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Air Jordan XXXI: How Nike designers built a high-tech basketball sneaker

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The Air Jordan XXXI is the latest in an iconic line of sneakers .
Image: courtesy jordan brand

BEAVERTON, Ore. In the spring of 1977, a kid named Michael Jordan was finishing eighth grade in Wilmington, North Carolina. He hadn’t yet been cut from his high school varsity squad. He hadn’t yet hit the game-winning shooting in the 1982 NCAA Championship Game for the University of North Carolina. And he surely hadn’t become Michael Jordan , the NBA star and cultural icon we all know today.

But the trails of history connect in mysterious routes. That same spring, 3,000 miles back in Oregon, a former aerospace technologist finagled a meeting with the young CEO of an upstart footwear company.

The CEO’s name was Phil Knight. His company was called Nike. The former aerospace engineer was named M. Frank Rudy. The two men, along with Rudy’s business partner, sat around a seminar table, as Knight recollects in his memoir, Shoe Dog .

Then Rudy leaned in with a smile and made his pitch.

“Mr. Knight, ” the CEO recollects Rudy saying that day in the spring of ‘7 7. “We’ve come up with a style to inject … air … into a running shoe.”

Unbeknownst to Rudy, unbeknownst to Knight and most definitely unbeknownst to that adolescent named Michael in North Carolina the seed had been planted for something big. Something huge. Something massive.

Jordan went on to star in college. Nike, powered in part by the pressurized airbags Rudy pitched, continued its ascending. Jordan left North Carolina after his junior season in 1984, entering the NBA with a charismatic personality to match his dynamic game. Nike signed him to an endorsement deal, and released a shoe in 1985.

They named it the Air Jordan, a nod both to the player’s high-flying exploits and what had become Nike’s signature shoe tech. Air Jordan arguably the most iconic line in sneaker history had been unleashed upon the world. Athletics business hasn’t been the same since.

This Wednesday, Nike unveiled the Air Jordan XXXI, the iconic line’s latest offering. Several weeks prior, Mashable was invited to Oregon for a rare behind-the-scenes look at the yet-to-be-released sneaker and all that went into creating it.

Since that original Air Jordan make so many years ago, sneaker technology has advanced from rudimentary to state of the art. The story of the Air Jordan XXXI is actually the story of an entire industry’s technological evolution.

From Air Jordan I to Air Jordan XXXI

The Air Jordan I changed the sneaker business forever.

Image: mashable/ sam laird

“We always start with Michael, ” Tate Kuerbis, Nike senior footwear designer and lead designer on the Air Jordan XXXI, told us at company headquarters in May.

So begins what’s typically an 18 -month process to create a new Air Jordan shoe: a meeting with Michael Jordan. This time, Jordan’s directions were clear.

The Air Jordan XXXI.

Image: politenes jordan brand

“Michael wanted to look back at our heritage, ” Kuerbis said of those early sessions for the Air Jordan XXXI. “The Air Jordan I was definitely the starting point of his career, so we wanted to take some inspiration from that.”

You must be noted that inspiration on the outer part of the Air Jordan XXXI, where the Nike swoosh fades into Jordan’s famous Jumpman logo. The Air Jordan I featured a prominent Nike swoosh, but the Jumpman logo soon became iconic and the swoosh was phased out of Jordan’s shoes. Blending the two logos on the most recent Air Jordan, Kuerbis said, is a new-model nod to the original Air Jordan.

Jordan won the NBA’s 1988 Slam Dunk Contest while wearing the Air Jordan III.

Image: Brian Drake/ NBAE via Getty Images

That’s simple to understand with simply a glance. But it’s the ways in which Kuerbis and his colleagues brought their conceptions to life that uncovers just how high-tech sneakers have become.

“Innovation[ in the sneaker industry] over the past 20 years is like invention anywhere else it’s run from zero to 100, ” Yuron White, vice president of footwear for Jordan Brand, told Mashable .

‘Doing things I’d never believed would be possible’

Flyweave satisfies synthetic leather at the heel of the Air Jordan XXXI.

Image: courtesy jordan brand

The Air Jordan I was a leather basketball shoe typical of hoops sneakers for many years. Now knit and woven materials, which hold their kind and provide flexibility while maintaining a snug fit, have become performance criteria. The Air Jordan XX9 and Air Jordan XXX, for example, featured woven uppers.

But never until the Air Jordan XXXI had Nike blended what it calls its Flyweave technology with traditional synthetic leather to create a one-piece upper.

The Air Jordan XXXI features a synthetic leather heel that blends into a Flyweave forefoot the idea being to combine the best features of each material. The Flyweave material is built in Italy employing a Jacquard loom. The leather heel adds another performance bonus while further recalling the Air Jordan I.

Rear view.

Image: courtesy jordan brand

“What it does is give you a lot of really great flexibility and movement in the forefoot, while the leather in the heel gives you more containment where you need it, ” said Kuerbis.

Another first to debut with the Air Jordan XXXI is placing a FlightSpeed plate directly on top of a full-length Zoom Air suitcase. The FlightSpeed plate is designed to provide support for the entire duration of the foot, while Zoom Air is an evolution of the innovation Rudy pitched Knight back in 1977. Wedding two of Nike’s signature pieces of sneaker tech is an additional instance of old satisfies new.

Components of a deconstructed Air Jordan XXXI.

