Category Archives: Sports

JERRY COHEN AT EBBETS TALKS SPORTSWEAR

EFF catalog 1992

Note: I conducted this interview over three years ago and it was up on the sadly departed (at time of writing, anyway) POST/NEW site. Jerry is a fascinating person to talk to regarding sportswear and its history — personally, I love discovering that I know next to nothing about a subject, and in discussing uniforms and baseball caps, I realised how little I knew. I’m still a rookie.

Can sportswear have a soul? Now we’re wowed by innovation, but everything’s an improvement of an existing improvement. Like a calm corner in a market that’s over saturated though movements that immediately supersede what went before, shining fabrics, concealed seams and clinically rendered branding won’t be around in a decade’s time, let alone a century. Seattle’s Ebbets Field Flannels were resurrecting sports apparel in 1988 — long before “throwback” entered the conversation — and through obsession and licensing limitations, lost leagues got their uniforms back.

This site might be about the new, but some things can’t be bettered. Bringing a sporting obsession for trivia to an ever increasing crowd preoccupied with stitches, finishes and a garment’s history, there’s a lot of truth in Ebbets’ founder Jerry Cohen’s vision of a world where synthetic fabrics barely belong. Ebbets runs deeper than just one game, with some proto technologies in the fabrics and the best baseball cap shapes on the market. Created to order, it’s all one big glorious sporting research project to match Setsumasa Kobayashi’s multiple self-imposed assignments with General Design Co.

I read the Sports Illustrated feature from July 1990 about Ebbets that changed everything for the brand.

Jerry Cohen: Right — that was the first thing that anybody saw. I used to have the whole company in the dining room of my apartment when that came out.

You’d been going for two years when that came out, right? It seemed perfect for the Sports Illustrated audience. When Ebbets came out, it must have been like nothing else — from my recollections, fits were like these odd late 1980s “jock” fits and fabrics were synthetic.

JC: Baseball jerseys were polyester. They went to polyester in 1971. When they made that change — which was a massive change because before that, 8 decades was of wool and a baggy look that I consider classic. So when they changed, they threw out the baby with the bathwater because sporting goods companies didn’t think like fashion companies. They thought, “This is our market and our market now wants this and they don’t want that anymore” and not only did styles change, but they threw out machines — machines that I need now!

You use vintage machines for the hockey shirts, right?

JC: That’s the hardest thing. That’s a circular knit machine — there’s only a few of them and they’re in California. We’re completely at the mercy of this knitter and they’ll call us up one day and say, “Sorry — no more wool yarn.

And there’s nothing you can do about it.

JC: Right. And I found myself in Bradford, England this week trying to buy vintage cotton backed satin that used to be run-of-the-mill in the US in the 1950s.

It’s like a fossil fuel. Back in 1990 when you were using vintage fabric, you must have been on borrowed time.

JC: At that time I was. Because we had a little bit of success we were able to go to the woolen mills and have them make that fabric again. But the problem was that the woolen mills started to go out of business. I mean, in the US there’s probably only two compared to when we started. We have to have a custom build and we have to buy — it’s funny because sometimes a customer will email and say, “I want to make a custom baseball jersey with a black pinstripe!” and I say, “Well, you can start by buying 1000 yards of black pinstripe fabric.

It makes my mind boggle that you build to order.

JC: Unfortunately we’re in the age of instant gratification and people assume — and I don’t blame them — that because they can order something from Amazon and get it in 3-4 days, a company like us, who offer over 450 wool baseball shirts, will have their shirt on the shelf in medium. The one thing we have to give up to do what we do is expediency or free shipping. We say it takes 6 weeks to get a baseball shirt and somebody might order on Wednesday and call us on Monday like, “I haven’t got my baseball shirt yet!

Do you think sportswear lost its soul? With flannel, it breathes, ages and works with the wearer.

JC: We claim timelessness and if someone buys a jacket from us which is from 1935, we want them to be able to take that jacket out in 10 years and enjoy it the same way. It’s not made to be disposed of. Sports graphics now is a giant industry with a planned obsolescence to rejuvenate sales that throws out the thing you bought.

It isn’t future proofed.

JC: That’s right. The way you designed something in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s was that a team needed uniforms and let’s get some graphics — “What have we got round the back?” There’s a serendipity and an elegance to it. That’s been lost. Even when they try to recapture that, they can’t because they’re on Adobe Illustrator.

I love the logos.

JC: We actually have the old catalogues with the fonts that were used. They were not type fonts that were purchasable. They were separate fonts that they had to punch out. Graphically they’re different to anything you’d find in a letterpress and even when we design a custom order we refer to those fonts. What people see in our product is that.

This feels like a research venture.

JC: That’s it for me. It’s the most important and pleasurable part of this — it’s the discovery.

It also seems that you keep a lot of teams alive. There must be former players for these teams with no idea that you’re making these things.

