Brand Jordan’s Designer Josh Heard Speaks on the XX8, Working With Tinker Hatfield and Innovation

01.30.2013

STYLE

A decade has passed since Michael Jordan last suited up for an NBA game, but his legacy remains so strong that his Air Jordan brand is still the most profitable sneaker line on the market. While that’s largely due to the retro Jordans that release every month, newer Jordans continue to be released as well and feature top-of-the-line innovation and design focused on elite performance. This year, longtime Jordan designer Tinker Hatfield, along with product developer Josh Heard came together for the Jordan XX8.

“I’ve had various roles within the Jordan group, I’ve been with Jordan for 10 years and I started with AJ XVIIII,” said Heard. “I worked on the XX – my name is actually on the AJ XX – the XXI and then I moved to Asia where I was overseeing XXII, XXIII, 2009, 2010, and then came back during the 2011 era, which I didn’t have much to do with that one, but then I did the 2012 last year and now AJ XX8.”

Life+Times spoke with Heard to get some insight on the latest in the Air Jordan collection, the XX8.

Life+Times: Talk about collaborating with Tinker Hatfield and the roles each of you played in creating the shoe.
Josh Heard
: Tinker is the godfather of Air Jordans. He’s a great guy to work with and absolutely work for. I think nowadays he’s seen more as the idea guy, so he has inspiration, he has an idea behind what he’s looking for within the product, but I really feel like he allows myself as well as others around to make sure that the performance is in the product [and] delivers the consumer’s needs. So generally, Tinker will start with an idea – in this aspect it was more of a silhouette. We – Rob Bruce, who’s the designer that I work with and myself – took a technology to Tinker that we had been working on in the innovation kitchen within Nike. That technology was the “Flight Plate” technology. We took that to Tinker, he loved it, and we immediately put it in the Air Jordan XX8 because we thought it was a game-changer from a technology and performance perspective. Really, Tinker gives you a lot of leash because he’s not the guy that’s doing the day-to-day working back and for the with the factories, the guy that’s coming up with all the special colorways, the guy that’s inputting into some of our systems and things like that; he’s more of the, “Hey, Tinker, I got in a new sample, do you wanna see it?” He takes a look at it and goes, “Oh, yeah I think this looks ok.” Or, “I think we should change this.” And then it’s really myself and others giving him updates on where we’re at, where we’re tracking with the product, if production is on time or not, etc.

L+T: Stealth has been mentioned as a central theme for the shoe based on a recent definition of the word by Michael Jordan. Can you expand on that and how the shoe embodies “stealth”?
JH
: There was either a text message or email that was sent out to MJ asking, “Hey, what does stealth mean to you?” He came back with, “Stealth is the ultimate aircraft. It’s like a black cat.” He was called the Black Cat when he played. “By the time you see me, it’s too f’ing late,” is what he said within his text or email. So how we went about that, we did a lasted upper that had a white synthetic that was stretched over the last itself, and we said, “Tinker, do your design, let us know what you have and come back with it.” When we got that back from him, there was one line drawn down the center of the instep and that line represented the zipper on the product. Tinker’s idea was, “Hey let’s keep this product really clean, really stealth on the outside. We’re gonna lead with a black colorway that’s all black, but when you roll it down, when you look inside the shoe, it should be beautiful as far as the colors and the materials and everything that we have going on.” So stealth on the outside, but you get that color pop, that vibrance on the inside. So it’s a two-in-one idea where you get stealth and the flashy nature of it. We’re also looking at launching colors that have a camouflage graphic on it. The camouflage lending it back to that stealth and that military film that surrounds the armed forces.

L+T: It’s eight inches tall which is taller than any other basketball shoe on the market. Why did you all make it that height?
JH
: Well quite honestly, the Air Jordan product itself is always a love or hate relationship. There are some consumers that absolutely love, there are some consumers that absolutely hate, and this one’s no different. A lot of that does stem from the very high collar that we have on it right now. Honestly, Tinker wanted to step out of the box and wanted to do something a little bit more non-traditional, but it would also perform on the basketball court. The beauty of the high-cut of this product is that you can wear rolled down, you can wear it unzipped, you can wear it folded all the way down and it still will play on the court for you. It’s more of an aesthetic play and it’s an idea to make people a little bit uncomfortable about the product.

