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
“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.
“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.
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’
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.
“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.
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.