words // Nick DePaula
originally posted on September 13, 2009 // 
[As published in Sole Collector's Issue 29, available HERE]

With an insistence on looking retro, feeling luxe and offering extreme comfort, early on the look of the shoe remained more subtle, while the bulk of the initial attention would be paid towards the attention-getting elements, like the out-of-control tongue size, shape and height.

"I just kept saying, 'Well, if it's truly a retro-ish product, it should be very simple.' Things weren't very complicated back in the day," begins Mark Smith. "The McFly had I think three pieces. There was the upper, outsole and then some interesting stuff going on in the midsole. [The goal was] the more that I could simplify it, and yet keep it a modern retro, so you couldn't tell really from a distance if it was new or old until you got an up-close look at the details."


Sure enough, the upper of the shoe took on a clean and simplified look throughout the early stages of the process, as it was the collar molding and midfoot strap that took the most time to get right. Though Smith is generally the lead designer on most projects he works on, this instance proved to be a bit different as Kanye injected his design thoughts and sketches as much as possible as well. But, every time a new element appeared, Smith insisted on removing another. "I'm a reductionist," he says.

As with most of Mark Smith's projects, Chanhmy Vongxay, the Senior Footwear Technician at Nike's Innovation Kitchen, is often the person tasked with creating an initial sample based off of any of his sketches. After Kanye and Smith met in May of 2007 and began to sketch out some thoughts and ideas, Vongxay pieced together the very first pull-over sample of the Air Yeezy, which was heavily inspired by the Air Jordan V, and can be seen below. 

As the upper evolved along the timeline, the panels all began to flow together, and the team was clear on how the heel quarter would be split by a vertical line and the forefoot of the shoe would feature a clean toe cap. Other changes include the elimination of the sizable external heel counter, drafted off of the Air Mag, as well as the tongue and collar scaling down to a manageable size. Somewhat manageable at least.

Oh, and there was also the dominant midfoot strap, of course. After starting out with a D-ring along the medial side (seen to the right), a simple velcro closure was deemed the best solution, as the strap would go on to lay flat instead. While the design lines and silhouette proved to be fairly simple, choosing the materials would ended up being an ordeal on its own.

"The biggest trouble that ever came about had to do with the materials and selection. We would do a suede or a leather or a patent, and you can kind of see that in the final three colorways, they're all a bit different," explains Tiffany Beers. "We just kept sampling in different colors and different materials, trying to find that super-quality, soft, plush leather that both Mark and Kanye wanted. It took us a while to find a leather. We even took one of Kanye's leather jackets that he sent us, and we cut it up and made a shoe out of it."

Below: Kanye and Mark Smith hanging out in Nike's Innovation Kitchen in May of 2007.


Below: The very first pull-over sample of the Air Yeezy, and on the left, an original sample with revision notes sketched onto the shoe from Mark Smith. 


Below: The last round of samples for the final three colorways. Try and spot the differences from the production versions.