words & interview // Nick DePaula
interview photography // Zac Dubasik
Air Jordan 2011 photography // Nick DePaula
When your past just so happens to include the longest-running and most industry-defining line of sneakers, spanning an incredible twenty-five year tenure of noteworthy innovation, iconic styling and, of course, the luxury of being worn by the greatest basketball player of all time, that’s quite the history to be able to draw from. As Tinker Hatfield and newly appointed Jordan Senior Designer Tom Luedecke set out to design this year’s newest addition to the edition in the Air Jordan 2011, they did so with the hopes of taking us to an entirely new place in performance design and construction.
The key operative word for the project was "modular," and as Tom Luedecke details in this in-depth interview, it wasn't exactly the easiest process to nail down. From the earliest stages of dealing with a "very bulbous" multi-part system, all the way to refining the shape, slope and volume of the shoe, Luedecke and the development team led by Footwear Developer Craig Nomi had quite an undertaking on their hands in building this year's Air Jordan. They also had less time than normal, starting a bit later than the usual sixteen month timeline. Sole Collector caught up with Luedecke back in early December to talk about everything from the challenges of building a working dual sockliner modular system to the more fine graphic details. Read along for an exclusive look into the design and engineering of the newest game shoe, the Air Jordan 2011, and check back tomorrow for our equally in-depth interview with Craig Nomi, where we break down the shoe's hand-burnished leather upper and every last technical detail of the cushioning platform.
Nick DePaula: It sounds like this design got off to a later start than previous game shoes. Can you talk about when the design started out and what the initial thinkings were?
Tom Luedecke: Well, the design started out right here. [points] 11.5.09. There’s your starting date. [laughs] It was a challenging project because the request from Tinker, conceptually, was very high. Needless to say, he wouldn’t make the request if he didn’t trust the concept from a performance standpoint. Number two, if he didn’t know what’s already been worked on. I had been working on modular systems for at least three or four years by the time we were starting this project. And that started all the way back in the Kitchen when we started to look at Free and how could we do even more flexible products. Could you take individual components of the shoe apart and allow them to become more flexible?
It started literally that far back, and we’re talking around 2005. We had been working on something modular for awhile. None of it had hit the market. All of it had its shortcomings or pitfalls somewhere along the line. Tinker being the guy who knows it best, he likes to set a goal and a hard target and get people behind it, and you very well may end up in that spot that you were working towards, even though it might be over a long period of time. You might end up hitting that spot, just by putting pressure on it.
That’s literally what happened. He came to me and said, “I want you to figure this out, and I want you to figure it out for the AJ 2011. Start with the foot, and build around that.” So that was literally his first sketch -- it was the shoe around a foot. He always starts with that. It’s a direct reaction to how some of the products get too stylized too soon. A constant reminder for me, in working with Tinker and Eric [Avar], is to always go back to the foot. Always go back to biomechanics. Start there and look at that as your basic insight, and also look at the athlete, their basic needs and what they’re doing. So that’s all one part of it, to look at the foot.
Then, you look at comfort and what you need underfoot and around the foot. Tinker then said, “Hey, what if things on the product are removable?” He was literally saying, “Could you take the collar foam off? Could you take out something under the arch?” He was really pushing for the north star, and a best-case scenario if everything were to work. Could we have the moon and the stars? [laughs] Which is great, cause then we have a very sharp direction and we know what we’re after. We’re after modularity, and we’re after parts that are removable and replaceable. He also talked about an internal lining package that could be adjustable. At the time, we were also working on what we were calling “holy moly” running shoes. It was a running shoe that had circular holes all over it and it was real breathable, and we were working on that in the pantry at the time. He said, “Hey, there’s something there for comfort. Use it in this particular product.” Honestly, at the end of the day, we had to step away from it for weight reasons, and it was one way to get some weight out of the shoe. But, it was great insight to think about comfort all around the foot. To me, this is one of the greatest sketches I’ve ever gotten from Tinker….”
NDP: Wow, that's real cool.
