Interview Steve McDonald- Nike ACG

ACG sold in the inner cities and ‚ACG‘ meant Alcohol, Cocaine and Guns.

Coming from the heart of Nike ACG the Designer Steve McDonald is talking real about how it began and what it is all about. His perspective on the shoe game is quite special because he has always been also an active sports-guy besides creating some of the most influencial designs in the history of performance-shoes.

-How old have you been during that first ACG phase in the early nineties?

Steve: I started working at Nike quite early in1988. I worked with Mark Parker and Geoff Hollister on a water sport sock and surf boarding shoes. Parker wanted me as an employee at Nike but I decided to go to ESPRIT in San Francisco. I came back to Nike as an employee in 1990 and started ACG with several other people.

-What inspired you when you created those timeless classics like the Azona?

Steve: I believe that Tinker came up with the ‘Mowabb’ name (phonetic words). I liked the idea and I am originally from Utah so I started coming up with other names like Yewtah, Air Azona, Whyomin, Air Astotle, Air Revaderchi. I had spent a lot of time hiking, climbing and mountaineering around Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, and Colorado.
When I designed the Air Azona I was thinking about Peter Croft, free solo rock climber. He wanted a shoe to climb the Sierras ridges using sticky rubber, comfort, durability and super lightweight shoes. He was the old school version of Alex Honnold today.

-Would you agree that there are like three or even four eras of Nike ACG?

Steve: Yeah, I know. There where a lot of talented designers with ACG. Even back in the day there were terrible politics. I think it is even worse now. Sergio Lozano, Kathy Bailey, me, Peter Fogg, Matt Rask and Torrey Orzeck were great to work with. I’m not a fan of the latest ACG stuff. The new stuff isn’t really for outdoor athletes. It’s more fashion victim shoes. The apparel product looks pretty cool. I’d wear some of the but not the ACG shoes.

-What is your opinion about the latest stuff from Acronym founder Erolson Hugh?

Steve: I have never met Errol. He has a tough job. Keep it going!! ACG was the catalyst of innovation for Nike in general but Nike and Parker rarely supported ACG. It is probably similar today.

-Did you also work on that more technical and performance oriented phase with that second ACG Logo with the swoosh involved?

Steve: Yes, I was connected to it. I like the original ACG triangle the most. The main reason they created another ACG logo that Gordon Thompson lll didn’t like the girl who designed the ACG and wanted something different. Michael Hernandez created the new logos. Hernandez is the ‘true’ beginning of Nike Skate but never gets the props.

-I heard that ACG had the status of an own company for some years. And it seems like that stuff was not really fashion oriented at all?

Steve: From 1992-2001 Nike was sponsoring the Exum Guide, Tetons, Wyoming. These were as hardcore as it could be. The guides loved the shoes, boots and apparel with ACG. In terms as “fashion” with ACG- The most high performance ‘can’ be hardcore and performance. This is my favorite kind of designing. This was very satisfying to work on these.

-How did the people first responded to all that new ACG stuff in the early nineties?

Steve: Here are a few of the communities which appreciated ACG: Japanese Fashionistas, Real Climbing Guides, NYC design leaders, Nike shoe people.

Was it really popular on the streets? Was it more a fashion or a performance thing in the end?

Steve: The real hardcore outdoor athletes are only a small percentage of the overall. Regular folks, fashion victims, shoe lovers, and people who just like ‘new’ stuff. In my opinion, I’m just happy that a lot of people like the ACG product. We lived it and cared about the product.

-Why does the Mowabb Plus Retro Shape looks bulky compared to that sharp shape of the OG? Was that planned or do things like that just happen?

Steve: Tinker did both of these Mowabb Plus versions. Nike spent a lot of money on marketing the Mowabb. It looked very cool but the ankle was too fussy and it was almost impossible to put them on. So maybe they made the retros a bit wider. I think the original Nike Huarache was actually better as the “Plus” version of Mowabb. Just look at it.

-How difficult is it to bring in new concepts and innovations in a huge major brand like Nike?

Steve: Best question! Today, I bet it is much more difficult to bring true innovation. There are way to many marketers, VP’s, attorneys, corporate climbers and tons of ‘Dog Eat Dog’ booger eaters.

Even back in the day it was incredibly difficult to sell true innovation. I designed the original Air Deschütz Sandal back in 1990 but I had to fight like hell for two full years before they would sell these. Nike sold several ‘million’ pairs eventually and began the first athletic sandal. This is not easy. The Air Revaderchi 1 and 2 were a tough sell but we did it. I still like them. The ACG Air Moc which we used to call ‚The Potato Shoe‘ was going to kill it all. We fought like crazy to make it happen.
Nike sold these for more than 10 years! The Considered ACG product was so satisfying to work on but they didn’t sell much and had almost no marketing.

-Does the management really care about the ideas or was there a point where they just let it all happen not understanding what some projects where about?

Steve: Nike is not a pure sports company any more. I loved working with Nike for many years and gave my life to it. Most designers nowadays are mostly great sketch jockeys but don’t really know how, why, and what to create high performance. Designers need to go directly to Asia or wherever to actually make a product. This is how true innovation happens.

-How many people worked on Nike ACG in the early years?

Steve: The first year and a half it was just me with ACG and Nike Force Basketball. Later it was me, Trip Allen, Kathy Bailey, and Sergio Lozano.

-Where you also involved in the Alpha Project or parts of it?

