We caught up with Nike Basketball Footwear Design Director Leo Chang while he was in Berlin to find out what he's been up to, his most challenging sneaker designs and much more.
This time last year we caught up Nike footwear designer Leo Chang to learn about the Hyperdunk 2014. Almost a year to the day, we sat down with Chang to learn more about his latest work on Kevin Durant's signature line, as well as his beginnings as a footwear designer, his time at the Rhode Island School of Design and much more. So without further ado, see what he had to say below.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
My name is Leo Chang. I oversee all the footwear that comes out at Nike Basketball and I’ve also been working on KD’s stuff since the beginning. It’s been really fun. It’s been a dream come true for me.
How did you get into footwear design initially?
I got into footwear design because I always had an obsession with shoes since seventh or eighth grade. I loved Nikes; it wasn’t just shoes, it was Nikes because of the innovation and the crazy designs. It was unobtainable for me because Nikes were so premium and I didn’t have that much money growing up, and so I’ve always wanted that and it’s something I desired.
I saw that all my friends had it and I was also into drawing so I put the two together – design, art and shoes. It wasn’t until I went to college (Rhode Island School of Design) that I kind of forgot about it because I didn’t think it would ever happen. There they were presenting all the different majors you can study and industrial design came up and on one of the presentation slides they actually had a shoe on there. I was like, "Ok, I’m going back."
Do you remember which shoe it was?
It was a student project so it wasn’t a real shoe. That’s when I made it my mission to just go online and apply for Nike internships. The summer of 2000 is when I actually got the internship. That’s when I interned in Running and it was actually an incredible time because it was leading into the Summer Olympics and I was sitting next to the guys that were working on Michael Johnson’s gold spikes, which was insane – it was crazy.
Then I went back to school to finish and graduate in 2001 and try to get back full time. I did a brief stint at Tumi Luggage and then by October I landed a job at Nike in Running again. It wasn’t until I think '06 or '07 that I switched over to Basketball. One of the first things I did actually was meet up with KD.
And Basketball was where you wanted to work at Nike?
Absolutely. There's two types of categories and two types of shoes that I love: running shoes and basketball shoes, so it’s great it worked out.
Was there a specific sneaker that got you into it?
You know surprisingly a lot of people say Jordans but it wasn’t the Jordan for me. It was a lot of the other Nike Basketball stuff at that time in the early '90s. I even remember obsessing about the Zoom Spiridon and then the Air Max 97. I’m a sucker for reflective materials so with the 360 reflective stripes around it – it was insane. Actually, those two were one of my first real dope Nikes that I got when I started to get my own money. Then later on the Flightposite came around and Hyperflight.
Eric Avar designed all these amazing Nike Basketball shoes and I saw him in these sneaker magazines like Kicks Magazine. It was kind of a legendary magazine and that first issue was dope because it inspired a whole generation of footwear designers.
What's a typical workday like for you?
You know, I don’t even know what a typical workday is. I have lots of meetings with engineers, developers, marketing guys and my design team (color and materials) on various projects that are coming out. We are working on the 9 right now so…everything from wear-test concerns down to the lace colors, or meeting with our PR guys about how to communicate the stories to our consumers, which is really important especially when you are dealing with signature athletes and you want your story to make it through to the end. My job kind of encompasses all of that.
When you started working with KD, did you know who he was?
I knew who he was…I didn’t really follow Texas but I knew who he was. Then when we were ready to sign him I really did a ton of research on him just to make sure I knew him before I even met him. It was funny because people were like "he's going to be the next Jordan," but you can never be the next Jordan. I don’t even think that’s a fair comparison; he is him and his style of play is so different from Jordan’s but people were definitely hyping him up at the time.
When you guys were working on the shoe for the first time were there certain things you were trying to nail specifically for him?
From a performance standpoint for sure. He has always loved a really lightweight shoe and he has always wanted a shoe that is tight around his foot so there is very little movement. He's got narrow feet so he wants to make sure he's not sliding around. The solution changes each time – from the technologies to how we construct it. It just gets better every time.
What about aesthetics? Do you try to keep a certain consistency throughout the line?
I think the aesthetic for sure evolves with him. Sometimes we have to anticipate where he’s going for us to stay ahead.
Do you have personally a favorite silhouette/colorway?
I’ll give you the generic answer of "it's always the last one." I’m pretty self-critical about my work so by the time a shoe hits, I’m figuring out what I could do better on the next one. It’s hard for me to even look back on some of the work because I’m already on the new one.
What’s the usual trajectory from concept to completed sneaker on the market?
It’s over 18 months and sometimes longer depending on how long it takes for us to develop a certain innovation. Sometimes it takes two; sometimes three years.
So it just depends on whatever innovations are happening?
Flyweave is a great example of that…Our innovation team actually sort of started the process of working with vendors on how to tune the material in the right way. Then we started partnering together and there was a lot of back and forth and a lot of learning. That was really fun and it took a long time for me to learn this whole new way of designing, because I’m not a textile designer, I’m an industrial designer so you really have to switch your brain to think differently about it; there's all these technical terms that I’ve never heard about before and all of a sudden they become really important.
Do you look at other forms of industrial design for your work?
Yeah, for sure. I get a lot of my inspiration from other industrial design stuff like furniture, ceramics, electronics...that kind of stuff.
Are there certain designers in that field that you find particularly inspirational?
An old school one that has always been inspirational for me is Dieter Rams and that classic, really pure, simple and timeless design that really looks ridiculously futuristic, too. That kind of stuff for me has always been a goal.
So by extension Apple's products?
Yeah, Apple is cool for sure. They really set a high bar for doing things that are genius like finishing a rectangular shape with round corners...