L+T: Talking about the shoe in other places you’ve mentioned the Dynamic Fit System. Can you explain exactly what that is?
JH
: The dynamic fit system was really an innovation that came out of the Innovation Kitchen within Nike and it’s already been on several running products. It’s meant to encompass or cuff your foot while also allowing the product to articulate with your foot, so if you look at the straps itself – we have some nylon straps that run up that allow for the strength that you need to wrap around your foot but then in between we’ve added a lycra material, a stretchy material that will also allow for the inner-sleeve, that dynamic fit, to move with your foot in conjunction with your foot. So in putting it on, it really feels like those straps are running 360 degrees around your foot because what we did is we tied those straps in with the strobel area which means that you’re pulling from the bottom of your foot rather than the top of your foot. You are getting a better lockdown feel in the product because of it.

L+T: How has the feedback been from players?
JH
: It’s been great feedback. We’ve had several test rounds, this is the most tested Air Jordan we’ve ever had because we have security issues around the Air Jordan with everybody trying to copy us or knock us off before we can make it to the market. We tend to not test our products in an outside setting, as in outside of the Nike campus. So what we do is “Tuesday night dynamics” and we went through probably 12-13 of these dynamic test sessions. I would go to each and every one of them and talk to the players coming on and off the court and gather their feedback on how they feel the shoe is playing and what improvements we can make. Throughout that process, there were several improvements that were made and I feel like at the end of the day we’re going to deliver a great product to the consumer that is really performance based and oriented.

L+T: What are some other shoes or Jordans that inspired the XX8? Looking at it initially, the sleeve kind of resembles “The Glove”, the Gary Payton shoe.
JH
: I’ve gotten a lot of questions about that. I can definitely tell you that Tinker never thought about “The Glove” at all in designing or choosing the development of the shoe. Honestly, I never really thought about it until we had the product launch and people were asking me why does it look like The Glove. That was never taken into account and our goal was always to make the highest performance basketball product we could while also maintaining the kind of concept car relationship or status within the shoe. We don’t think this product is going to be for everybody – it’s not going to be for everybody – but the one’s that do get it will understand where we’re coming from and ultimately purchase the product. I don’t really think that we looked at any of the past Air Jordans for inspiration on the XX8. This is really kind of new and out of the box and we didn’t rely on any history for it. Some of the Flight Plate technology was based on some things that we did earlier on the AJ XX with the IPS [Independent Podular Suspension] system.

L+T: The early Jordans are always favorites because people love to wear them off the court, casually. With more recent Jordans it seems like there’s an emphasis on the technology.
JH
: Well, I think that Jordan as a whole – and I think if you talk to some of the higher-ups in Jordan as well [they'd agree] – has gone too far over into the lifestyle perspective and we’ve always been a brand grounded in performance. You look at all those original Air Jordans, every one of them has some sort of innovation or performance quality to it. Now it just happens to be that they look cool off court as well and they are fairly expensive so people don’t want to play basketball in them, get them scuffed or stepped on and whatnot. However, we’re finding that a lot of the elite basketball players are still wearing Air Jordans on the court. It’s definitely within Jordan right now to bring our consumer back to performance-grounded product that they know they can play on the court with and it will hold up and stand up to any Nike product or any other basketball product, and should perform at the absolute highest level.

L+T: Is it a challenge remaining innovative and trying to come up with something fresh each year, especially at Jordan?
JH
: It’s definitely a huge challenge because even though we take our direction from Tinker, he has a lot of irons in the fire I guess you’d say, and a lot of other competing priorities, so we can’t always get his attention on these types of products. We’re constantly trying to innovate and come up with new and great things. The problem is any great innovation takes time. That probably the biggest issue with these Air Jordans is we have very little time to develop, test and design anything new into our product. At the end of the day, we always accomplish our goal and do what we set out to do, but there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears to really get it done. We leverage our assets. Jordan’s a huge brand and a lot of the line is going to be driven based on how the Air Jordan turns out. The factory that we work with has a great understanding for that and works with us to make sure we get everything in on time. As far as innovating, it’s tough to do. We tap into various areas. The Nike innovation area has a lot of innovations going on, we look across industries, we look to different countries like Italy for quality and craftsmanship, as well as Switzerland for materials. It’s something new and great every season and that’s why I love doing this. It’s always new, there’s nothing that’s repetitive or monotonous.

The Air Jordan XX8 will be available All-Star Weekend in Houston on February 15th, and nationwide on February 16th.

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