The Man Behind Air Jordan's Journey Back to Supremacy
Retros, retros, retros. In a world that has become obsessed with what's new (social media, technology, the next Frosty flavor from Wendy's), the sneaker industry is trending toward what's old.
Reebok made its triumphant return to basketball in 2013 with a strategy predicated on bringing back its shoes that dominated the 90s—the Kamikaze, Shaqnosis and Shaq Attaq to name a few—and they flew off the shelves. Nike just reintroduced Gary Payton's signature shoe from the '90s.
Then we have Air Jordan, which has been running the retro game for over a decade. In October alone, Jordan Brand will re-release a retro Air Jordan 1, 5 and 10, all in limited quantities and all likely sell out within hours (or minutes if you're trying to buy them online).
It's not that Rob Bruce, Jordan Brand's global innovation design director of footwear, doesn't appreciate the retros his company churns out. He does. Without the history of the brand, "we really wouldn't have a leg to stand on, so I respect [retros] immensely," he said. It's just that, well, he's a little tired of them.
A native of California and a graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Bruce first worked for Nike after a lengthy stint with Astrostudious, a consumer electronics design studio he co-founded in San Francisco. He quickly transitioned to designing shoes in the men's training space before eventually coming over to the Jordan Brand, where his passion for creating something new led to dismay over reproducing the old.
"You can only sell so many retros for so long. We've seen every color, every material and every story," said Bruce. "We need to build the future."
Building for the future won't be easy. Air Jordan built its reputation on its original shoes, with models 1-15 all having their own moments on the feet of Michael Jordan, who made them iconic and a must-have, even for a generation of sneakerheads who never got to witness MJ play. Since 1994, the Air Jordan 1 has been retroed 12 times, the Air Jordan IV nine times, and the Air Jordan V seven times. You get the picture.
Jordan Brand's attempts to recreate the success they had with early models were also hindered by MJ's retirement in 2003. The Jordan XVIII was the last pair he wore in the NBA. Trying to make a shoe cool without MJ wearing them on the court has been a daunting task. On the other hand, the later Jordans—either because of design or technology—have not been well received. Air Jordans 16-22 have all been retroed just once since their original release, an indication of their (lack of) popularity.
So while sneakerheads continue to clamor for new colorways of old classics, Bruce is hard at work in the lab in Portland, Ore., Nike's headquarters (the Jordan Brand is a subset of Nike), trying to create what he calls "future retros," new shoes that, years from now, will still be in high demand.
"I'm focused totally on the future and working with the athletes and trainers and the lab to try and get Air Jordan back to that on-court supremacy we enjoyed so well when Michael was playing in his heyday," Bruce said.
The journey started with the Air Jordan XX8.
With a background in architecture and product design (including developing Nike+ technology) and fresh off a two-year stint as creative director for the Nike Tokyo Design Studio in Japan, Bruce came to Jordan looking to challenge himself in the realm of footwear.
His brain fixated on the word "flight," which exemplifies the Air Jordan brand (with its logo depicting Michael Jordan flying through the air), Bruce wanted to bring the concept to life through technology.
He turned his attention toward the cushioning within Jordan's basketball shoes and pondered the notion of propulsion. How could he create a shoe that would make the wearer faster and "propel" him or her through a game? He found his answer in the Nike Sports Research Lab.
"I started talking with the guys in there, and they had cobbled up something that was a very crude prototype around (Nike) Zoom that had a plate on top of it, and they weren't really sure what to do with it," said Bruce. "I took that little insight that there's the potential for Zoom to become more reactive and more responsive than the way we are currently building it. That's a really cool starting place. So I cobbled up some samples with my team and we tested them, and sure enough we said 'there's something really interesting here.'"
Bruce molded the idea hatched that day into Flight Plate, a cushioning technology that "unlocks" Nike Zoom by using a plate to disperse the load of the shoe over the Zoom, which then compresses and "pops," creating a deflection of energy.
"It's kind of like all these little micro explosions under your feet when you're running or just walking around," Bruce said.
The result? A feeling like your foot is resting atop a cushioned spring.
With this bold technological innovation in hand, Bruce met with Tinker Hatfield, who designed the most popular early Air Jordans, including the III, to create an equally bold shoe for Flight Plate to live in. Thus came the Jordan XX8, a basketball shoe buried under a shroud that can be unzipped to display the tongue. With such a novel design, Hatfield and Bruce's creation was met with both extravagant praise for taking a risk and strong criticism for its unorthodox look, the latter spurred on by the shoe's $250 price point. What many people, sneaker bloggers and players alike, agreed on, though, was that Flight Plate technology made good on its technological claims.
Sneaker Report named the XX8 Jordan Brand's best basketball performance shoe of all time. Sole Collector gave it a 96 out of 100 on its performance review. There were still those who strayed away from the shoe because of its unconventional exterior, but those who played basketball in it, like Russell Westbrook, loved it. Westbrook became the de facto poster child for the XX8. As it turns out, that was all part of the plan.
"We made (the XX8s) in very limited quantities so that they would blow out and there would be an amazing demand," said Bruce.
Now, as the brand readies the release of the XX8 SE, which is basically the XX8 without the shroud and a slew of new colorways, the word about Flight Plate is out. With a more aesthetically pleasing design, a more affordable price ($150) and higher production numbers, the SE, Bruce hopes, is ready to take off (no pun intended).
"We set it up with the XX8, created the hype, created the demand and now we're going to deliver with the XX8 SE," he said.
It remains to be seen whether the new Jordans will become the future retros Bruce is fiercely working to create. At this moment, it's hard to imagine the XX8 being as revered as, say, the V. But maybe that's not the point. Maybe Flight Plate and the XX8 are a new beginning, a foundation for the XX9 and XXX, which Bruce says "are going to blow minds."
"Flight Plate is a start. We see it as a starting point. Gone are the days when we roll out an innovation and then the next year it's gone," said Brian Facchini, global communications director for the Jordan Brand. "The consumers and athletes have spoken and said, 'We love it.' So now our job is to redefine and continue to find ways to give it to them and make it better. We're as competitive as anybody else."