments by Nike's team of world-class athletes, intermingled with picturesque images of mere mortals giving their best in every sport from jogging to wheelchair racing. Electric guitars and gravely voices find a soaring midpoint between grunge and chorale. Sense-surround cheers from packed stadiums gust from speakers slyly hidden behind the rapt customers as a narrator intones a no-nonsense invitation to join the "cult of physicality" or be left as "guilty bystanders . . . squeaking in the face of challenge."

As the music fades and the screen rolls back up, the assembled crowds know what they now just have to do.

For the Main Main of the world, Nike has propelled "retail theater" into the realm of opera or, perhaps more accurately, a capitalist version of what the 19th-century Germans called Richard Wagner's soaring multi-media extravaganzas: the gesamtkunstwerk — "total artwork."

Much as Wagner blended nostalgia and modernity to create a powerful new theater, Nike has fashioned an art of persuasion in which the act of buying a shoe has become a vote for the infinite possibilities of physical achievement.

If the Wagnerian parallel seems like a Jordan-esque leap of logic, consider the fact that Nike Town Chicago has overpowered Navy Pier, Lincoln Park Zoo and the Chicago Art Institute as that city's most popular attraction every year since it opened in 1992. And then — if this development seems a little ominous — ponder the potential Nikeian parallels in Debussy's post-mortem on Wagner's legacy: "a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn."

Randy Gragg

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