JC: There are. And that’s the fascinating thing for me — not the top level of the game but all of the dozens of hundreds of teams that small towns had. US professional baseball used to go down to a D league. You had AA, A, B, C and D and a small mining town might have a team.

Colours for teams like that must be very difficult. Going back to 1906, you must hit a point where there’s no photography.

JC: Or there’s photography but it’s all black and white. I’ll confess that in the early days I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes — there’s a certain amount of guesswork and it’s an art, not a science. We don’t have a machine that can take black and white photography and spit it out at the other end as colour. I wish that existed. I would read newspaper accounts and hope that the writer would refer to the colours. Very often you’ll see things on auction from a team, but you have to wonder — all those years earlier, was it the same?

Does wool lose its colour?

JC: That’s an interesting thing too. One story I like to tell is that when the National Hockey League were doing their so-called heritage program, they went to the Hockey Hall of Fame to do research and looked at the original hockey sweaters. Well, any team with green, they made an official spec of a mint green — a very light green — and years before I worked with them to do a collection and my Toronto St. Pats was a kelly green! They’d gone and looked at faded sweaters and based a Pantone colour on it. Dark blue wool fades to violet. The dye in the wool fades. There’s a lot of tricks you need to know.

Do you still use the same dyes?

JC: It’s close enough. But there are some things that are near enough impossible because those things don’t exist.

One thing that intrigued me was the baseball undershirts with a Merino and nylon mix. That was a proto technical fabric — now we get Dri-FIT and things like that, but this was back in the day.

JC: Yeah. It had an aerated cotton on the inside and a Merino wool on the outside. It was introduced in the ‘40s.

Between that and say, Ventile, a lot of ground was covered a long time ago in terms of performance and technical fabric.

JC: This thing about performance fabric being new is really a myth. In those days they did some stuff — they really worked on these things at a time when people assume they didn’t do anything.

The notion is of a quaint kind of dark age.

JC: Like, for example, even the wool they used for basketball or football was very, very fine — not a blanket fabric. They started blending synthetics after World War II. The wool we use for our baseball jerseys is not the 1910 wool really — it’s a 1950s one that’s lighter, it washes and is a better garment.

Then there was this switch in the ‘70s to a polyester.

JC: The myth is that wool was hotter to wear than polyester. If you’ve ever worn a polyester top on a hot day, it’s about as hot as it gets because it doesn’t breathe. The reason they changed was because of care for the garment — woven fabric would rip and I’ve got all these old jerseys with stitching on. It wasn’t as washable. They thought, “This polyester’s a miracle fabric — we can throw it in the wash and throw it in the dryer!” Owners loved that. It had nothing to do with comfort.

You haven’t done basketball yet. Any plans?

JC: Not yet. We’re gonna be doing some things.

You have the same 16 oz fabric for the hockey and football jerseys…

JC: Yes. That knit, which then changed to a Rayon with a cotton backing — which had a trade name of Durene — and that’s not so easy to find nowadays. It’s technically possible to make. But like I said, what’s not technically possible to make is fabric with stripes. People sometimes ask for say, a 1965 era football jersey, and it’s not possible to make it because the machines don’t exist.

How helpful has the internet been for research?

JC: I use it all the time, believe me! My eyes used to get tired spending hours and hours looking for one picture of a baseball cap at the right angle to see the lettering. I’d done that for years and years.

With the throwback thing, Starter and New Era got on it and so did Mitchell & Ness. Did you see any of that early ‘00s boom for throwback jerseys and hats? You seemed to be way ahead of the curve with the Negro League repros.

JC: We had a different consumer. In a way it hurt us — we were first. Some of the stuff was a direct knockoff of what we were doing. I would do my research pre-internet, but as soon as you publish that it’s open season. It’s difficult to police or enforce our creative ideas.

And if you’re reproducing it gets very complex legally.

JC: Exactly.

The hat side fascinates me.

JC: Originally they used horse hair which we can periodically get, so we use goat hair and then satin. (holding a hat up) This is an ugly hat in a lot of ways — it was for the Dublin Irish — that’s Dublin in Georgia. They had the name so they decided they’d be the Irish and the font is very blockish and not particularly elegant. That’s what I like about it though.

A good cap comes to life when someone’s in it.

JC: Absolutely.

We’re used to seeing a wool mix thing with a huge front panel.

JC: Yeah, like a helmet. We don’t do that. Sometimes people say to us, “I like your hats but can your crown like New Era?” and we say, “No, we won’t do that — go to New Era then.”

There’s a lot of variations on a hat.

JC: If you look at the Spalding books from the turn of the last century, there was always a page of the latest hat styles and they were named after cities, so there was a Boston style and a Philadelphia style and a Brooklyn style and a Chicago style. That denoted different bills, visor lengths and shapes.

Now that city difference is just a colour. Philly is a city with a real character too. It seems to have its own version of everything.