Something that’s really obvious in hindsight…
It’s obvious but somehow they are able on each one to make the last one look outdated…
I think the same goes for sneakers; you can tell that these are the newest ones (KD8).
You can totally tell, right? It’s funny about that rounded rectangle thing that somehow they made the next one better.
It’s weird looking at the first generation now; it looks like a calculator or something…
It’s actually kind of fun the first; the 6 almost goes back to the 1 – rounded soap bar kind of feel.
Back to your story...you must also be a sneakerhead?
Yes and I’m also a size 9 so that doesn’t help me.
Well, it’s a sample size.
Are there certain lines you collect or signature models?
I’ve always loved running and basketball shoes. I also like weird shoes… like off-the-beaten path kind of stuff.
Like the Rift…so ugly it’s cool.
There are definitely those kinds of things. I can’t think of one recently but I like that weird kind of stuff. But for sure basketball and running…
Was there ever a sneaker you had the chance to get but didn’t and now you still think about it?
There’s a lot! Outside the Nike Basketball stuff I still have to get a Jordan release or something the same way everyone else does...
Online or in a store?
Yeah, the same way everyone else does. I’ll get online and fight with all the bots.
You mentioned earlier you like reflective stuff. I know you have to think about the consumer at the end of the day but do you get to apply your own personal taste to your projects?
Yeah, I think so. It’s funny because one of my first bosses at Nike was the legendary Sergio Lozano who did the Max 95. I asked him because he had an office where his whole entire wall was covered with every project, every shoe he had designed and it was like…you know what, that’s insane! I’m like, "alright from all these shoes up here, which is your favorite and the one you're most proud of?" And he was like, "I didn’t design any of these for myself" and that was really cool to hear early on in my design career because you know I shouldn’t be designing for me. I should apply my taste and sensibilities onto it but not necessarily designing it for me. I'll be 40 years old soon and designing for a 40-year-old is not the same as designing for our target consumer or the athlete, and I think that’s important to have some separation.
Do you think you’ve cultivated your own aesthetic over the years?
Yeah, I mean I have my design principles and the things that I believe. People will tell me they can tell when it’s a Leo Chang design.
When I was doing some research into what you’ve done, I noticed some sort of signature aesthetic throughout.
A lot of it I probably learned from my mentors like Eric Avar and when you look at his designs, he really takes an innovation and makes it the most simple and beautiful expression of it. There is a little bit of quirkiness to it too that I love when you look back on any of his stuff. That’s definitely inspired me and how I design.
That’s a good way of putting it. What do you as see as the future of footwear? They were talking about 3D printing for a while but I haven’t heard that conversation for a while.
That’s definitely hot on everybody’s radars. I think for me I want to make sure that we’re not doing it for the sake of doing it but there’s an actual benefit to it. Is it going to make something better? Not just to do it for the sake of doing it. I think we’ve all seen plenty of products that just do that and they’re kind of gimmicks and once you can feel the difference…
I feel like the market usually filters that out anyway - I mean the consumer does - they can tell, they try it out, it doesn’t work and it doesn’t catch on.
Like the NFL Combine Cleat that we did. That was crazy because you couldn’t necessarily make that in a conventional injection mold – the way that they are orienting the cleats and the geometry that they are using in that. There were performance insights on the positioning so when you can’t necessarily make that in conventional ways, you print it and that’s a great reason to use it.
What department at Nike researches that stuff?
We have a whole innovation team. There are hundreds of people in there that all have very specific things that they are looking at. A lot of exploration and a lot of failure too because you’ve got to try things…
What's been your most fun project and what was the most challenging?
I mean any of the KD’s; I worked on Kyrie as well. Any of those are really fun because you really engage with the athlete and you really do listen to them so any of those are really fun.
Most difficult ones…I don’t know, I mean they all kind of have their challenges. Well, KD8 has been one of the hardest ones for me just because of what I was talking about before: learning something new with the whole textile and design part. I had to learn a whole new vocabulary of how to describe things, how to work things out – so for me that was a really fun challenge. I really enjoyed that.
Was there ever something that you thought was really cool, that was great and just didn’t make it to market for some reason?
It’s been a while but I have plenty of those.
More than successes?
No, I think I’ve had a pretty good batting average.
If you’re above .300, I think you’re good…
I’m working on the KD now and whether the design sticks or not it’s always going to be a KD. We’ve gone through rounds with KD where KD didn’t necessarily like the direction or I didn’t like the direction, and I’ve blown it up throughout some point in the process. I feel like I’m kind of cursed sometimes; I feel like the odd numbers have been the most difficult for me.
So that’s why you’re fearing the 9?
The 9 has been difficult. I won't give you any details but it’s like I want to pull my hair out on that just because it’s so challenging. The 7 was a challenge - not difficult but we had a couple of designs going and KD didn’t like the initial design. So we went back to the drawing board and actually we ended up closer to the design that he didn’t like in the beginning with a lot of adjustments and stuff. I don’t think anything ever blew up and didn’t make it. The KD was always the KD but the design evolved over time.
In our street style reports we always see people pairing sneakers with ultra high-fashion outfits. What, if anything, do you attribute this crossover appeal to?
I think it’s cool. I love that because I’ve always felt like sneakers should be able to be worn with everything from jersey uniforms to lifestyle stuff. I think that crossover is really important, it’s important in basketball culture, too. You talk to any basketball player that’s the first thing they talk about - that’s just part of the DNA of basketball. When basketball started in New York it was played outdoors and there was hip-hop going on and there was so much of that mix of culture. When I worked in running - like runners were just runners, there was no DJ in the corner of the field (laughs).
Shop the KD8 over at Nike.com.