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Jordan Brand Designer Tinker Hatfield on the Next Sneaker Releases

Air Jordan 3 Retro Black Cement

Air Jordan 3 Retro “Black/Cement” medial section.


Athletes, athletic brands and their fans have converged for NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles.

And at Jordan Brand’s Studio 23 interactive hub on Saturday, sneaker guru Tinker Hatfield (more formally VP of design and creative concepts) also took part in the revelry, reflecting on artistry, brand history and the significance of the Air Jordan franchise.

Surprisingly, he revealed that he’ll have no part in some of the upcoming releases.

“I’m not working on the next Air Jordan 33, 34 or 35,” Hatfield said at the event. “I’m choosing to find a new way to think about the future not connected with that old process — which I started, but now I’m more interested in … new projects that work better, look great and fit the culture of the day.”

He added, cryptically, “Sometimes that means you need to start from a new place. I have 10 Jordan projects in development.”

Tinker HatfieldTinker Hatfield
Rex Shutterstock

But Hatfield won’t entirely be reinventing the wheel. “I think the 3 will be a part of the design process for all the things we’re doing with the Jordan brand,” he explained. “The 3 is so iconic that it will always be the source of inspiration for all kinds of products we’re going to do with the brand. We’re really going after running as a category, but from a unique perspective. And the 3 is such a source of inspiration for even how we do running shoes.

Below, Hartfield share more insights with FN about the Jordan 3’s legacy and the future of sneaker design.

What are some subtle elements of the Jordan 3 that you want people to appreciate?
“A number of things were done that were never done before in basketball. One was that it had no cupsole. It was a lighter-weight construction without so much heavy rubber and stuff all around. Michael [Jordan] specifically asked for a mid-cut basketball shoe. They didn’t really exist at the time. They were either low-tops or high-tops, but he wanted something in between. So the Jordan 3 was the first mass-produced big-time basketball shoe that was designed as a mid-cut to begin with.

When I first met with Michael, I found out he was very stylish and into designing suits and buying beautiful Italian leather shoes and I wanted to bring some of that design language and material into a basketball shoe — again, new for basketball. We’re talking about faux-elephant print and tumbled leathers. He wanted to wear a new pair of shoes every game, so the shoes needed be comfortable and not broken in.”

Tinker Hatfield and Michael JordanNike designer Tinker Hatfield (L) and Michael Jordan in 1997
Kathy Willens/AP/Rex Shutterstock

Why does the 3 still resonate with fans?
“With Michael, it’s like an alignment of planets, where you have this marvelous athlete who came up with not only great skills but a work ethic and desire to win, and also a unique, classy personality. And that is the genesis of how I thought about designing the shoes. At the same time, we became more sophisticated about how we told the story of Michael Jordan. Spike Lee was brilliant because he became this mouthpiece for Michael — very funny but in a culturally relevant way. I loved that period of time because people were blown away by the irreverence of how we put that all together. What we need to do going into the future is to find disruptive, irreverent ways to tell the story of the athlete.”

What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter the design field today?
“A lot of young people are interested in shoe design. I receive sketches in the mail every day and I’m not really supposed to look at them. What I think is important for people to understand is that, if you want to be a good shoe designer, you have to be able to design a car or a building or furniture. Expand your mind beyond shoes and then, when you get back around to doing a good shoe that performs well for an athlete, that’s also beautiful or interesting, you have more richness and depth to work from because you’ve learned other things. There are more schools now that are thinking along the lines of including shoe design in their industrial design programs. If I was teaching right now, that would be one of the biggest subjects. You’re in a shoe design class, but the first thing you’re going to design is a chair. Let’s learn about solving problems on a wider spectrum.

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