TL: Foot on the midsole. Midsole on the bootie. Bootie in the shell. Done. [laughs] To me, this was meaningful, because as rough of a sketch as it is, it was talking very clearly about seeing some side-wall cutting icon that says, “You can cut in this product.” Number two, it says, “I want a very sleek outer midsole.” Although you’re building a midsole on the inside of the shoe, he still wanted to see some kind of midsole on the outside. Which is perplexing, right, because if you’re putting the midsole on the inside, why have another one? He was very straightforward in saying, “I want people to want to wear this shoe, and I don’t want people running away from it. If it looks like another double-lasted product, we did a lot of that in the 90s and we don’t want to look back to that.” He also just wanted it to really look like a classic sneaker. He kept saying he wanted it to be sleek, classic and refined. Nothing too crazy. But then, you look at the upper and you’re going, “Dude….” [laughs] That was not quite as classic maybe as you might think, but it balances it out nicely. That was the direction, and he basically said go. “You have almost no time, and go!” [laughs]
NDP: So he basically handed you those sketches and you were off.
TL: Yeah, and he literally took a weekend to himself at his house, sketched all of these up and came to us on Monday with everything. He already had the Wade insight in his head, and he was really focusing on DWade.
NDP: He wrote “Heel crack, for cracking jokes.” What’s that all about? [laughs]
TL: That’s just Tinker, right? [laughs] He’s a great metaphorical speaker and designer, and he always loves to have a story influence the product design. A lot of those are ways to find product expression. He basically hands it all off to me after that, and says, “These are the things that I want to achieve: It’s critical that this shoe is modular.” He wanted it to have a replaceable, removable midsole and we really believe that that’s the next thing to get after in product design for footwear.
NDP: A lot of the 2010 inspiration was pretty much from the meeting with MJ and him inspiring the clear window. Had Tinker met with Michael at that point and was any of the modular direction inspired from MJ’s insight, or was that just a direction Tinker was thinking of?
TL: This was all just a conceptual start from Tinker, and the way we worked on this was different than how he usually works with MJ. However, interestingly enough, we went and created first prototypes of the concept, and there’s not even a midsole in this one, and it’s incredibly heavy. Very bulbous, very heavy. But that was the concept, so we went and showed MJ. We built the shoe right in front of him. We said, “Michael, you’ll need a lining package with these seatbelts [eyelets]. That lining package will go into a shell. That all goes on top of the footbucket and your cushy gushy foam cushioning unit will go inside of it all. That was the concept, and oh by the way, we’re going to provide, in the box, a full-length Air unit and we’re going to have a two-Zoom bag solution. You’d have the Quick player and the Explosive player. The Explosive player jumps up and down, lands on his feet from going up for rebounds or layups. The Quick guy is cutting everywhere and getting to the hoop, and it’s a totally different product for that guy. We met with MJ and he said, “Check. Get it. Go!” Then, the first round of weartesting came back, and it was like, “Oh man, this is not going to work out….” [laughs] Literally.
Where we started was with a very flat forefoot, to try and keep everything as tight as possible. Still, we were at a massive wide forefoot. A lot of the layers started adding up to being something that was way overbuilt. This midsole and bootie could almost be a shoe in and of itself, and then we’re stuffing all of that into a shell. The thing just became real wide. Every millimeter in the forefoot, if you look down at your foot, and everyone does that pretty often, any slight change from what you’re used to, it won’t look right. Just like cars. You know when a car doesn’t look right. You see hundreds of thousands of cars driving by over the course of a year, and if you saw a drawing of a car where the perspective is off, you would notice immediately. It’s the same with shoes. You look at people’s feet and their shoes all the time.
NDP: And for us, perhaps even more than normal.
TL: Exactly. [laughs] Something that’s slightly wider than a regular product that people would wear, you’ll notice it immediately and it doesn’t look good. And that’s what we had in hand during that first round. [laughs] The other thing was that people were sliding off of the platform, which isn’t the thing you want. Worst, their little pinky would get caught [in the space between the midsole and shell] and they’d be sliding around. It would literally hurt so bad, that people were taking the shoes off during weartesting. A couple friends of mine that are in the program, like Donald [Kelsey], he literally said, “I’d love to keep wearing the shoe and testing it -- but I can’t. It’s hurting too bad.” That was a big setback for us, on both the design and development side of things. We had to rally the troops, sit down, and look at forensics and find out the things that we didn’t address and see where we went too quickly out of the gate or where we made assumptions that didn’t ring to be true. Basically, what it came down to was let’s look at what we really need in here. What we ended up with was much less of an overall package.
