The History of the ASICS GEL-KAYANO
Text: Dirk Vogel | Photos: Holger von Krosigk
The simmering love affair between high fashion labels and 1990s-style bulky tech sneakers came to a rolling boil at this year’s Paris Fashion Week. Every celebrated designer made sure to send models down the runway in “dadcore” sneakers, including a new slew of ultra-luxury versions from high fashion labels such as Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Prada. But it wasn’t the Balenciaga Triple S or Yeezy Boost 700 Wave Runner that stole the show. It was a proven classic…
At a catwalk show during Paris Fashion Week, the international hype press forgot all about outfits and looked closely at an old favorite in all its crisp 1990s tech shoe glory. All eyes were on the white and royal blue runner with its layered construction, synthetic upper and visible GELcushioned sole. It also looked brand-new, fresh out the box. Like a possible re-release of the original from 1999? The international rumor mill spun into high gear.
Now it’s official: ASICS is bringing back the GEL-KAYANO 5 OG model on the heels of the entire KAYANO line’s 25th anniversary. And while the beloved sneaker franchise may not be as well-documented as the Air Force 1 or Air Jordan dynasties, an unbelievable 38 million (and counting) runners served makes a strong statement. Time to look back at the origins and enduring legacy, including insights from creator Toshikazu Kayano himself.
Gallery: The Kayano over the years (1-25)
A SPECIAL MISSION
It all started in Kobe, Japan, in early 1993. Shoe designer Toshikazu Kayano had been working at ASICS headquarters for five years when he received a special assignment: to create a hybrid shoe for the new “cross-training” movement; a shoe that proved ideal for long-distance outdoor running and also for indoor training at the gym while also implementing the company’s latest impact-reducing and performance-enhancing technologies.
ASICS had found the right man. Toshikazu Kayano, who would become the series’ namesake, stepped to the plate with the perfect track record. His previous design work included ASICS shoes for basketball, volleyball and running, so creating a cross-training shoe would draw on all these experiences. Plus, he had spent extended periods of time working in the United States, where cross-training was in full bloom.
But still, this was the biggest assignment of his career. Internally, the high-profile project carried the enigmatic name “TOP OF RUNNING SHOE”. Poised for market entry in fall 1993, the original positioning saw the new shoe as an exclusive model specifically aimed at the US market. It would also be a successor to the premium GT-Cool Xpress, a GT Series model based on the X-Caliber GT. In support of his development efforts and to help with the relatively tight timeline, Toshikazu Kayano was given access to all the company’s technological resources at the ASICS research lab, initially created by the company’s godfather, Kihachiro Onitsuka, with the aim of raising sports performance through technology in 1979. What’s more, the project sponsor at ASICS told him: “Make what you want to make. We don’t care what the retail price will be.” Now all Kayano needed was a concept…
INSPIRED BY NATURE
Looking back at the high-pressure project, Toshikazu Kayano admits that he was “struggling with ideation.” In search of an overarching theme for the new shoe design, he remembered the philosophy pursued by company founder Kihachiro Onitsuka in creating his first basketball shoes: “He designed the outsole inspired by an octopus. That story impressed me so much; this is how he approaches design!”
Having been raised in the Japanese countryside, this approach resonated deeply with Kayano. “For me nature was the only beautiful thing,” he said, pointing out the beauty in natural sights and abandoned buildings. For his new cross-training shoe, Kayano found inspiration in something relatively small, yet somewhat ferocious: the heavily armored insect known as the stag beetle.
The panel-on-panel construction that makes the shoe such a beloved classic and on-trend item comes from the overall creative story of “armoring”, from the aggressive and distinctive mandibles, firm body and quick motion of the stag beetle. “My design process was to consolidate all the functional demands first and then interpret those demands into a concept … and that was the stag beetle!” said Kayano.
Released in US retail in late 1993 as the GEL-KAYANO Trainer, the shoe wore its beetle inspiration proudly, blended with a wide range of new performance technologies. Inspired by the stag beetle’s claws and mandibles, the stability-enhancing skeleton stripe on the shoe’s lateral was crafted from Hytrel, a new polymer combining rubber and thermoplastics. Next to the company’s proprietary Theta- GEL impact dampening technology, the bulky KAYANO Trainer offered air permeability and quick drying by ways of Coolmax mesh panels in critical areas.
Speaking of “bulky”, marketed to “the serious high-mileage runner”, the shoe was not exactly lightweight (neither are stag beetles). But it offered superior orthotic support thanks to an extended slip lasting construction, plus heel inserts from Texon board created via a new semi-tube manufacturing method. In the forefoot, the shoe featured porous P-GEL to counter a common issue in runners known as over-pronation.
Aside from all this high-end technology, what won the shoe a cult following was its sock-like entry – known as the Mono-Sock system – instead of a traditional tongue. Together with the ASICS-branded cage crafted from PU overlays – another beetle inspiration – the fixed sock design added to the shoe’s armor-like stability. Once serious runners slipped into the GEL-KAYANO Trainer, they became devotees. Orders began pouring in and a new product line had been born. Toshikazu Kayano had not only won himself the first major milestone of his career as a shoe designer, he had also founded a legacy that would evolve over the next 25 years.
