Eric Avar has designed some crazy shoes and I remain a fan of his more outlandish creations, even if they’re impossible to wear with jeans. Seeing Foamposites, Flight 95s or original Frees being retroed is either a testament to the fact they’re still ahead of their time, an admission of defeat — that something that insane won’t be made again – or a pointless endeavour, because they were the antithesis of backward glances when it came to design. I still don’t know. What I do know is that Avar thinks differently (working with Tinker Hatfield, he co-created a lot of ACG classics and the mighty Flight Huarache). This whole shoe thing is played out, but I’ll always investigate anything that Eric Avar has created. After the initial excitement over the low-cut fourth Kobe design (I still count it as the sixth Kobe shoe, because the Huarache 2K4 and 2K5 are part of the story — taking adidas into consideration, it was probably the eleventh Kobe shoe), I always felt that shock of the new was dulled a little by variations on a theme for the next four chapters. It’s nice to see that the low-cut has been ditched in favor of a polarising high version for the Kobe 9 Elite. I guarantee that when this gets a trim down next year, the Flyknit fans are going to come flocking. This shoe has the scope to be great — good luck trying to pull them off with shorts though.
This has been on another site, but the list of limitations and lack of share icons means that it’s better off here. It’s a quick chat with Eric Avar about the new shoe and if you’re expecting nerdery and insight, you aren’t going to get it. Phoners for specific shoes result in advertorial-style content, but there’s some hints at what makes him tick creatively. Somewhere, I’ve got a 90 minute chat with him about past triumphs that would be more relevant to this blog, but the holidays aren’t a place for interview transcription, so you’re getting this instead:
Eric, what shoes were on the table during initial meetings for the Kobe 9? Football boots played a part during the fourth shoe, so what was a cross category muse for this one?
A lot of initial talks we had were about how we had established the low as a proposition and how that referenced football boots. When we started the conversation around the 9 he really wanted a hi-top that would play like a low top. Even when we started the conversations for the low top back in the day we had to clarify just how low — three-quarters or a true low? So we almost had the same conversation again about the high. Would it be a high three-quarters or a high top? Kobe was like, “HIGH”. So he referenced a wrestling boot and more specifically, a boxing boot. He immediately referenced Manny Pacquiao and Manny’s boxing boots and shoes and he liked the essence of being provocative that way and he liked the mentality and spirit of Pacquiao so that played a role too. From a performance standpoint he just wanted a hi-top that would play like a low top with the range of motion we established with a perceptive fit or feel around its angle.
It’s odd to think that half a decade ago Kobe was asking for a low top that acted like a hi-top and now it’s the other way around.
How demanding is Kobe as a partner in design? We know he’s a player that loves control and the last four Kobes had that shape, the cut, the outrigger — there was very much a Kobe formula. Does he know what he wants from the start?
Yes. He does — he knows what he wants, but there’s always healthy conversation back and forth. He challenges myself and the entire Kobe team and I think we also challenge him in terms of what performance insights we may have and what performance technologies we have. We challenge one another but yes — Kobe is very articulate and very creative and he knows exactly what he is looking for and where he wants to go with his product.
Have you noticed that confidence and understanding increase over the years?
He has always had a good level of understanding and he has always been creative but I think through the years we’ve become more familiar with one another and the entire team. That gives us a deeper level of conversation which just leads to more potential of what we can do and where we can take the product. We’ve learned where we can take things.
Did you have a role in the creation of Flyknit originally — did it pass through the Innovation Kitchen and the ‘Zoo’?
We’ve been evolving the Flyknit technology in one way or another for probably about 12 years. There’s been so many people that have played a role directly or indirectly to get it to the point where it is today. I was in that mix, but it’s hard to say exactly what role.
As far as Flyknit engineering, does it have to be toughened up to be on the court as opposed to use as a running shoe?
That’s one of the unique things about Flyknit — its flexibility as a design and manufacturing tool. You can really push the boundaries in a number of directions to answer a number of performance problems. In basketball we knew we needed to push the boundaries in security because of the propulsive forces and lateral movements in the game. There were a number of ways to do that in both the fibres that we used and the stitches we used to create that constraint you would need above the running product.