Above: Tom Luedecke holds the original "very bulbous, very heavy" Air Jordan 2011 sample, made in Michael's size 13.
NDP: How far along in the process was it that you guys came to that roadblock?
TL: Pretty much right at the first round of sampling.
NDP: Ok, so still relatively early on.
TL: Yeah, but all of this was on a very accelerated timeline, so turnaround was very fast. There were a lot of things that didn’t work out on the first round, but the biggest takeaway was that it looks really bulbous, it was really heavy, and we needed to reduce layers, the weight, the width, get closer to the foot and get tighter to the last. We had our line of sight.
What we ended up with was material solutions that allowed us to go much thinner. Instead of having a lofty foam package, we decided to use a spacer mesh, which actually collapses. Instead of accounting for 2mm of mesh there, we can account for just 1mm of spacer mesh when your foot is inside of the shoe. Going back to 3D modeling, that gave us room to grow the midsole out, so the side of the midsole could come out to be 2mm thick, by taking a millimeter out of the mesh. By going to seatbelt webbing eyelets, instead of double-layer synthetic loops, that’s another mill' and a half out of the circumference and volume of the shoe. Now that we had an actual midsole on the shoe, if you slide the sockliner into it, now we have a wall where it could sit against. It makes total sense, we just didn’t start there. [laughs] We went straight out of the gate in the wrong direction a bit, and we had to re-direct.
The second part of it, in terms of the upper, is we didn’t want to overbuild it too much with a leather that was too thick. Tinker really wanted to have leather, because he had a vision for what this could be. We wanted to find a way to get to a thinner leather though than what this material normally is, and we found a way to use reinforcers, out of Germany actually, that allowed us to maintain the strength of the leather, without going so thick. Putting all of that together and onto the last, we got to a much sleeker proportion. Really, it then just came down to real design proportions. This is a subtlety that sometimes gets lost, but every time that we touched the product, whether it was for a very slight technical change, or we were just changing an eyelet, we kept refining the dimensions in the toe and we kept pushing tighter and tighter in the last and what these dimensions were. It’s not wider than a regular shoe, and it also gives you a great toe-down and side-view aesthetic that’s very simple and pleasant to the eye, based on what Tinker had started with. Compared to what you’re holding in your hands, which is a massive block of leather and foam. [laughs] We were scared to end up back there. [laughs] We really had to re-direct. Knowing we were there was great, cause we could look at it and talk about it, and keep pushing to a direction that could get us to the right place.
NDP: With the year being 2011, and that toe looks pretty familiar to the XI, how much of an inspiration point was that shoe?
TL: I would be lying if I said there wasn’t talk about that. [laughs] Was it in anyone’s mind at the forefront of inspiration? Probably not. I would have to hesitate to agree with that as being a big inspiration. In my mind, I wasn’t trying to reference the XI or re-build an XI or anything like that. Were we after a strong, iconic block that Tinker had laid out? Yeah. Absolutely. Just the year crossing over into the model….coincidence? Half. Was it a goal that we were after? That wasn’t really it. It was more about trying to find the right shape and proportion, and the right aesthetic in terms of refinements. It’s not gloss, and it’s not quite the sparkle-shine of the XI. All of the highlights here are on the side, and that’s very Jordan. There’s a lot of style and attitude on the outside, and we’re confident in the technology that’s on the inside. The biggest story really came down to just figuring out the modular piece, which I’m happy to say we did. There’s the Explosive midsole, which focuses on up and down. It’s a different foam, a different Air bag and a different sockliner. Every single part of that underfoot experience is different between the two.
NDP: The Air unit housing is Cushlon, and the Zoom unit housing is compression Phylon?
