Aesthetically, the 11 could be considered a black sheep in the Jordan lineage. It lacks the articulated blocking of the 1 and the 3, nor does it have the technical detailing of the 4 and the 5. In fact, the 11’s non-traditional look largely comes down to one factor: its shiny, wraparound patent leather upper. In spite of this, the 11 is one of the most globally appreciated and collectible sneakers in the Jumpman canon, and it happens to be Michael Jordan’s favorite model.
Despite its offbeat lines and (arguably) garish material upper, the 11 packs the same — if not more — sellout ability as the 1, 3, 4, or 5, and the 11s that drop each holiday season are what we wait for all year long.
But what makes the 11 so coveted? Is it the undulating lines of the upper? The technology? The man who wore them? Looking back, it was definitely a combination of never-before-seen design combined with the perfect storm of MJ mania, and one of the greatest seasons ever put together by a professional franchise. Aside from the 1 and 3, no other Air Jordan model comes close to the hype of the 11. No other sneaker stands out in terms of hype and demand like the 11 does, and Jordan Brand has done a great job of keeping that hype going for the past 25 years.
The story of the 11 is a fascinating one, because it began when Michael Jordan was about to retire from the game of basketball. Former Nike designer Ken Black, who was the product graphic designer/art director for the Air Jordan 11, was part of one of the first meetings when Jordan was trying out the AJ 11 prototype in late 1993. That meeting included Jordan, designer Tinker Hatfield, legendary Nike exec Howard “H” White, and several others. “It is a bit of a blur, but from what I recall, we knew we had to get his review of the proposed line,” says Black. “I recall getting to [Jordan’s] condo for the meeting in Arizona and waiting forever for him. We were told he decided to make the return and finish another nine holes of golf.”
“We hand-created and illustrated the apparel line with markers and mounted them on presentation boards to share with Michael,” Black continues. “We brought material swatches to give him a sense of what the garments would feel like. The sneaker was nowhere near complete, and looked fairly different than the finished product. I am pretty sure Tinker had already shown a version of the shoe to MJ when the rest of us weren’t there. This prototype was more about figuring out if the function and feel — like the wrapped collar — worked, and then adding in the graphics and identity to it. They had a great relationship already, and MJ would give him shit about the stuff he’d bring to share, even though he loved it.”
Regarding Jordan’s involvement in the process, Black recalls: “[He was] very interested in the fit and feel. He was always super aware of what it felt like and how it positioned him [or] his foot on the floor. The story of the tuxedo is legit, and he loved that. What I always loved about that shoe, as we were working through it, was the material story — patent leather to soft leather to softer textured nylon to softer neoprene-like, at the back of the heel.”
It was this combination of materials that produced a sneaker that looked very different from anything anyone had ever seen before. And it worked. “I think he did the best job in this one, of incorporating performance technology and design styling,” Black tells us. “It’s a fun shoe to be able to look at from different angles and find unique and beautiful details — but when you look at it from a distance, it does not appear to have a lot on it. I don’t know if there’s another Air Jordan that is so complex and yet so simple and iconic. There is so much in that shoe, and yet it is one beautiful and streamlined silhouette.”
Designer Tinker Hatfield echoed Black’s sentiments — in a 2015 interview with Highsnobiety, he stated: “The 11 is probably the most remarkable shoe, yes. It was a bold approach to use new materials and new technology. We worked so hard on the 11 — and Michael liked it way too much. We showed him the final design in spring of 1995. He was so enthusiastic that he wore the shoe way earlier than everyone at Nike wanted it. But he didn’t care. He saw the shoe and couldn’t wait to wear it on the court.”
Incredibly, the “Concord” 11 is the only colorway Jordan wore during the entire ’95-’96 regular season. In an age where players switch sneakers every half of a game, it’s almost incomprehensible for someone of Jordan’s magnitude to wear just one colorway of the same shoe for a full season.
For many, the appeal of the 11 comes down to love at first sight.
Take collector Sean Collard, for example, who now owns about 20 pairs of Jordan 11s. Collard, who was in college when the 11 first released, tells us: “I wanted every shoe I saw [Jordan] wear, and seeing him wearing the 11 for the first time in the 1995 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals absolutely blew my mind. They were unlike any sneaker I had ever seen, and I, of course, wanted them badly.”
After Jordan initially rocked the 11s, Bulls teammates and then players around the league started wearing them as well. The shoe looked so good on the court and performed so well, that athletes still wear them today. Former NBA player and Jordan Team athlete Quentin Richardson was known to hoop in them, from time to time. “I can’t remember how many times I wore them, but I’ve definitely rocked them a lot,”Q-Rich says. “My favorite was probably when I was with the Clippers. Darius [Miles] and I got the “Cool Greys” before they came out and rocked them in a game. They were sick!”
Fellow collector Cory Takahashi, who owns 99 pairs of Air Jordan 11s, has been collecting them ever since they first released in ’95. And, as he recalls, they’ve always been difficult to cop: “When the original black/red from 1996 dropped, it was the first time I had actually seen people in a frenzy for shoes. I remember going store to store looking for a pair, and feeling defeated that I couldn’t get them. Ultimately, it was my mother who came through in the clutch and scored me a pair.”
Patriot Act’s Hasan Minhaj wasn’t able to cop a pair when he was a kid, which only fueled the desire to own them even more. He tells us: “I was 10 when MJ was wearing the patent leather Air Jordan 11s against the Magic (in the ’95 playoffs). They were the Concord 11s, and I remember Ahmad Rashād talking about them on the sidelines. It was like he was wearing a sneaker and a tuxedo shoe all at once. For better or for worse, it became one of those consumer products that I wasn’t able to have, so I wanted to get the Concord 11s when I was a kid — as soon as they came out at Arden Fair Mall, I wasn’t able to get them. When I got older and finally got enough disposable income, every Christmas, I would try to get the retro releases. Brilliant move, Nike. Imprint on young people when they’re young and then dangle in front of them every year, so they can try to relive their childhood through adulthood.”
There is plenty of conversation about the next colorway Jordan Brand should drop for Holiday 2020, and speculation seems to be pointing toward a Cool Grey retro. For a sneaker that is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020, the Air Jordan 11 shows no signs of losing popularity in the hearts of collectors.