words // Nick DePaula
photography // Zac Dubasik
After diving into the design of the Air Jordan 2011 with Jordan Senior Footwear Designer Tom Luedecke yesterday, today we have a detailed look at the development and engineering side of the process. Real technical stuff, so be warned.
Sole Collector spoke with Jordan Footwear Developer Craig Nomi this past December to talk mostly all about the two biggest stories on the Air Jordan 2011. Namely, the dual sockliner modular system and the hand-burnished one-piece leather overlay along the upper. And yes, we touched on every possible other detail too. Enjoy.
Nick DePaula: What was the initial brief for developing these two cushioning platforms for one shoe?
Craig Nomi: Based on Tinker’s guidance, we wanted to re-establish ourselves in the performance realm. This modular story of being able to provide two different technologies in one shoe, it’s been bounced around Nike for a long time. There have been attempts at it in the past, but I think we’re the first ones that have been able to bring it to market. There’s basically two different technologies for two different types of players. We have a Zoom carrier and then we have a dot-welled Air application as well.
NDP: Would different players be better suited for what you guys have coined the Quick and Explosive options?
I don’t want to typecast any players, but it depends on the player's game. If comfort is more of a thing or if speed is more of a preference, whether it’s lateral, vertical or direct, straight down the court speed. Weight-wise, there’s a negligible difference, and they’re pretty close to one another. At the end of the day, there are definitely two very different performance characteristics.
Other than the Air units, they look similar, but they are actually two different materials. There’s one type of Phylon, and then a different grade of Phylon. The consumer will open the box and they’ll get one shoe with one sockliner in it, and then the other shoe will have the other sockliner in it. At retail, they’ll be able to put it on, walk around and pick which one they like better.
NDP: How long ago did you guys begin the entire process, and was it different than previous game shoe timelines?
We had less time, but it was still about twelve months, roughly. Quite honestly, this whole material concept didn’t really gel for us until around September. We had the concept, we had the construct, the modularity and the aesthetic, but this main layer didn’t manifest itself til almost the end.
It’s just that we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We didn’t know what we had until we started to play around. Unfortunately, you can’t really see it as well on the black version, but when you get to the reds and some others, basically it’s a dress shoe leather. You’ve seen Cole Haans use materials like this, and actually, that’s where it started, was with a few Cole Haan shoes. It started with a Cole Haan shoe that Smitty [Mark Smith] had, and basically, we wanted to try and mimic what they were trying to do with the burnishing and the two-toned aspect of a dress shoe. Unfortunately, we couldn’t use the Cole Haan material, because I guess it wasn’t approved for Nike, which is funny since Nike owns Cole Haan. [laughs] So we had to go out and find our own.
Performance wise, leather is pretty consistent, and it doesn’t really matter what grade of leather. How we built the shoe is a little bit different, because we’re using a few different reinforcers that we’re also now adopting throughout the brand into other shoes. Before, we might’ve used a canvas or a nylon to reinforce the leather, but now, there’s a thin, strong resin that you’ll see underneath. Once you heat it up, it becomes really rigid, but without sacrificing the texture of the leather above it. Because it’s a dress shoe leather, it does have a fair amount of oil content in it, to give it it’s suppleness, but the wax is what gives you that difference in color, so you can really see that color shift in a number of these.
ZD: Since they’re all done by hand, they’ll definitely have a bit of a different finish for each one?
They are going to be unique. There’s no question. Even on a match pair, you’ll see subtle differences between the two shoes, which is part of the story as well.
NDP: To go back to the modular platform, the Air Jordan 2010 had a bottom-loaded Zoom bag --
NDP: In building these two sockliner units, did you guys talk about different configurations and different cushioning units altogether? Did you look at the bottom-loaded Zoom that we saw last year?
Yeah, I think the limitation became how to make this structure work and function as a unit once inside the shoe, as opposed to just being a sockliner that you could feel moving around. The last thing that I wanted to do was have the sockliners moving around and compromise performance. The majority of all of the testing that we did up front was to make sure that the idea was even a stable platform and that our guys could play in it without feeling like there was any movement. You could go all the way back to GP with his second-skin Morph shoe, and that was a different concept with a shoe-within-a-shoe, and this is a shoe with two different carriers, but we wanted to look at our experiences in the past and make sure the interface between the two components was stable, and that was really critical. We also wanted to make sure it didn’t look huge, so we had to do a new last for this as well, revise the current last and modify it so that the sockliner could function as one piece. The first prototypes, believe me… [laughs] They were huge. It took a lot of refinement.