TL: Correct. The top liners are also different. One is a little more of a sueded fabric, and the other is a little more of a mesh-type fabric. One sockliner is perfed EVA, and the other is Ortholite, so it’s a very different underfoot experience. If a kid buys this shoe in the store, and puts both feet into the shoes, he should immediately feel a difference. Even at the point of purchase and without playing in the shoe. Playing in the shoe, you should find an even greater variance, and you can choose your midsole based on your style of play at a certain point in time even, based on what you’re doing in the product at the time. Is it shoot around? Is it a light game, versus a hard game? Is it the championship? You might change from one to another. You might also change for the last six minutes of a game, when you want to go harder. We really wanted to provide, not just a removable part, but a replaceable part. That’s what I think a lot of people have a hard time digesting -- modularity. What they’re seeing is the sockliner going out, but really you’re putting the other one right back in. You can replace the part, and that’s something that we really want to keep driving on.
NDP: Did you guys toy at all with doing full Zoom or different cushioning units altogether?
TL: Due to timelines, we had to have a very serious sitdown and make a very straight call. The technical cushioning units that we have to literally purchase, we had to make a decision on fairly early, because you’re building the rest of the shoe around it. There was a very hard discussion with everyone in the room that is a key stakeholder, to make sure that we understand what we’re after. The foam units took awhile to get right. I want to say we had six or seven different foam solutions on the table, of varying degrees of foams and of varying degrees of hardness. We ended up where we are at now.
NDP: Can you talk a bit about the collar design? In Tinker’s sketches, he has a bit more of a defined malleolus circle that you can see.
TL: Ease of entry is really what it comes down to. We tried to get to where Tinker was, but really, it came down to having a hard time finding the right material. While you can find a lot of materials that will stretch, you will find very few materials that will stretch again, again and again, without looking baggy, worn or start fraying. What we decided on was ease of entry. You can open it up like you would a Presto bootie. It’s a slip-on type bootie, and that was the insight. If you build a bootie that is literally not moving in there, you can get in and out of that product real easily. Or else, you’re deterring from the rest of the story and what we were trying to get after. It was the same thing every round, we were trying to get better at how you get into it. When Mark and Tinker met with MJ to show him some of the final stages, MJ was like, “Well, can you get in and out of the shoe?” So Mark, with his size 10.5 foot, got in and out of the size 9 sample to prove his point. [laughs] So he trusted that.
NDP: Was that collar design where the mesh is inspired by anything in particular?
TL: That was something that Mark had brought to the table. We had a couple of things going on there during a really raw sharpie sketch, and he came in and said, “Hey, I really think there’s something here.” It stuck. It’s as simple as that. Tinker, Mark Smith and myself have an interesting way of working together, and I was actually hired by Mark, into Tinker’s group. We’ve been working together for almost eight years now. There’s a trust that goes back and forth, and Tinker can hand off a project and will trust that I’ll do all my best to finish on a high note on that concept. I’ll also trust that when Mark comes in and makes a suggestion, that it’s the right thing to do for the product. It’s a very organic way of working, and very unstructured at times, but there’s a lot of trust from the people involved, which includes Craig [Nomi, Jordan Footwear Developer] and Josiah [Lake, Category Footwear Leader.] When comments are made, they’re not being hard, they’re going to take you in the right direction for the product.
NDP: Were there any specific insights or things that Michael was looking for?
TL: He really started talking about the warrior concept. Getting ready for battle. He saw the idea of replacing a midsole as almost like choosing your weaponry. Like choosing your weapons wisely. That inspired some of the artwork emboss on the product, and there’s a warrior-inspired pattern that you’ll see on the leather. If you look at old western or tribal warfare, there are a lot of things that you can think of when “warrior” comes to mind. That’s the attitude that we wanted to get across, and that’s what Michael was talking about. In the black/ white, it’s a little bit more subdued, but there will be colorways out where the difference is a lot stronger as a visual. It highlights the leather from the emboss. Tinker kept saying, “Hey, here’s this belt leather that’s really crafted.” That’s what we took to the factory and we told them that we wanted this to look really handcrafted, and it is hand-burnished. There’s an artisan that’s hand-crafting each and every product before it goes into the box.
NDP: If November ‘09 was around the time you started this shoe, you had signed DWade over that previous summer. Did you guys involve him at all in the process with this shoe?