JC: And interestingly, Philadelphia used to be a manufacturing hub for this stuff — the sports clothing industry. They’re all gone now, but when I started, some of them were around. In fact, the man who owned one of the last factories died just a few days ago — he was a friend and real mentor to me.

Have a lot of the guys who impart knowledge passed away in recent years?

JC: Yeah. They die out — literally.

In terms of audience, there seems to be a new wave who want well-made goods.

JC: Yes, and that’s been good for us because before we were up against people who had things that were cheaper and their pursuit was more fashionable.

The prices of Ebbets are pretty reasonable though.

JC: We’re under a lot of pressure in our industry because the price of wool has gone way up. We had to raise the prices a little bit.

So your baseball collection runs until the 1970s, but why does football and hockey only run to the 1960s?

JC: Yeah, because again, they went to polyester around the same time.

And Ebbets Park closed in the late 1950s?

JC: Yeah, ’57.

Do you feel that was the end of an era?

JC: Yeah, because of the different fabrics and because of the elegance of a design.

As a business do you feel something was lost in the sports themselves then?

JC: Yes, I do. If you look at sport in 1975 or so there’s a distinct look.

It’s all very lurid and shiny — was that for TV cameras?

JC: Yeah, television became important and licensing became very important. That put pressure to “update” their looks all the time. That disposability didn’t seem to exist before 1960.

People really went to town on logos and mascots back then, but it seems more cynical now.

JC: Yep, there was a timelessness and that’s what we try to do.

Have you shown anybody these and reunited them with a flannel they wore?

JC: A fellow who wrote the book named Ball Four named Jim Bouton — which was the first expose from the player side to expose the game and took the hero-worship out — which I read when I was a kid. It was the first time I saw the f-word and found out players liked to chase women. He blew the lid off that. He played for the Yankees and he played for Amarillo in the minor leagues. I talked to him the other day and I sent him the cap he wore for the Amarillo Gold Sox he wore in 1961. He was thrilled and had no idea anybody would do that.

What’s the strangest request you’ve had?

JC: They want pants sometimes and we tell them that we’re not costumers. We have a fella that wants to dress like Babe Ruth and does talks so he had us making an entire Babe Ruth uniform.

How have fits changed? Flannels seemed to fit big.

JC: They are big. Ironically, the fashion thing is pushing us to do some slimmer fits. The market here and Japan prefers a narrower fit instead of a bulkier one. But Americans have become so much bigger.

Players seem a lot bigger now.

JC: That’s right. Also, a lot of the modern exercise machines they use make a difference. If you look at Mickey Mantle’s actual baseball uniform, he was the biggest home run hitter in baseball of all time, it’s like a men’s medium. They were ordinary looking guys.

I can’t imagine much nostalgia for the new skintight kind of shirt in certain sports. With regards to Major League Baseball spurning you because of licence costs back in the day, did that adversity help you?

JC: That adversity was really a godsend because it allowed us to tell stories than nobody had done. To this day, we’re still first, because of our research. They still deny us a licence to this day.

Would you like one?

JC: Only because people ask us for those teams and Mitchell & Ness, who hold the license, only make certain ones from certain eras. It’s not worth them making 300 of something and of course, Reebok owns them. If someone wants one 1935 Boston Braves shirt, there’s no place for them to get it. We don’t have the right to do it and we’ve contacted them about doing it for them, but as of yet they haven’t seen the wisdom in doing it.

Baseball seems so history and data driven…

JC: Unfortunately it’s driven by some other things too.

How about working with non-sports brands?

JC: We’ve done non-sports but it’s always on existing sports silhouettes — never on a new shape.

On the jackets, is there a difference between baseball jackets and the more commonplace varsity jacket?

JC: Absolutely. Nobody asks me that because they assume they’re the same. The big difference is length. Varsity jackets went up on the waist but baseball jackets went longer. They were meant to be worn to warm up in, so the shoulders were cut different too. They used to make them tailored and varsity jackets were more bulky — Wilson made the best ones and I have a few originals.

Was that in the 1950s?

JC: Yep, the 1950s. The Wilson jackets were beautiful, with a zipper or buttoned front and they just had a certain drape to them that was just gorgeous. That’s what we try to replicate. The wool isn’t as heavy. A varsity jacket used a Melton wool, but baseball jackets used an 18 or 19 oz wool rather than the 24 oz.

Are you looking to make reproduction fleecewear?

JC: It’s something we’re looking into.

It’s something that got bastardised.

JC: I know, that’s why we haven’t done it yet. There’s little that we can do that’s different. And we want to do vintage satin. But basketball and American soccer are other things we want to do.

When we talk about soccer in America, I think of that late ‘70s superstar era.

JC: I know, but we’re talking 1920s soccer when working men played in the shipyard and everything. For a brief period the professional level was very successful on the east side. Workers from England and Scotland would be lured to the yards in the US and of course they formed football clubs. They were successful and then they’d lure people to work with them, but really it was to play for the club. There was a league called the American Soccer League that was very successful — what killed it was the depression.

