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.
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…
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.