Steve: Alpha Project was Mark Parker. It was a good idea- best of the best product.

-Do you have an idea why Nike is not involving Goretex in any ACG shoes anymore?

Steve: I always hated Goretex. They where a very arrogant company and made pricey product that didn’t work. I was always a skier, mountaineer and a climber. I had used Goretex for years but it only worked for about 3 days. When it gets dirty it leaks like crazy. I’m glad that Nike blew off Goretex.

-We have the impression that modern ACG stuff is more fashion oriented but when it comes to hard weather conditions you will end up with wet feet.

Steve: I don’t use ACG stuff any more. I use Scarpa, Salomon, Arcteryx, Dynafit, Black Diamond, Prana, Patagonia and Under Armour. I made some amazing outdoor shoes for Nike but they didn’t support me. It is some incredible stuff.

-Would you like to see some well done Nike ACG Retros from the beginning?

Steve: Sure! Making a new retro is a lot more difficult to create and make it even better. Nike could rule the outdoor industry if they link both fashion and performance and make better stories.

-You told us that you are not the biggest fan of the latest Erolson ACG stuff. Would you agreethat the downfall of ACG as a performance sub-brand started way earlier?

Steve: Several reasons- and it might not even be a ‚downfall’ with ACG. I think there is still a solid legend about ACG/Nike and I’m guessing that Erollson is working on a ‘rebirth’ ACG and complete new directions? I hope they do it. I have no ill will about Nike.In my opinion Nike ‘should’ be the top of the outdoor industry but it won’t because the company is too big to respond and lead the industry in terms of performance and sales.

-There where a lot of weird connections made even before the latest line of ACG. Like Airmax 1 in ACG colors and stuff like that. So maybe the latest stuff is an effort to stop the erosion of the label ACG?

Steve: Even though I was part of the original ACG team I shifted to stop the ACG label for a few reasons: All product should be about Nike and the swoosh and not other labels. Most people didn’t even know or care what ACG means: All Conditions Gear. And ACG sold in the inner cities and “ACG” meant Alcohol Cocaine and Guns. I was somewhat sad and i was also quite funny but thats not a ‘good thing’ to continue supporting the ACG label.

-So you still care a lot about it?

Steve: I care. I put my life into this company and I like 90% of the people I worked with. Also, keep in mind that I was a consultant with Nike after 1994. As a consultancy instead of an employee have very position within the company- It is Yin and Yang. As a consultant I have a lot of freedom but I have absolutely zero in business power. All of the years as a consultant working with Nike/the Kitchen/ACG and inline I lived in Park City, Utah all of those years and traveled to Portland, Oregon and Asia. I loved it until I had a catastrophic stroke in 2012 in May. I had to relearn my alphabet, speaking and communicating. I have relearned about 85% of my vocabulary but I still have Aphasia troubles. Nike is a ‘dog eat dog’ world now and it is difficult to push forward within Nike. There are a lot of “corporate climbers’ in management who didn’t want to work with me as a consultant. I’m sure I made mistakes as well? Thats life.

-It sounds like besides all the weird stuff that went on it was a good and creative time for you at Nike?

Steve: I am quite happy after working with Nike for many years. I am proud of working with amazing developers, artisans, engineer, 3d masters and factories. We created mind bending innovations:
The first ever Athletic Sandals from Deschütz, 1st Ghillies (web loops) ever used since 1992, the first ACG products from Nike, Free Trail 5.0 early laser cut leather uppers and Free cushioning.
I started “sustainability” products within Nike in 1991 and pushed the Considered products thru Nike. The Kobe 3 for high performance Basketball. The first No Sew construction. This was incredibly difficult and we did it. SFB military product. Snap fit product and less parts and less adhesives. ACG Air Moc- The first ‘non shoe shoe’. And several more mportant innovations.

-How did the spirit of Nike change over the years?

Steve: Originally, Nike was a true running culture company. Then it became a basketball culture after Jordan took off. Nike isn’t a running culture anymore. It is now just a commodity like rice or oil.
Nike knows business and they know how to make money. Money is fine to eat, enjoy life, support your families but these days everything is about money. When I started working with Nike we weren’t even a one billion dollar company in 1989. Now they are nearly a 35 billion dollar business worldwide. Nike now is all over in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Eastern Europe. Nike ACG/Outdoor could be a sizable business? We’ll see.

-In the era with the second ACG logo there where a lot of weird releases. Like inflatable outdoor shell jackets and the shell with a microphone system and there where also very complex shoe builts with a lot of materials involved. But somehow this era died and afterwards there where bad retros and fashion stuff also reinventing the former older ACG Logo. How could that happen?

Steve: There were no ‘real outdoor’ athletes in Nike in those ‘second ACG’ days anymore so they sold a lot of hokey bad product.
Nike management would completely re-tool all of the teams every year, like the Musical Chairs game. For example, they would rearrange all of the teams from ACG and create completely new teams with designers, developers, marketing and sales. Maybe they did this to keep things fresh but in some ways it killed some of the amazing teams. Some of the teams were amazing!

-What about the Nike Terra/Trail Line? Why did it start and why hasn’t it been part of ACG? I remember some shoes from the beginning who where labeled as Terra AND ACG.

Steve: The original Terra line was created from Trip Alan, a Designer. As I remember that “Terra” was connected to another company so Nike stopped using the Terra word. Terra is simply ‘dirt’ and quite generic so nowadays Terra is probably fine to use this.

-Thank you, Steve.