On the running front, speaking to Sean McDowell this summer he said that he feels like George Lucas in that he wants to go back and change what he created in the past to improve it — with Flywire, Lunarlon and Flyknit around now, do you ever feel the same about earlier Kobe models or are you always looking forward?
That’s a good question. I think everything has a time and a place. With the type of technologies we had back then, we were pushing the limits and the innovations we have now are appropriate now. One of things about design in general and not specifically footwear is that technology is evolving so fast and there’s just so much room for improving in general when it comes to creativity and performance. You can look back through history and I think that’s always the case. A lot of times I’m asked what my favourite project has been and I steal a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright — he always said it’s the next one. I really believe that. In hindsight there’s always something you could do better and there’s always something to improve upon but as we go forward, the insight and data makes it an exciting time in general for footwear design.
I always associate my favourite designs from you, going back to Penny, Jason Kidd and Payton with the Zoom Air era of Nike design. Is that the perfect technology for you in that it’s great cushioning but it never gets in the way of a design? It’s rarely a focal feature.
It becomes the design — yes. That’s a good observation. I think Zoom is a very appropriate technology for basketball — it’s good cushioning and good responsive cushioning allows you to get lower to the ground. I think some of the Lunarlon foams we’ve been working on are very similar. For me, it’s a good tool — I’m a big believer in natural motion and product that works on one to one with the body and we’ve been using Zoom to provide that cushioning as part of that harmony.
How does natural motion operate in the Kobe 9?
We’re using the drop-in midsole with the Lunarlon foam and that midsole is, by its nature, very lightweight, compliant and flexible. We’ve used an outsole that’s also a little more pliable. There’s an aspect of the whole product that’s form-fitting and dynamic to the foot, so yeah, it’s in there definitely. The collar being dynamic also allows for a more perceptive fit.
With Kobe’s build and mode of play are there things you can do with him that you couldn’t do with a player like LeBron?
There are definitely differences between the style of play and body type of players but today’s players in general are just so athletic and explosive. It’s almost like playing a video game where you have your different attributes and strengths of a character — one might be different to another but that’s just how athletes are. Fundamentally, you’re trying to solve the same key problems, but you might zoom in on a key attribute of a player and amplify that a little bit where it’s appropriate for them and in line with their needs.
Did Kobe’s injuries make development of this shoe lengthier? Personally, I never expected him to even come back at this point but I just put that down to him being a freak of nature. Was wear testing more rigorous?
It was actually a pretty normal process. With Kobe, in terms of him trying out prototypes, like you said, he’s a freak of nature — everything he does is calculated to the highest degree for the most positive outcome. He approached his injury that way, from the rehab to the training and it was in sync with the prototypes of the product we were working on and it actually wasn’t that different.
Were you shocked when he wanted to add scars to the back of the shoe?
Nothing with Kobe shocks me! I had just met with him shortly after surgery and I have a picture on my phone of a picture he showed me of his surgery and his injury and we were talking about that and I mentioned that it was kind of a cool visual and he was like, “Oh yeah! Let’s put stitches on the shoe!” That’s the classic hero’s journey — rising back to the success. We just immediately stumbled across that and felt it from an inspiration and visual standpoint.
I know form often follows function but these shoes always have such a strong narrative — I mean, the Black Mamba concept has become a performance part of the shoe, but when does the plot become part of the process of design?
I think each shoe is a little different — there might be more insight or inspiration from style or form. On some, it’s a little earlier in the process and on others it comes a little later. I personally think that good design is when style and function are seamless — almost naturally flowing into one another like, “Okay, here’s the performance and now we’re going to layer in the style.” It’s when they’re fluid and one almost creates the other we get some of the most compelling products and that’s when I personally think that good design happens.
Issue 14 of Proper is pretty shoe-centric and the magazine remains one of the few menswear magazines with a sense of humour (the workplace stories are particularly amusing) — crucially, the team know their stuff and the evolution in terms of presentation has been tremendous, with a visual language in place over the last three editions to match the irreverence. Chatting to BWGH about the Jimmy Savile incident (when lookbooks go wrong) and trawling through Lindy Darrell’s spectacular haul of Nike SMUs are some of the highlights from this one. Still one of the best publications out there.