What were their shirts made from?

JC: Wool and cotton.

CastroMillers

playerjerseycap

WATERMARKED

SI Writer & Reporter: Portrait of Armen Keteyian posing with sneakers during photo shoot in a shoe store. New York, NY 1/11/1984 CREDIT: Lane Stewart (Photo by Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X29513 TK1 R2 F10 )
SI Writer & Reporter: Portrait of Armen Keteyian posing with sneakers during photo shoot in a shoe store.
New York, NY 1/11/1984
CREDIT: Lane Stewart (Photo by Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
(Set Number: X29513 TK1 R2 F10 )

We watermark crew members might be too cheap to pay to get our Getty shots unlabelled, but some images need to be shared. I won’t apologise for my relentless sports store nostalgia, and these 1984 shots of respected investigative reporter Armen Keteyian posing in a branch of Athlete’s Foot for a Sports Illustrated story photographed by Lane Stewart. There’s a beauty to those early 1980s walls, seeing as the majority of the stock has made multiple comebacks, but this one is a real beauty — 990s, Campus, Lavers, Air Forces, Grand Slams, Equators, Internationalists and Challenge Courts all seem to be present. As far as ageless design goes, it never got much better than this era. Flawless stock. Thousands of great shoes followed, but they were never future proofed like this display of masterpieces.

SI Writer & Reporter: Portrait of Armen Keteyian posing with sneakers during photo shoot in a shoe store. New York, NY 1/11/1984 CREDIT: Lane Stewart (Photo by Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X29513 TK1 R1 F7 )
SI Writer & Reporter: Portrait of Armen Keteyian posing with sneakers during photo shoot in a shoe store.
New York, NY 1/11/1984
CREDIT: Lane Stewart (Photo by Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
(Set Number: X29513 TK1 R1 F7 )
SI Writer & Reporter: Portrait of Armen Keteyian posing with sneakers during photo shoot in a shoe store. New York, NY 1/11/1984 CREDIT: Lane Stewart (Photo by Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X29513 TK1 R3 F5 )
SI Writer & Reporter: Portrait of Armen Keteyian posing with sneakers during photo shoot in a shoe store.
New York, NY 1/11/1984
CREDIT: Lane Stewart (Photo by Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
(Set Number: X29513 TK1 R3 F5 )

On the subject of watermarked imagery, this footage of skaters at South Bank from the 1970s via The Kino Library is gold. It’s devoid of audio, but you can open up another tab and play Back Street Kids by Black Sabbath or something similar to give it extra energy. Given the close call this historical area had over the last couple of years, this kind of thing is extra important. Plus, it was Go Skateboarding Day this weekend, which makes this extra timely.

TINKER, MARK & MICHAEL JORDAN

mjselfietinker

I see a lot of Q&As conducted to promote a product or project, and there’s generally a recurring message and company line throughout. That’s understandable, because if you sit down expecting a Frost/Nixon confrontation, then you’re you’re an idiot. My longtime preoccupation with Air Jordan has been fairly evident on here over the years. 1988 brought me two great revelations: Bomb the Bass’s Don’t Make Me Wait video featuring the mysterious Air Jordan III, and seeing the Air Trainer 1 in my home town’s Beehive department store as part of a Nike Air display. Those moments were my introduction to the work of designer Tinker Hatfield. I never stopped obsessing. I popped to Paris a couple of days to see some excellent activations to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Jordan Brand — BKRW’s section in the Palais 23 space was a standout — and after a more bombastic presentation and chatter between Michael Jordan, Tinker Hatfield and Mark Smith for the global press in front of a slow grilling LED back drop, we got to see a significantly more intimate talk over at Nike France’s showroom.

I’ve often wondered whether Tinker (and can we have a moment of appreciation for his outlandish outfit in the circa 1991 brainstorm session photograph they used as a backdrop during the Palais 23 presentation?) deliberately drops a line in to keep the PR team nervous each and every time, but he’s always one to veer sharply from the company line at times, which makes interviews with him pretty compelling — on discussing the underrated Jordan 23 during this session, he exclaimed that, “We had to smoke a lot of weed for that one!”, before his “Just kidding” was drowned out by the applause as MJ entered at took a seat. That is just one of many reasons why Tinker stays legendary. Because, I know that there are some fanatics like me visiting this site, and because I recorded the chat, I thought I’d up it here. While the Jordan 29 gets mentioned a lot (after all, it’s the most recent instalment, though Tinker nearly mentioned a possible woven element on the impending 30), there’s a scattering of trivia in here too — I never knew that, for all the excellent ads over the years, Jordan’s favourite is still the old one where he goes one on one with Santa. All questions bar my one at the very end to Tinker and Mark were asked by Jordan Brand’s communications director (and all-round good guy) Brian Facchini.

Brian Facchini: Is there an individual shoe that you guys are most proud of?

