Legendary designer Tinker Hatfield offers an insightful look into his remarkable relationship with Michael Jordan, the Air Jordan and their respective influence on each other’s careers.
2015 marks the 30-year anniversary of Jordan Brand. What began with the colorful Air Jordan 1 and its violation of the NBA uniform policy back in 1985 became one of the most visible and powerful brands of all time. Over the past three decades, the Air Jordan has turned into a sort of pop cultural artifact thanks to the remarkable and innovative work of lead designer, Tinker Hatfield. During his tenure at Nike, Hatfield chaperoned Jordan’s career and captured the greatest of all time’s talent in every single sneaker Jordan played in.
During the NBA All Star festivities in New York City, Hatfield, now Nike’s Vice President for Design and Special Projects, opened up on the fascinating collaboration with Michael Jordan over the span of 30 years. Check it out below.
Nike is celebrating 30 years of Jordan Brand. What does that mean to you specifically?
30 years means that we did something right. That we created products that evolve, that inspire but also honor the greatest player of all time.
Tell us a little bit about the beginnings; how your work took off with Nike and, first and foremost, with Jordan himself.
Truth be told, in the beginning, we couldn’t have dreamt about what Michael became. We knew he was very talented and we wanted him desperately. But to understand who Michael Jordan is, both as a competitor, but even more as a person, you had to sit with him in a room. And when we sat down together to talk about the new shoe, his ideas, desire and drive was felt by us all.
Your first Air Jordan was the 3, right?
My first one was the 3 and it was a pretty good success. So with the 4 I had to basically top the 3. So what I see in the 4 is Michael wanting to do better than the other guy, wanting to do better than the last shoe.
How were you able to get better and more creative each and every year?
Every new show is like the next game or the next season. Every version of the Air Jordan was influenced by the desire to always be better and to reach higher levels. So when it was time to sit down and work on the new shoe, Michael’s persona was the driving force. He inspired me to be better every single time because frankly, he got better every year. He added something to his game which was so fascinating to see and ultimately motivated me to do the same.
So it was a competition between you two?
(laughs) Well honestly, I just tried to keep up with him. It was important that not only the performance of the shoe had to get better, but also the story of it. Michael’s life was always a big inspiration to me. The Air Jordan 14 was inspired by his Ferrari, a powerful race car that doesn’t sacrifice grace and beauty. So when we developed the story for the 14 based on MJ’s Ferrari, he loved it a lot. He saw himself in it, almost like a metaphor or a symbol of his game.
“When I think about the brand, I think about Michael Jordan and the idea to believe in something and make it real.”
Vice President of Jordan brand, Howard “H” White says you are genius, because the tiniest things inspired you for a great design.
He refers to a situation where him and I visited Michael at home many years ago. He showed us all the rooms, including the closet. His clothes and color combinations inspired me for a first draft of a new sneaker. Because of my history in architecture, I always looked at the design of a shoe from a different angle. I see forms in other objects and apply them to my work.
How influential was Michael’s first retirement from basketball in 1993 to the brand?
It was a tough time for us because we didn’t know what the future had in stock for us. Without Michael the athlete, half of the company thought that the brand might disappear too. In hindsight, it was the first test for us in terms of the stability and creativity of the brand. I was working on the Air Jordan 10 at that time and despite Michael’s decision, I wanted the shoe to be released as a tribute to his career. I looked at the shoes and realized that they stand for something that is executed really, really well. Regardless of Michael’s departure from basketball, this brand could still be great.
Did his comeback inspire you to continue with your work?
It was kind of a sign for me to come back too. To get back to the point of excelling prior achievements. That is what it was for Michael. He loved the game but he also wanted to show that he can still be the best.
And your accomplishments followed up with the Air Jordan 11.
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.
Are you in the end mirroring Michael’s on-court excellence and genius in the world of Jordan Brand?
I like to see it as an inspiration and influence from him. Without Michael and his ideas, I don’t know if we would have been able to achieve all this. I would make notes to myself about how I saw Michael as an individual – very sophisticated, yet he would always boil things down to what is most important, and that’s the way he played the game. It has become part of the Jordan brand, being sophisticated whilst also keeping everything clean and simple.
In a nutshell, what does Jordan means to you?
When I think about the brand, I think about Michael Jordan and the idea to believe in something and make it real. It’s a simple example of believing in something and then doing it. I look at the Jumpman and I almost don’t see Michael as much as I see the mark of excellence.
Text and photos by Robert Jerzy for Highsnobiety.com