There was a moment this year when Jordan Brand fell behind adidas as the second most valuable sneaker company in the country. It wasn’t exactly a shock purely because adidas was having a really good couple of years and dominating the conversation in the sneaker community.
But within the larger context of how the sneaker industry has operated since the founding of Jordan Brand and the power the brand amassed by the 1990s, it was nothing short of a coup. Before Kanye West went to adidas, there were lineups outside sneaker stores and wild releases, but they were almost exclusively for Jordans. As of 2017 that was no longer the case. Jordan Brand lost that number two spot, and if they were going to get it back something had to change.
The answer is pretty simple: Make everything new again.
Every other brand has used well placed collaborations and unique product to raise their cache, but Jordan Brand’s rigidity has made a similar path much more complicated so they had to work extra hard to get there.
“Here at the brand we’re all purists and that purist mentality comes with a lot of protection around our assets,” explains Gemo Wong, Senior Design Director for Special Projects at Jordan Brand—he’s the guy who handles all the collabs Jordan produces, like with Don C, PSNY, KAWS, and Virgil Abloh, as well as a bevy of other projects. Jordan Brand is a massive company that has had processes in place for decades, and most of its success is based on an archive that is so iconic it’s practically untouchable.
Jordan Brand is built off the legacy of a single man, and an archive of sneakers that only grows by a single model every year. Each of those shoes carries the social impact thanks to its connection with Michael Jordan who wore them during his career as a basketball player. It’s important to remember that Michael Jordan wasn’t just an exceptional player, he was so much more.
He was a young black man when he first inked the deal with Nike, becoming the face of a brand that he co-owned, operating as the CEO of a company that created shoes to his specifications and had around him an entire apparatus to make it a global success. In the mid-1980s he had few peers but opened the door, and sparked the imaginations and hopes of millions. Each one of the sneakers he wore during his time in the game is a part of that history and therefore has a sacredness to it.
“Michael Jordan himself might be the singular most important person that impacted my personal motivation,” says Virgil Abloh. “His drive, his will to succeed and his achievements seemed out of this world and yet he achieved them. He did all that in really cool shoes to boot.”
But these stories are only as valuable as they are alive, and Wong and Abloh–along with other collaborators—are doing what they can to keep them alive.
The highlight of Abloh and OFF-WHITE’s ten-part collaboration with Nike was a Jordan 1 resulted from a workshop with Wong. “We set up these workshops where we were just messing around, tinkering around with ideas,” Wong explains. “And we were breaking shoes down, what was in them, things that were hidden, and we started breaking shoes apart, literally just breaking them down to build them back up.”
The resulting sneaker exposes all these discoveries, and although it is still a Jordan 1, it’s definitely a new direction. When the shoe was revealed, a lot of sneaker fans were incredulous that Jordan had approved such drastic changes—and for good reason. It wasn’t easy to pull off.
Don’t forget that to this day most of Jordan Brand’s core consumers are a group of old heads who complain when a retro is retro’d too frequently, or not frequently enough, or has even one stitch of place. (And god forbid Jordan Brand allows the prices to change with inflation, or use a less expensive material to keep prices down.) Each of those are cardinal sins. These were the loudest voices walking into 2015, but when everything changed, everything changed.
Suddenly, the line-ups weren’t full of purists, but 13-year-old kids who wanted to be as cool as the influencers they saw on Instagram. None of these new fans of the shoes had a connection to Michael Jordan. When this shift first hit the market, the brand made more and more sneakers to catch up to demand, inflating supply and as the shoes became easier to get, their cultural currency plummeted. But the shift with the OFF-WHITE Jordan 1 that freaked out some old heads brought those new fans back in. And even closer.
Earlier this year I sat down with the likes of Spike Lee, DJ Clark Kent, Russ Bengtson, Frank Cooker, and more, and one attendee told this story in the midst of our conversation:
“My son, he's 11 now, but when he was younger and I'd get him older Jordans. One day SportsCenter was on, it was an anniversary, and he was like, ‘Jordan played basketball?’”
“I was like: ‘What?’”
“He was like: ‘I thought he was a shoe designer.’”
In 2017, Michael Jordan has been replaced in the world. You cannot turn on the TV to watch him play, you won’t see him hanging out with Mars Blackmon in commercials, you won’t drink glass bottles of Gatorade suggesting you “Be Like Mike.” Everything Jordan stood for has new proxies in our current culture, and that’s something that Jordan Brand is becoming increasingly comfortable with.
“I think it comes down to icons,” says Wong. “As we move forward and as we look at other partners, it comes down to who are the icons of our culture or our generation? You look at MJ who is an icon, so my filter is like ICON TIMES ICON. It could be icons of now and future icons: people that we see that have the potential to be great. That’s where people like PSNY, Don C, all icons within their own base and or future icons come into play.”
When Nike signed Jordan he wasn’t an icon, he was just a kid. When Nike signed him, they weren’t that big either—at least nowhere near where they are today. Jordan took the risk with Nike (after some coercion on the side of his parents), and Nike took the risk with Jordan. They weren’t icons yet. Sometimes you just have to jump.
Virgil Abloh is a contemporary icon, practically everything he touches sells out and appreciates immediately. Don C's icon status allows him to charge $500 for a pair of basketball shorts. KAWS is an icon for his ability to create unparalleled success as a commercial artist.
KAWS—whose real name is Brian Donnelly—is arguably the most successful artist of the sneaker era. Other artists who are working in the same way, like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, don't produce with the same frequency and sell product at the same volume. He's uniquely equal parts fine artist and commercial artist in a way that gives him few contemporaries.
He may not be a household name at the PTA, but millennials know who he is from his omnipresence on social media, his collaborations with affordable brands like Uniqlo, and now his sneaker that resulted in the second most sought after Jordan of the last year and beyond (second only to the OFF-WHITE 1s obviously). Working with an artist at KAWS' level forces the brand to make changes and think differently.
"With KAWS in particular, with his standards, it pushed us to get to this new approach with the shoe," Wong tells Esquire. "We had to push the factories, push ourselves. It was a trying experience where we learned a lot: To just stick with the process, don't take no for an answer, and try to push for the best."
That's the potential of collaborations and why Jordan Brand has invested so deeply in a limited number. They treat each project like it has the potential to shift the way they think. It's not just churning out colorways to attract sneaker lines: each new sneaker project is an opportunity to be greater.
“Jordan Brand and PSNY are both brands that represent the idea of aspiration,” says Dao-Yi Chow of PSNY. “It’s about not settling with the box you’ve been placed in but instead creating a lane that didn’t exist before.”
Each of these Jordan collaborations and stories that go beyond the original cast of retros, like the Gatorade collection or Win Like 96 XIs, expands what’s possible at the brand. But sometimes it takes a project like the OFF-WHITEs to launch them into a new sphere, to reach a new customer, to work creatively on a new level.
“It opens doors on how far you could push a shoe,” says Wong. “Whether it be the Air Jordan 1 or not, it just opens the door to what we could do next. What’s next?”
Now check out certified Jordan Brand enthusiast and filmmaker Spike Lee talk about his new collaboration with Rolex.