We sat down with Nike Sportswear Footwear Design Director Marc Dolce to learn more about redesigning classics, scrapping projects and more.
Nike recently touched down in Spain for the World Basketball Festival in Barcelona where we had the chance to talk with Cleveland Cavalier Kyrie Irving, Nike Basketball Footwear Design Director Leo Chang and Jordan Brand Global Innovation Design Director of Footwear Rob Bruce. Leaving the coast and heading toward Madrid, we met up with Marc Dolce to learn what it takes to redesign classics, when to scrap projects and plenty more. Check it out below.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Marc Dolce and I'm the Global Basketball and Training Design Director for Nike Sportswear. I've been there for nine years and part of my job is leading the team to envision a new space for Nike Sportswear and also focus on franchising iconic models. Our portfolio features pretty high levels of Air Force 1s, Dunks and Blazers, and a lot of the retro Huaraches, Flight Huaraches and Foamposites. Now, we also get to work with Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Durant, taking their signature shoes and doing lifestyle versions of them.
So you're mostly focused on lifestyle as opposed to performance?
Yes, we take the performance model and reimagine it. For example, we take a game shoe that's done in the most innovative materials and rework it with cork or suede, while thinking about what the players would wear off-court. Like for when they get off the bus and walk into the stadium, or when they're on the red carpet, or if they're on the podium for the championships.
Which aspects of a shoe do you decide to adapt for lifestyle and which aspects do you leave out?
We basically started with LeBron and then went to KD and Kobe. We felt like when you look at LeBron, you see his amazing style and taste - he's also styled well off the court. What we thought was that his game shoe would really transcend and become something much bigger. We're also looking at KD and the way he's always pushing some boundaries and we definitely want to show that enthusiasm. What we're trying to do with each of those models is develop a very authentic story that communicates who they are, where they're from, what college they went to, what team they played on and what was a milestone or major achievement. Take cork, which stands for winning a championship, popping bottles of champagne, etc.
Performance footwear, specifically basketball sneakers like the Air Force 1, have been popular on the streets for years now. What do you attribute this crossover appeal to?
I think it's just the versatility. The Air Force 1 is very well proportioned, very well balanced, and it's interesting how sneakers have started to show up on the runway, red carpet and other high-end situations - places sneakers haven't really been seen before - and I think it's the materials, details and fabrication that are now allowing people to see them in different ways.
The innovation of that we have done with a lot of our sneakers has also become style. Take Flywire and Flyknit, you've seen those really innovative products become more about style and how you can wear them. The women's team has done an amazing job, taking performance models and building them around women with materials and fabrications for women.
How do you feel about a high-fashion house like Givenchy making what is essentially a luxe Air Force 1?
I think it's a natural progression of the high-end brands playing in the sports zone more. Sport is more than just the game, it's a lifestyle. People want to be associated with sports even if they don't necessarily still play. You can be a fan of the game and, in general, sports makes you feel good and give you something to be excited about. Brands see that and that's why they use those references.
What's your most memorable design experience?
I remember when we first started the project for the Lunar Force 1. Many people said you couldn't do that or you shouldn't do that and it's a model that's too classic. It took about 30 - 40 concepts before getting to the final one, balancing what's right on the shoe with how to make it a little bit modern. So I would say the Lunar Force 1 and now the second version of the shoe. I'm really proud where we are with that model now and seeing the success of it.
Have there been cases where you designed something that was almost too radical or too ahead of its time so even though you liked it, decided not to release it or just scrap the project?
That happens all the time and sometimes we released a model and initially it might not get the reaction we want but over time you see people gravitate toward it. Being ahead of its time is a case that happens quite often. Nike's designed and developed some amazing technologies and is constantly thinking about the future. To see the consumer take the journey with us - some are ready and some take a little time - but I see that the consumer is excited about what kind of innovation we're doing and looking forward to what's next from us.
Tinker Hatfield also mentioned getting to that boundary where people react, even if it's a negative reaction.
I would agree with that. You're pushing it to the next boundary and if you're not making people feel uncomfortable then you're not doing your job. Our job is to make people envision what the future is and to think about "what if?" and "wow, that's awesome!"
What other things did you learn from Tinker?
Early on I learned about balancing the new and with the familiar. Most the time with products you're designing them to be worn, not to sit on the shelf. So they could look really modern and futuristic on the shelf but it's important that you make them wearable. That's the great balance of design, taking the familiarity of the product and pushing it to the next level. It's a real test of style and taste and of balance and proportion.
Earlier you mentioned that "Orca" was one of your favorite colorways. Do you base colorways on real-life phenomena or does the naming of the colorways come after the fact?
What I'm most excited about is when consumers give it their own nickname and then that model or colorways takes a life of its own. Sometimes we don't think about it in a specific way and then to find that consumers have adopted it and named it themselves is just as rewarding as us being inspired by something and then using that as an inspiration. It's a great compliment!
How do you share the story of classic sneakers with an audience that wasn't around during the time those products were originally released?
We leverage with the communication team because it's really important to tell that story to the next generation, to kids that weren't around - we're talking '88 and '87 or '86. So if we do our job well we can educate the next generation; let them know the backstory, share with them some of the inspiration, and the sketches and designs.
Do you think some of the newer models from today can ever reach the status of the Retros?
Absolutely! We don't see it now but they'll retro and will rerelease a lot of the models we're using now. In 20 years we'll look back at Flyknit and think about how far we've come since then and say, "that was a really great shoe." It's hard to see it when you're living in it but over time you'll definitely see it.
If you're not making people feel uncomfortable then you're not doing your job.
Do you think trends are still specific to certain neighborhoods like Brooklyn in the late '80s and early '90s or has social media leveled the playing field?
To a certain extent, social media has leveled the playing field but there are still some cities that are known for certain things. I would say China is known for Foamposites, DC and Baltimore are known for AF1s. Each city has a little bit of ownership whether it's because an athlete lives there or just due to the city's personality.
Since we're in Spain, what do you think of the country? Would you associate a certain sneaker style with it?
Finally, do you notice a difference between Americans sneaker culture and European sneaker culture?
Yeah, I feel like in America it's more basketball-oriented and in Europe it's more joggers and trainers. But like I was saying earlier, there's a crossover happening where people want what the others have and I feel like this summer I wore a lot of joggers and it felt like a trend.
Check out our interviews with Cleveland Cavalier Kyrie Irving, Nike Basketball Footwear Design Director Leo Chang and Jordan Brand Global Innovation Design Director of Footwear Rob Bruce.