Tinker Hatfield: The 20 was pretty cool because he storytelling was very rich and it was actually kind of hard to get Michael to open up about the past, but we finally got him to open up and we got a bunch of stories and Smitty and a bunch of other people put that tapestry together. That’s pretty special. I look at that shoe today and I see a tapestry. I see a specific symbol inside the shoe and I remember the story…it almost makes me cry — they’re very emotional stories.

Mark Smith: I’m really proud of the 20 but I think the 23 is a special one — we did something very different there and we are telling different stories and there were new ways to hold the product together with processes that were also storytelling. That was very interesting.

BF: For you, how many times have these two brought you something and you were like, “These two are out of their minds”?

Michael Jordan: Practically all of the time.The good thing about it is that these guys can go to the edge, which is what Nike are good at — being an edgy company. We push the envelope as much as possible. What I do is try to take it back to reality like, “Come on man, I don’t know if I can wear that — that’s a little bit out of the page for me.” Sometimes it takes a little moment to grow on me, but once it grows it, I love it. Tinker’s good at telling the stories and Mark has adapted to that now. They come up to me with this long story and I’m like, “Come on! Shut up and show me what you got!” But the stories connect the dots. We don’t do things just to do them and there’s a method behind the madness and it tells the story about me, how I play the game the things that I like and the innovation and technology is taken into that. I think that’s the beauty behind the relationship.

BF: As we’re looking back at 30 years of your career, do you find yourself looking ahead?

MJ: I live in the moment. If you live too far in the past or the future, you never enjoy the moment. I enjoy the moment and these guys take me on these different paths, but for me, it’s about how much fun can I have hanging out with you guys today. I’m not worried about tomorrow. I keep it very simple, while these guys take it a lot further than I could. I enjoy the game and enjoyed it in the moment and most fans could see that — I want that to come out in how we design shoes.

TH: If we stayed in the present and didn’t go into the future, he’d fire our ass.

MJ: Probably.

MS: We’d be out.

BF: Is there one piece of a shoe that you remember having to go to war for a little bit?

MJ: The area on the toe of the 10s. I wouldn’t say that they’re my least favourite in all the 30 year of shoes, but Tinker and I had a communication breakdown. He went out on a limb and I had to pull him back down, because I wouldn’t wear that. It came out to be a great shoe because of the compromise we figured out.

TH: He had to threaten me.

MJ: It was during the baseball thing, so we didn’t have our normal meeting. He made an assumption and as you know, if you make an assumption, sometimes it makes an ass outta you. We had to make some changes and the shoe had been made so we had to eat a bunch of product. If you’ve got a pair of those, they’re worth a lot of money today.

BF: Is there one new technology you look at now and think, “I wish I had that when I was playing”?

MJ: The 29s. I think in terms of innovation — and I’ve only been able to walk in them and never played in them, though I wish I could have — that shoe in itself is incredibly comfortable but I think it responds to a lot of things that you do when it comes to performing at basketball. We’re working in the 30 now, which I think is a step up from the 29. The work in innovation in the technology that goes into the shoes now is far greater than anything I played in. Those shoes have evolved into signature things, but in terms of innovation, the shoes have improved tremendously since I played.

BF: Going back to the beginning, the Air Jordan 1. That was arguably the most popular sneaker in the world but the innovation was the two colours.

MJ: Well, one colour. It was black and then that red. It was the ‘breds’ that everybody always calls them. I don’t come up with these names, but I’ve kind of adapted myself to them. My kid said ‘bred’ and I said, “What do you mean? All of them are ‘breds’ to me?” But that shoe changed everything for us because of the acceptance of the acceptance of the community and the consumer and how the league hated them because of the colour for the difference in uniform — you had to wear white shoes or black shoes, but we went out on a limb with the black and reds, and the modification of that was the red, white and black. Some kids connected to, not the negative, but the different. That made it different to what was on the market and the people absolutely loved it. That’s where the whole Jordan thing got started and we’ve been able to maintain it since then, but originally that black and red said that it was okay to be different. You don’t need to be like every other shoe and the consumer bit and we’ve been riding it ever since.

BF: Is there one commercial that really stands out to you?

MJ: There was the one where I played Santa Claus one on one, and we got a bunch of letters from little kids saying that Santa Claus would have whooped me. I wish people would have understood the meaning behind the commercial — I was playing this guy and you didn’t know who he is, and then it was revealed. It put Santa Claus in a very difficult position. Parents of kids didn’t really like it — it was a fun commercial, but the message got kind of misconstrued. I think it ran about one time. All that hard work I had to do for it and they broadcast it one time!

TH: I asked him that before and it’s always consistent. I said, “Your favourite is you beating up on Santa Claus?

MJ: It was a good match up.

BF: Materials and the graphics that Smitty is renowned for now play a big part in the shoes. When you see a shoe like the XI…

MJ: That’s my favourite.

BF: Besides the XI, which materials over the years have redefined how the brand was going?