TL: Especially later in May and all the way into August [of 2010]. We had talks with him and he was trying on the shoes and there was a lot of work that got done to make sure that his athletic needs and his specific foot morphology is addressed and he’s comfortable in the product. With it being a leather product, all the way around and without any real overlays or points of irritation, that really helped him feel comfortable in the product. He’s a little bit of a dapper gentlemen, in terms of how he dresses off the court, and it really plays to his style of dress as well. It’s a very, dare I say it [laughs], Italian dress shoe attitude. If you want to talk about the XI reference, with the XI being one of the first shoes that was inspired by MJ saying, “Hey, I want to take the shoe to the opera if I feel like it,” it was similar in that sense. We said, “Hey, we’ve always wanted to get to this burnished leather and hand-finished, Italian custom-made dress shoes," and that attitude and that expression carried into this product.
NDP: Another part of that too is the stitch pattern and also the pretty detailed perf pattern. Is there a backstory to the perf pattern along that main leather piece?
That’s a story that was put together by Ryan Caruthers and Dave Frank, who have great graphic insights and are really great professionals to work with. It was around star constellations and how that has been and still is an inspiration for people. Whether you go to battle or you just believe in circumstance, you can go down that whole inspiration path there. Overlaying that with the warrior emboss and finishing that off with the dress shoe attitude, there really was three layers of inspiration there.
NDP: The XX3 obviously had MJ’s thumbprint for the inspiration behind the traction pattern. Was that the same concept here?
TL: We started with Mark and I talking about using graphics in a functional way. That’s something that goes all the back to the start of the laser pack from 2003. We said, “Could we eventually end up using graphic as technical?” We had a discussion when I got a little bit closer to finishing this project, and he asked, “Could you use a very unique Jordan graphic in a way where it’s a very high performance and technical traction pattern?” You could look at the heel of this and say, “Oh yeah, that’s just elephant. So what.” The interesting part is when we thought about trying to emphasize what’s happening with the foot. Here’s your pivot point, and imagine if you could twist the elephant pattern like you would do when you’re pivoting. It’s not just applying elephant print and there’s your traction pattern. It’s elephant print and, oh by the way, when you swirl it in the forefoot near the pivot point, the pattern actually gets tighter and there’s more rubber contact where you need it. It’s engineered, there’s a graphic element to it and it has motion in it.
NDP: Great. So I was totally wrong in thinking that it was MJ’s thumbprint again. [laughs]
TL: Well, yeah. [laughs] The thumbprint was similar though, in that it was a graphic that we applied. Here, we went a couple of steps further and said, “Let’s really engineer it.” There are also flex grooves in here that are in a really recommended area from our Research lab, and those are nicely disruptive.
NDP: How about the branding of the shoe? It’s pretty visible on the heel.
TL: Absolutely. And it’s super iconic. We started playing very early in the beginning with a lateral heel Jumpman. The rest of the shoe was so sleek, that we kept saying, “You know what, there’s something to the III, where it’s just on the tongue and the heel.” We want it to be bold, be confident, high contrast and somewhat unexpected. The first time we had this shoe with the heel Jumpman, you could look across the court at every single wear tester, and there was some Kobe stuff, some Nike stuff and some Jordan stuff out there, and you could pick out the game shoe right away. Fifty, sixty yards away, you would go, “That’s gotta be the game shoe.” Once I saw that, I knew that was done. That had to be it. It’s super iconic and in terms of the side, there’s a simple swoop, but if you turn it just slightly, you’ll know what it is. It’s very bold, to say that it’s a performance product, it’s a Jordan and it’s the game shoe.
NDP: There’s also just a lot more texture to the logo. Also, what kind of process is that?
TL: It’s HF welded and it’s also 3D molded. That came from something that Justin Taylor had been working on with some prior Jordan models that emphasized the logo. When we first got a sample back, the Jumpman was glossy, because, I guess, the expectation of the factory was that we’d want it glossy. We right away went and said, “No no, we want you to sandblast the mold and leave it matte.“ Instead of doing a glossy toy-like finish, we wanted a very matted finish. We also wanted a metallic spec to it, and had ten or twelve percentages of metal flake in the TPU that we could use. It’s basically a metallic flake, 3D molded, HF welded onto a synthetic leather.