BUILT TO EVOLVE
The concept of evolution has been ingrained in the ASICS GEL-KAYANO line from its inception, following the Japanese kaizen philosophy of constant improvement. According to a company statement, ASICS running shoes are designed from an overarching principle known as the Impact Guidance System (IGS): “The ASICS design philosophy aims to make all shoe components work together effectively to allow the body to perform in a natural manner.” Its goal is to complement, not correct, how runners move their legs and feet. According to this holistic approach, new features are only added when they work with the existing components to contribute to this goal.
While this may sound like the perfect excuse for leaving a shoe design unchanged once all components have been locked down to work in synergy, Toshikazu Kayano and his team did just the opposite. They updated the ASICS GEL-KAYANO once every year, like clockwork, making it one of the most prolific franchises in all of footwear history (KAYANO number 25 dropped this fall). What’s more, the designers maintained the formula of aligning all newly added components with a design motif and overarching theme inspired by nature, architecture, design and more.
Evolutionary inspirations in the ASICS GEL-KAYANO legacy are broad and fascinating. Like the praying mantis, mirrored in the sharp lines of the shoe’s second iteration released in 1996. One year later, the team was inspired by the outrageous speed and mechanical solidity of Italian supercars, while the much beloved ASICS GEL-KAYANO 5 ref lects anatomical elements and internal organs (more on that later). In 2005, the Japan-themed GEL-KAYANO 11 introduced longitudinal panels modeled on Samurai armor; 2013’s GEL-KAYANO 20 is built on architecture; and the list goes on …
For the current 25th anniversary of the enduring franchise, this fall season’s GEL-KAYANO 25 continues the pursuit of constant evolution. It combines state-of-the-art tech in a harmonious package by ways of the FF GEL cushioning system blended with FlyteFoam Lyte in the midsole. It’s a completely re-engineered, streamlined shoe wrapped in comfy two-layer Jacquard mesh. And it’s also perhaps the least bulky and most technically advanced entry in the GEL-KAYANO line.
RETURN OF THE OG
But then again, not everybody wants less bulky designs, streamlined fits and the latest tech. Some sneaker fans found their perfect groove in the late 1990s with one particular model: 1999’s GEL-KAYANO 5 in all its generously appointed, armor-plated technical details. Consensus among sneakerheads and serious long-distance runners is clear: Toshikazu Kayano really knocked one out of the park when he created this fifth entry in the series. This is somewhat ironic in hindsight, because despite the meticulous design aesthetic for the GEL-KAYANO line, the fifth shoe was created under immense time pressure. Toshikazu Kayano had freshly returned from a stay in the United States and had no time to brainstorm inspirations and motifs taken from the real world. He went straight into drawing design sketches – churning them out as fast as possible.
Then he looked at a particular sketch and a detail on the shoe’s upper caught his eye. “This looks like [human] organs,” he noted. “This looks like a stomach!” Having found his new perspective, Kayano decided: “Why not restart ideation using internal organs as a concept?” As a result, the KAYANO 5 officially lists the human body – with its bone structures, organs and muscles – as the design motif.
BIG ON VISIBLE TECH
These natural inclinations contrasted with the time’s latest technologies, which Kayano implemented in a highly visible fashion – a design-first for him. “The shoe was created when visible tech was a huge trend,” said Kayano, who was encouraged by outside criticism to go all-in. “At that time, people said that ASICS was not good at designing technical- looking shoes. So then I was determined to exaggerate every functional part.”
Making its own mark on a market saturated with visible “air” pockets at the time, the KAYANO 5 featured visible GEL inserts in the heel and bottom section, which still make the designer smile today. “For example those GEL parts on the bottom and side… This is foolish design, isn’t it? That’s why it’s cool!”
Elaborating further on the design evolutions achieved in the KAYANO 5, the designer points out two major improvements: “One is the teardrop tongue. The vamp and tongue part are unified into one piece to improve fitting,” said Kayano, also pointing out the Duomax technology that reduces stress when runners roll their feet. But the second big concept was the Quadra lacing system, implemented into the KAYANO franchise for the first time: “This structure also provides a good fit. It helps the upper to deform while you are running.”
And that was it. Without being aware at the time, Toshikazu Kayano had created an organic, powerful design – stacking layer on layer, form on form – that would outlast trends and inspire countless imitations, especially today. Returning this fall in the OG colorway of black, white, ASICS blue and sunf lower, the GEL-KAYANO 5 OG model is the perfect answer to the budding dad shoe trend. Or is it?
Officials at ASICS stated their reasons for re-releasing the GEL-KAYANO 5 in a rather sober fashion: “The KAYANO series is still and was back then known as the most comfortable stability shoe in the market. This iconic road running shoe helped over-pronators to stay stable and comfortable over long distances. In short, it was made for long distance runs.”
This is the cover story of our October 2018 issue of Sneakers Magazine – available now!