MJ: Well, the woven. When he showed me how all of that works — the uniqueness of it. When they show me stuff the first thing I ask is, “Is it functional? Can you play in it?” I don’t want it to just be about show. You can build a shoe and everybody says they like how it looks, but I want it to be functional for a basketball player. When he showed me how that material could be so functional with less weight, and maintain the strength, I was impressed. I liked to wear a new pair of shoes every game. Part of that was feeling and energy of having a new thing, but the other thing was because the shoes were so different in that you sweated and the leather might stretch, and I wanted that tightness. The thing about the woven is that it’s tight every time, like a brand new shoe.

BF: You guys have developed an amazing working relationship. How has that changed over the years?

TH: I think any good organisation tries to evolve, and it used to be that you saw Michael five or six times a year and it was always a presentation or just going out and hanging with him, but now I think that it’s a little different in that we keep on adding people to the team and he’s like any great athlete, politician or movie star in that he has to have a big team around him, where it can be difficult because he might not necessarily trust them. What we try to do is keep introducing them over the years so he can get comfortable with that growing team.

MS: When you introduce experts in other disciplines to the team, that gives him confidence. He enjoys that conversation — he learns and he’s so curious. When you bring somebody to the team, he enjoys meeting them…mostly. He’s mostly curious about what they bring to the team.

BF: After 27 years, do you still think you’re learning stuff about him?

TH: I do. I mean, I spend less time with him than I did before. I feel like I know him fairly well and we’ve hung out a lot. I’m still amazed at how he continues to grow and how he lives in the moment. As you get older, you start to think backwards and live off past glory, but he’s not like that, which to me is very interesting.

MS: I don’t know what the next call or text is going to bring. It’s usually something that’s going to make me go, “Uh, okaaaay, cool, I hadn’t even considered that.” Whether it’s facilitating his interest in motorbikes or whatever, then that’s good for us as designers.

BF: You guys are both artists — what part of your art do you bring to your work?

TH: I think that’s the secret actually — blending art with technology to create a new shoe. For me, some projects, whether it’s shoes or apparel, may have been a little more skewed towards technology and less toward art or sometimes it’s the reverse.

MS: I think, whatever discipline you’re in, you can speak creatively and draw from different places, then apply them. One of the things we’re constantly doing is bringing them to the table.

TH: We both draw on our iPads — that’s not new news, but we both draw really fast, so we’ll sit down and have a meeting and after we’ve finished talking, we can be like, “So, what do you think of this?” Technology has allowed us to draw a lot quicker and also get technology a lot sooner. If athletes see a result during a meeting or maybe a couple of minutes after, they feel more involved in the design process because you’ve reacted to their feedback, which means they feel much closer to the actual design. It’s a good little trick, because if Michael doesn’t feel like he’s part of the design process, he’s less apt to actually like it. So that’s a good strategy. It’s crucial to our success.

BF: Why do you think athletes react better to imagery presented like that than on paper?

TH: I think when you do a pencil or pen sketch, that’s a little more personal to me. It’s tiny and it’s maybe delicate and complex, and maybe doesn’t look like it’s going to look. But when you do it on a computer, especially with the current technology, you can add light, texture and colour. I think it’s a little easier for people to really understand.

ME: I know that in the past, what you designed wasn’t always able to be produced, due to restraints in production at the time. Has new technology meant that what’s in your mind can be realised a little easier?

TH: No. I think that, if it’s too easy to make, we’re probably not pushing it far enough. It’s probably just as difficult now to get people to do something as it ever was. Even the knitted and the woven stuff that we’re doing now isn’t normal — they’re still scratching their heads about how they want to make it weave. There are experts who know how to do it, running the machine and doing the programming, but we’re pushing them beyond what they ever thought they could do.

MS: That’s what’s fun about it. In the end, they appreciate it too.

TH: In the end they do. They might not appreciate it at first.

MS: No, not at first. I just came back from the factory and they’re not appreciating it yet! But they understand why.

TH: He was just at the factory in Asia to talk to them about spinning the weave stuff to combine it with…

MS: Woah!

TH: I nearly slipped up there! But it was not going well, so he went to Italy.

MS: We find the best standard and Asia will get there because it understands the benefit. If you’re going to go to a new place, when a Jumpman is going to be on that thing, they know they’ll have to pick up on it and figure it out.