NDP: And is there a story behind the graphic on the tongue? I’ll assume there’s twenty-three dots there in the number?
TL: Yeah, there’s twenty-three, and that comes from motorcycle boots and that was a heavy Mark Smith inspiration. There’s a whole graphic language for the rest of the year that will drive off of this.
Zac Dubasik: We’ve been seeing a lot of rolled edge finishes lately, and that collar seems like the opposite of that, but it somehow looks just as clean. Is there a story to how you guys ended up with that finish?
TL: It’s a super clean finish, and we have our comfort story on the inside, and we just wanted to stay super minimal around the collar. What’s nice about the mesh window, is that it does collapse. Just like on other products that I’ve worked on, it’s really important to address biomechanical needs, and I want to allow the medial side to collapse in order to get out of the way, while still tying you down. If you lace it all the way up to the top, you’re getting great ankle support, but it doesn’t bite you in the ankle. It’s a fine balance to reach, and a clean finish is always a bonus, so thanks for noticing.
NDP: Is there any story to the grid pattern along the midsole, or is that just another touch?
We tried to pick up on the mesh pattern in the window, and then repeat that in a way that’s maybe got a little more motion to it. It’s got a little bit of a lean to it. The mesh texture is great, and it was working well for that part of the shoe, so could we find a place to carry that out as a graphic language?
NDP: And along the way, just getting those two different sockliners to fit in right with the concept of modularity was the hardest part?
Absolutely. What it comes to is having the tools at hand now where we can do 3D modeling and do 3D printing so we can triple and quadruple-check the parts and make sure everything is right. We can zoom in real tight and do rotational 3D modeling, and we can also cut sections at any angle and on any plane of the shoe, before we press go and make the mold. We could check every single section and every single millimeter if we wanted to -- and we pretty much did. [laughs] We could see just how thick each section was and how much variance there was between the actual part that came back and the 3D model. We really pushed every single member of the team and at the factory to really see what was going on with the sockliner. We were paying attention to every single detail along the way, and I’m happy to say that every member of the team was on top of it and we got it right where we wanted it.
NDP: This is the first Air Jordan that you’ve worked on so publicly, can you talk a bit about your path to designing this shoe?
TL: Well, I helped on the XX, when Mark was designing the big graphic pattern that was lasered on the strap. I was in the background for the engineering of the laser pattern on that. I’ve had a couple intersections with the Jordan in the past, but this is the first shoe that I’m 100% involved in, yes.
NDP: And what’s that been like?
TL: It’s great! I had been hoping to get a chance to do this at some point in my career. It was quite a bit sooner than I thought it would be, and it all comes down to trust. Tinker trusting Craig and myself to do the right thing for the product, and to go through all the right hoops that we have to go through to get it right from a performance angle. And then, me trusting Smitty to come in at the crucial points in time and give very, very clear direction and very clear input on finishing techniques, and really pushing hard to get to a space that’s new, that’s better and that’s different for all of the right reasons. I don’t take those comments lightly, and I really try and digest them and find the right solution. When Tinker says, “Really think ‘crafted’ and ‘belt leather,’” that doesn’t go without putting a lot of thought into and coming back to the table a couple days later with a solution from a production, manufacturing and performance side.
NDP: Last question -- are you Quick or Explosive?
TL: Myself? [laughs] Always a Quick player. However, if I were to wear the product more on the casual side, I would maybe end up with the Cushlon underfoot. On-court, guaranteed, I would no doubt use the Zoom bag.
NDP: What would you suggest for a guy that --
TL: Hey, that’s another question! [laughs]
NDP: [laughs] One more! What would you suggest for a guy that just sets a high pick and roll and then mostly sets screens the rest of the game too. And he might look exactly like Zac, as an example.
TL: You could pound down with the full-length Air unit, in that case. [laughs] If you’re the cutting type and you’re quickly moving side to side to get to the spot that you need to be in…
Zac: Hey! I step out and defend those pick and rolls too!
NDP: You do! [laughs] Anyways, thanks for your time Tom. Always appreciate it.
TL: Anytime guys. Thanks again!