NDP: The midsole is definitely still pretty substantial. How low does the carrier sit and are the heights around normal?
The external midsole is approximately 2.5 mm thick in cross-section, and it’s really just a shell. But it’s a functional shell, because it provides some buffering from the floor up. The unit as a whole really performs based on the cushioning you choose. We chose not to bottom-load it, because we wanted to protect the bag and we wanted the bag to be closer to the foot in this case. We were fearful that if we bottom-loaded the bags in this instance, if players do take these sockliners in and out, there’s a chance that you might harm the unit from all of the movement in and out. This is a safer way to go, and I think we’re finding out that Zoom right beneath the foot is probably preferred in general.
NDP: It’s certainly tough to beat.
We’re definitely finding that even the full-length encap Air bag that we’re using is still one of Nike’s best technologies as far as comfort is concerned. In terms of heights, if you put the whole package together, we’re right at the industry standard of 20/ 10 mm. [Note: That's 20mm in the heel, and 10mm in the forefoot.] That was the whole goal, to make it just like our normal QF-8 [last] shoes and a regular basketball shoe. The units are 6mm each.
ZD: Is part of the collar’s mesh design to allow for some flexibility to get the sockliner in and out?
NDP: Was it a challenge to get the shape of the sockliner to where it could fit in and out easily, but not move around inside?
Yeah, and the texture that’s on there helps. That was incorporated into it to better sync up with the internal construction of the shoe. Really, the texture of the textile on the strobel functions as a buffer in there, so there’s some friction involved. We did have some versions early on that didn’t have any texture, and the main challenge there was audible squeaking. When the guys were wearing it, you could hear the foam between the upper and the midsole rubbing and squeaking. That was the first or second wear-test, and we knew to correct that right from the start.
NDP: With the XX1 and XX2, “Interchangeable IPS” was the terminology that you guys used. Is there a term you guys are using for this system?
I don’t really think we’re calling it anything other than just a modular system. We didn’t patent or trademark a name for the technology. In the box, there’s a pictogram of how to use each one, so the consumer will have the entire experience. And if the retailer or a sales associate doesn’t know what’s going on, they can look at that card and learn all about it. It’s not the easiest thing to get in and out of the shoe, and that was part of our struggle too. Do we put a tab on it? We were looking at some other stuff, but it was just getting so complicated.
NDP: If it’s too easy to get in and out, then it might also be sliding around while you’re wearing it.
ZD: My orthotics when I first got them had just a regular foam bottom and they would slide a little bit, so they re-worked them for me and put this non-stick rubber on the bottom of them -- Oh my god they’re hard to get in and out. I basically have to jam it in half, get the heel centered and then roll it all into the shoe. [laughs]
NDP: That’s a good segueway too, because I was going to ask about people that play in orthotics.
Initially, it was going to be one whole unit. Then, the orthotic discussion came up, and we said, “This has to be just like a regular shoe.” So, the top sockliner comes out, so that guys with orthotics can put them in. Now, not everyone’s insert is going to fit in here, like with a lot of shoes, but we do our best from that standpoint.
NDP: Well, I’m excited to play in it. I really liked the 2010 last year. Did you have a different material in mind, if the leather wasn’t going to work out?
NDP: Or somebody would’ve been knocking at your desk.
Yeah! And it’s gonna be hard for people to knock it off too, because it’s not an easy process. They’re probably going to sublimate it, and I don’t know how they’re going to try and knock it off. I can’t see how they’ll do it.
ZD: Now that I think about it, when you were talking about the Cole Haan shoes that had a similar treated leather, we saw those back in August at the World Basketball Festival didn’t we?
NDP: Yeah, it was in the set that was on display at Atmos that Mark [Smith] did.
Yeah, that was them.
ZD: It’s pretty cool to think about it now, and how that was a hint back then.
Once you see the green to black colorway though, you can really see the shift.
NDP: I guess that was Mark’s “Gotcha!” moment.