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TINKER

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Being a Brit, the American college and high school sports star thing is perplexing. That’s not to say that an athlete at any school I went to wouldn’t get the girls, but PE teachers in charge weren’t being held aloft by excitable parents or being drenched by buckets of Lucozade being tipped over their heads post inter-school cross-country event. Beyond the eccentric televised nature of the Oxford/Cambridge boat race, I’m not sure that too many would be rushing to Ladbrokes if the University of Bath played Loughborough, or that a coach for some ex-poly could be so deified that they could probably commit a hit and run in their university town with immunity. In America it’s different. They have scholarships, big stadiums, big pay packets for coaches. They have All-American trophies, which sound amazing, even though I don’t even know what they actually are. I always knew that Tinker Hatfield was an athlete in high school and university (every athletic shoe designer on Nike campus appears to be capable of running an ultra marathon before work), but I never realised exactly how highly he was regarded in his day. When he told us at a Nike Q&A in Paris that a lot of people assumed he was black, because of his speed and name, he alluded to a certain status in Oregon as a teenager, but a June 1971 Eugene Register-Guard piece describes Hatfield Jr. as, “…perhaps the finest all-round track athlete produced in Oregon…” Tinker was taking four golds in track meets and, by all accounts, was no slouch in football either. The amount of sport section headlines on him during his high school days alone — pre University of Oregon — is impressive. Long before people were looking up to him for his shoe design savvy (something that has been rolled out on a grander scale than say, 12 years ago, when a core band of nerds would start banging on about Jordan XIs and Safaris at the mention of the year, his name was being mentioned in revered tones.

All this, and he designed the Huarache too. Tinker Hatfield is quite the overachiever.

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DOGS & THEIR OWNERS

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I’m late with the updates because I’ve exiled myself to NYC for a week as penance for running an online store into the ground. Actually, I’m here on a holiday. That means I’m not keeping my eyes open for product or any releases, but a few things caught my eye. Will Robson-Scott is one of my favourite photographers and filmmakers — he’s technically great, but he’s curious when it comes to exploring the harder side of life too — I think that fearlessness when it comes to his personal projects sets him apart from the rest. The In Dogs We Trust series was created in partnership with Ollie Grove and explores human relationships with our canine buddies (which is beautifully depicted in Will’s John and George), the age-old belief that they look like their owners. Shot across several cities — from London to LA – it’s being published by Victory Editions this March as an edition of 500. I’m hoping it’ll be kicking off with a gallery show of pooches and their human buddies. This is everything I want in a book and there’s more information here.

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The most amusing stories around signature shoes like the Air Jordan don’t come via the people who wore them and want to remind us, in tiresome fashion, how they saved/begged/skated a pair…whatever. Who cares? Every thirtysomething has a Jordan shoe story of one kind of another, even if they hated them. No. the best stuff comes from the behind-the-scenes hustles, and Sonny Vaccaro (who was meant to be played by James Gandolfini in an HBO film that never got produced) was at the heart of getting kids signed by any means necessary. The sports marketeer who pioneered a new breed of shoe promotions that made the canvas and rubber wheeler-dealing of old seem ultra-archaic is getting an ESPN 30 for 30 that’s full-length, but broken into online only chapters for a digital debut. Sole Man premieres on April 6th via Grantland and the Jordan Effect episode about the 1984 Nike deal promises, “…a Hollywood story that features secret phone calls, a six-figure check, a mansion in Oregon, and a plate of ribs at a Tony Roma’s restaurant in Santa Monica.”

Finding out the inside story of how LeBron ended up at Nike over adidas (beyond the monetary one-upmanship) should be interesting too. This talk at Duke from a few years back is a good Vaccaro primer before Sole Man screens.

FEDERER

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I interviewed Roger Federer about shoes (for another site) on the eve of the ATP World Tour Finals in London and the NikeLab launch of the Nike Zoom Vapor AJ3 mashup of two Tinker Hatfield designs. Remember when about five people seemed to know who Tinker was? Now he’s being name checked in campaigns by folks like Federer. I never expected to ever speak to this man, let alone talking to him about Jordan IIIs. This thing of ours has definitely leached into the mainstream and if it means meeting people as pleasant and charming as this guy (I can report that talk of Roger Federer being a class act doesn’t seem to be some kind of sponsor’s construct and I never interrupted him freaking out over room temperature or a brand of spring water — he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever interviewed), rather than some very surly people I’ve had to sit with who have a handful of minor hit records and not a single Grand Slam title to their name. Game, set and match to Federer over those fanboy dream shatterers.

Roger, how much wear testing and work went into creating this Jordan hybrid? I’ve seen projects that mix silhouettes before, but they’re generally for people who want to pose in them, rather than play in them. And when the white version of the Tour Vapor 9 Jordan III debuted, you were playing in front of thousands.

ROGER: Absolutely. With the outfits that we wear, it can be design rather than performance but with a shoe I think you can’t compromise. It has to work. The Vapor that I’ve been playing in was the base and then Jordan came in with its design — I still had to wear test a little bit. I had a covered shoe so it wouldn’t show anything, like the cars, you know? I’d go on a road trip and have the other players looking at me like, “What are you doing?” And I had to say, “It’s the shoe I’m going to be wearing in a few days!” I wore this new one for practise and I was always hoping that no pictures would get out, but it was quiet. So I know that this one works. The only difference I did have is that usually during the year I have a lot of mesh on the shoe, but during the clay court season I have leather on top too so the clay doesn’t go through to the socks. I really like playing in leather shoes and I like the look and feel of it, so from that standpoint I didn’t have to wear test a whole lot. It’s just important that the Vapor in general is a great shoe, which it has become though Tinker, who also designed the Jordan shoe. He knows both shoes well.