Image: politenes jordan brand

Among the Air Jordan I’s distinctive design traits was the sneaker’s low-to-the-ground profile, which Kuerbis wanted to replicate in the Air Jordan XXXI. Putting the FlightSpeed plate directly on top of the Zoom Air bag, Kuerbis said, lets the Air Jordan XXXI pay homage to its forefather’s low profile while providing performance features that decorators could once only dream of.

“We’re doing things that I’d never supposed would be possible, ” said Kuerbis, who’s been at Nike for 22 years.

But again more than the story of a single shoe Kuerbis’ perspective opens a window into an entire industry’s evolution.

From ‘codfish’ to 3D printing

Bill Bowerman with two Oregon runners in 1960.

Knight’s Nike cofounder and one of his driving inspirations as the company grew was Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon’s legendary track coach-and-four. Bowerman coached Knight at Oregon, where he was renowned for instilling discipline, desire and allegiance in his athletes. The coach-and-four was also an obsessive tinkerer whose preoccupation with modifying footwear was decades before its time.

Bowerman, for example, fabricated the waffle-sole running shoe by melting urethane in an actual waffle iron. When Knight was an Oregon runner in the late 1950 s, well before they started Nike, Bowerman constantly rendered the young athlete with experimental shoes to wear in races and training.

Sometimes it got weird.

“In quest of lightness, he was willing to try anything, ” Knight recalls in Shoe Dog . “Animal, vegetable, mineral, any material was eligible if it might improve on the standard shoe leather of the working day. That sometimes meant kangaroo skin. Other days, cod. You haven’t lived until you’ve competed against the fastest runners in the world wearing shoes made of cod.”

Knight( right) spoke at Jordan’s 2012 enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Image: Nathaniel S. Butler/ NBAE via Getty Images

That “quest” for lightness still guides the much more high-tech innovations that mark Nike and Jordan Brand to this day. It’s not as colorful as kangaroo scalp, but melding Flyweave with synthetic leather in the Air Jordan XXXI represents a branch from the same tree.

“When you think about lightweight, it’s genuinely the costs of doing business now with a kid, ” White said.

He simulated the motion of a client weighing a sneaker in-hand before a wall of shoes at a store.

“We know what that means to a kid, ” White continued. “He’s thinking, ‘When I try to fly up and down the court, I don’t need something that’s heavy and bulky.'”

But innovation still requires iteration and experimentation. In Bowerman’s day, this mean trying mad-science experimentations on runners like Knight. Nineteen years ago, when White started at Nike, assessing the latest versions of yet-to-be-released sneakers required many rushed trip-ups to overseas factories.

The process is much simpler today, thanks to technology. A Nike design team can now sketch out a sneaker iteration using 3D software, then have an actual prototype published at company headquarters for review.

History on display: A wall of Air Jordan models at Nike headquarters.

Image: courtesy Jordan Brand

“That doesn’t mean it’s ready on the first shot, but at the least we can work with something that has more dimension to it, ” White told Mashable .

As a new sneaker model fleshes out, human testing plays a critical role. Kuerbis’ designs get wear-tested by Jordan Brand athletes, as well as by Nike employees who play basketball regularly. How the shoe fits, how it performs, how it supports cuts and jumps, everything is up for critique.

Human feedback was crucial in fine-tuning the Air Jordan XXXI’s many technologically-inspired designs, including one with an origin narrative that fits perfectly into the outsized persona of Jordan himself.

What Ferraris and sneakers have in common

Jordan considered leaving Chicago’s United Center in his Ferrari after the Chicago Bulls won Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals to claim the championship.

Image: UNNAMED PHOTOGRAPHER/ Getty Images

Where does an Air Jordan decorator look for inspiration? Pretty much everywhere, in Kuerbis’ case.

Architecture, furniture, art, nature, animals, NASA “anything that’s pushing the boundaries of construction and materials, ” he said.

Kuerbis wanted to eliminate as much extra material as is practicable from the newest Air Jordan. You can see evidence of this inside the shoe, where small foam pods are designed to fit around the malleolus( that bony part of your ankle that sticks out ).

Kuerbis’ goal was to provide ankle support and a tight fit without adding unnecessary bulk to the sneaker. The ankle pods were inspired by hanging around Jordan’s fleet of high-priced cars.

Small pods are designed to fit around the malleolus.

Image: mashable/ sam laird

“A lot of that came from looking at Michael’s Ferraris, ” Kuerbis explained. “If you look at the seats, they’re perfectly molded to your body there’s not a lot of extra stuff in the car. We felt like this has to be high-performance footwear, almost like a racecar for the foot, so we started to think about stripping away all the added foam that you don’t truly need and designing areas that fit one-to-one with the foot.”

“We felt like this has to be high-performance footwear, almost like a racecar for the foot.”

But that moment of inspiration resulted back in the early stages of the sneaker-creation process.

Sketches followed “thousands of them, ” Kuerbis said. Materials were sampled. Computer visualizations were created. Early versions were tested, critiqued and fine-tuned.

As he recalled the earliest inspirations for the Air Jordan XXXI project at Nike HQ, Kuerbis held the final product in his hand.

“A lot of sweat and tears went into this, ” Kuerbis said not to mention decades of sneaker invention. “But we’re pretty proud of what we aimed up with.”

BONUS: Air Jordan, from I to XXXI

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