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Originally published April 20, 2012 at 8:03 PM | Page modified April 20, 2012 at 11:02 PM

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Nike's uniform focus is on performance, not fashion

Nike, the new maker of NFL uniforms, uses all of its high-tech research and development tools to make a better product for players.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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BEAVERTON, Ore. — One of the first things you notice about the Seahawks' new uniforms is one of the last things that Todd Van Horne brought up.

He didn't mention the feathers for a good 23 minutes.

Nike's global creative director for football and baseball talked about the stretch-woven fabric, the aluminum belt buckle and the fact the jersey numbers actually stretch before the conversation turned to the uniform's appearance. This is significant because while Nike has a reputation for revolutionary designs, appearances aren't the only innovation in Seattle's new uniforms.

You need to look deeper, turn the uniform inside-out, so to speak, to see how much effort and expertise went into it.

"Everything we're going through is to help them succeed within their athletic endeavors," Van Horne said. "We often say what's next to the athlete's skin is almost the most important thing."

The company sells a million pairs of shoes per day, it outfits world-class athletes for everything from basketball to badminton, and earlier this month Nike introduced its new line of NFL uniforms, replacing Reebok as the league's partner.

Nike's business is built on more than bright uniforms, reflective helmets and expensive sneakers. That became evident when the company opened its campus Wednesday afternoon to a group of journalists who cover the Seahawks.

The company's headquarters in Beaverton has 18 buildings that house more than 4,000 on-site employees. The campus includes a man-made lake. If the size of Nike's business serves as testimony to just how lucrative the athletic-supply business has become, the extent of the research and development is proof of its sophistication.

You can question the prices or criticize the global-economic realities of its construction, but after getting a peek inside Nike's headquarters, it's hard not to be impressed by how much goes into designing products with the primary goal of improving athletic performance.

The company has a sports research lab, which is housed in the Mia Hamm Building and serves as a think tank and testing ground. Garments are designed with the help of a 3-D body scanner, and they can be tested in an environmental chamber that can test products in temperatures as high as 130 degrees or as low as minus-14. There's even a mannequin named Hal stationed in the chamber who is engineered to "sweat" to measure a garment's breathability.

The NFL empire's new clothes are lighter, they are tighter, and they come with the option of having a belt in which the buckle is made of aircraft-grade aluminum instead of the typical metal D-ring.

"Every ounce — we feel like — matters," Van Horne said.

The pants are no longer made of a knit material, which tended to absorb water, leaving an athlete vulnerable to all sorts of saggy, soggy perils. Nike's pants are stretch woven, made of a material that Van Horne characterized as possessing "hydrophobic" qualities.

Mesh is incorporated, too, to improve ventilation. Most of all, the new jersey was designed to stretch, remaining snug against the athlete without impeding movement.

"The player wants that locked-down feeling, but they still want the mobility," Van Horne said. "That's where you get that nice balance because they don't want any grab points for their opponents, but they still want to have the range of motion."

That doesn't mean Nike got carte blanche to turn the playing attire of the league's 32 teams into "NFL: The Next Generation." Rather, Nike bought the right to work with teams, providing the product they wanted, both in terms of function and fashion.

A team like the Chicago Bears remained very traditional. The biggest change in their uniform relates to the stripe on the sleeve bearing George Halas' initials, which went back to its original size.

The Seahawks were the team that wanted a dramatically new look, changing the uniforms they've worn for the past decade.

"As neighbors in the Northwest," Van Horne said, "we were really proud that they were the ones that raised their hands first and said, 'Remake us. Reimage us.' "

The result is a home uniform that is a deeper, truer blue, and a third alternate jersey that is gray and can be worn up to twice a year. The helmets remain blue, but the sides will be a matte, flat finish while the gray, patterned stripe along the top is shiny.

And that Nike logo on the shoulder? Well, the positioning is determined by the company's contract with the league.

The uniforms Nike is providing under the terms of that contract are just one part of the company's football business.

"We've built a uniform system," Van Horne said.

That system includes everything from lightweight undershirts that wick moisture away from the athlete to foam-padded compression shorts worn underneath the pants. Then there are carbon-fiber hard shells that can be attached to the thighs with medical-grade Velcro, which is lighter and thinner than traditional thigh pads. It's all part of Nike's Pro Combat HyperStrong line of equipment, which features industrial-strength nomenclature if nothing else.

To call the new uniforms revolutionary is to make it sound like players were on the field with P.E.-grade, elastic-cuffed sweatpants last year. But to dismiss the innovations as window dressing is to ignore the decades of research and development that Nike has put into athletic supplies that aren't just a business anymore so much as an industry unto itself.

"We're using all of Nike's resources in the creation of the materials," Van Horne said. "It's like 40 years of work to get to this point."

The first shoe to bear Nike's swoosh was a cleat designed for football and soccer. That was back in 1970. Equipment has come a long way since then, and this week's visit to Nike's headquarters gave just a glimpse of how much further the company plans on taking design advances.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @dannyoneil

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