Tinker must know all about your feet from designing the Vapor 9.

He does know my feet and I have a custom-made mould. If you look at my feet, mine are a bit wider. So it’s very much there — he knows both of us, so it’s very cool that the three of us can do a collaboration.

The sheer wear and tear that tennis puts a shoe though is intense — especially when a game goes on for hours and hours. Is that tough to preempt?

Actually the way I move, I don’t rip through shoes so much — thankfully. But I know some guys who go through one pair of shoes a match almost, which I find very hard to comprehend. Players like Novak who slide tear through shoes — if you slide on the hard courts that really tears the shoe apart, but the way I move is quite smooth actually, so I usually go through two pairs per tournament, plus all the practises and all that. And still they look decent on the foot at the front and on the side they get a bit used. What’s important for me is that I feel that they’re agile and they’re quick and responsive, you know? I need to feel like I’m low to the ground and that I really do not twist my ankle — that is the biggest fear for a tennis player. I’ve only had that once and it was on a crazy court back in 2005. So if you think about it and how many hours I’ve spent on a court, I’ve actually been very lucky.

Does the parallel between you and Michael Jordan put a lot of extra pressure on you? You seemed excited to meet him in the Nike video from a few months back.

I was definitely happy to meet him. It was my hero next to me — it was a bit odd but I was trying to be cool with it! I was very excited when I was told I should wear it at the Open and in the first match and not only was I going to wear it, he was going to come and watch. So I was like, “Ohhh! Okay, don’t get injured!” I was actually cool about it until, like, the day of the match. I was playing night sessions so had a long time to think about it and the more the match approached I was telling myself, “I can’t lose this match!” So I went into it, like, “Whatever you do, don’t lose!” [Laughter.] I actually got very nervous that day and it was not a great feeling to have, but I was happy that Michael was at the match, the crowd was good and happy to see Michael and I’m glad that I did win in the shoe for the first time, but like you said, I did feel that pressure — I did feel something in the stadium and every time I was serving I saw this shoe like, “Whoa!” I ended up playing a second and third time in the shoe during the Open which was easier.

I get the impression that you’re very happy with the Zoom Vapor 9 design, it’s two years old now — do you find that being happy with a shoe is like being happy with a racket and does that make you resistant to big changes?

I’m more flexible than Pete Sampras was. I mean Pete Sampras didn’t want to change much equipment. You have to be careful though— we’re working on things right now. With the Jordan version, we had every Jordan ever made out and Tinker and Jordan Brand told me to choose the one I prefer the most — the one that makes you feel the best and play the best. I chose the III and they were very happy that I chose it. I didn’t know which one I liked better — black or white. White is more tennis.

Black is a fan favourite though.

I think so too. I didn’t expect the black one to come out later on. Then the Jordan group said, “How about black?” And that one’s cool too, but I was like, “Where and how?” So that’s where the idea came to wear it in the World Tour finals.

Were several different Jordan models shown to you on the Vapor platform?

No, they did it and showed it to me and said, “Do you like it?” And I did like it. I really let them do it, because the way they were going to do it would be something that I liked. Do you like a white or a grey tongue?

Grey is the best. The toe down view on the Jordan III is very visually appealing. You mentioned feeling good when you wear certain clothing or shoes — what you’ve worn has been a discussion point before. Jordan was a master of psychological warfare on the court — is your appearance part of your game plan?

It’s more for me — it’s for me rather than the opponent. The better you feel, the better you play. When I walked out in the suit at Wimbledon or in the Jordan shoe, those were iconic moments by tennis standards and they are big, you know? We’re very fortunate in tennis because I get to change my outfit around ten times a year and so I get a lot of changes because I work with Nike so closely with the design team, I always know what’s coming and I must say, it’s very cool being part of that process to look and feel good.

Growing up, there seemed to be a lot of tennis shoes worn as a fashion statement, like McEnroe’s Nike shoes. After Agassi and the Tech Challenges, your generation came through with a fast and powerful game — shoes had to be tougher and heavier so they couldn’t be worn so easily as a fashion statement…

Yeah, they had to become tougher. Agassi’s generation really started that with shoes becoming more bulky. I remember that.

When you were working on the Zoom Vapor 9, did you have a vision that maybe people could wear that one beyond the court too?

That was the idea with the Vapor, because the way that we can design the Vapor together with Tinker and the looks definitely gives it street-wear potential. And with the Jordan thing we’re going into it with the references to hi-tops and basketball shoes that are very, very fashionable right now. I think the black one is something I’ll wear on the street. White is a colour that really seems to be becoming stronger on shoes, but black is more toned down. On the court I might be wearing white, but away from the court I like something darker — it’s not so visible. It definitely has that potential.