101 Masterpieces: The Air Jordan III

Image credit: 
Mike Rogalski

By Foster Kamer

Something strange was in the air at the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. It wasn’t just that deadlines loomed—that was typical. A shareholders meeting was just around the corner, which never brightened the mood, but that wasn’t it either. Tinker Hatfield Jr., a 35-year-old sneaker designer, couldn’t quite put his finger on it. His boss, Nike’s creative director and lead shoe designer, Peter Moore, typically blasted music in his office while he sketched new ideas for shoes. But this summer morning in 1987, the music wasn’t playing.

A few weeks prior, Rob Strasser, Nike’s vice president, had suddenly handed in his resignation. Nobody had seen it coming. Strasser was an industry veteran who’d spent nearly two decades as Phil Knight’s marketing guru. He’d become a local legend, “the man who saved Nike.” In three years, he’d turned the company’s fortunes around by signing Michael Jordan to the most high-profile and successful athlete endorsement deal in history. Soon, Jordan’s contract would be coming up for renegotiation. Wherever Strasser was about to go, he seemed poised to take Jordan with him.

Moore, who’d designed the first two iterations of the Air Jordan, was clearly frustrated. Suddenly, he called Hatfield into his office. Sketches for a new shoe were scattered around the desk. Handing Hatfield a thin sheet of tracing paper, Moore said, “You do it. Design Michael Jordan’s next basketball shoe.” A week later, Moore followed Strasser’s lead and walked out the door, leaving behind a thin file filled with those same sketches. The deadline to present the new Air Jordan was a few weeks away, and the company’s fate seemed tethered to the deal.

Hatfield had never even worked on an Air Jordan, let alone designed one. In fact, he was new to the field: He’d barely worked on sneakers for two years. But now, with Nike reeling from the loss of its design and marketing leadership and with its relationship with Jordan on the line, Tinker had a lot riding on this one shoe.

In high school, Hatfield had been a standout track athlete. He was part of Oregon’s robust amateur-sports culture (near the center of which was his father, a legendary track coach). He attended the University of Oregon on a track-and-field scholarship and held the school’s pole-vaulting record for a while, but his teammate, Steve Prefontaine—who would go on to become one of the most celebrated track stars in history—got most of the attention. That was fine by Hatfield. He’d chosen Oregon because the school offered a bachelor’s degree in architecture—his true passion.

Four years after graduation, Hatfield was floundering at a corporate architecture job. Then his former track coach, Bill Bowerman, called. The company Bowerman had helped start, Nike, was beginning to flourish and it needed some help designing marketing materials. In 1980, Bowerman brought Hatfield in to work on an internal marketing manual. A year later, the position had bloomed into a full-time role. Hatfield worked on showrooms, offices, retail-space concepts: the kinds of things that ultimately mattered much less than the way everything else there was designed.

Then, in 1985, Rob Strasser asked Hatfield to compete in a company-wide design contest. The challenge was to design a shoe you could wear as easily on the track as you could fashionably on the street—such a crossover didn’t exist. Nike would never do anything with it, probably. It was a lark, a theoretical, an exercise to get Nike’s shoe designers thinking bigger.

Hatfield took it seriously. He stayed up all night, drawing a colorful upper with a low-profile midsole and a visible airbag in the shoe itself. Hatfield was inspired by Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou—a building turned inside out—and its designers, the bad-boy architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, whom he counted as personal heroes. In his sketch, he positioned the shoes not on a runner but next to a European motor scooter.

This was a renegade move at a company whose mission was mainly to service runners’ needs. The more conservative minds at Nike saw this as a sign that Hatfield didn’t understand the brand’s mission. Some of his colleagues thought he should be fired. Hatfield didn’t care. He knew the company made purely utilitarian shoes, but he just wasn’t interested in designing purely utilitarian shoes. “When I came in,” he remembered later, “I had stories to tell.”

Moore was amused by his moxie and wowed by his design: It won the contest. Nobody at the top was entirely sure what to make of Hatfield, but they knew that he shouldn’t be designing marketing materials anymore. Just like that, he’d become a shoe designer. He didn’t know that, in just two years, he’d be faced with the biggest challenge of his career, nor did he realize just whom he’d need to win over.

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Michael Jordan had come to Nike as a last resort. When he signed with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, he desperately wanted an Adidas endorsement. The German company had enough athletes on its books, however, and was reluctant to sign another. Even after Nike offered to tailor shoes to his liking, with his name on them—something no other company was doing at the time—and sign him to an eye-popping five-year, $500,000 contract (also unheard of at the time), Jordan wasn’t entirely sold.

Five years later, Jordan’s kicks were some of the most successful athlete-endorsed shoes ever. But as his contract neared its end, Jordan was looking for an out. Moore and Strasser, who’d signed him, were gone. The pair were hoping to lure Jordan to their upstart competitor, Sports Inc., where they wanted to give him his own shoe and apparel line. Adidas was beckoning too. At this point, Jordan could go wherever he wanted.

Nike had just one shot to salvage its deal with Michael Jordan: The Air Jordan III, which was now in Hatfield’s hands. Nike president Phil Knight didn’t know Hatfield well—and he didn’t necessarily trust him, since he’d worked for Moore. Jordan didn’t know Hatfield either. That was the first thing Hatfield had to change.

As soon as he could, Hatfield jumped on a plane to meet with Jordan. He needed to get a sense of who he was as a human, outside of basketball. Lately, Jordan had been buying suits, plus high-end leather shoes to go with them. Hatfield could see he had an eye for style and design that wasn’t entirely obvious to the public or reflected in the previous Air Jordans.

When Jordan talked about the styles and performance elements that he wanted in a shoe, Hatfield did something no other designer and executive had: He listened. A basic principle in architecture states that you can’t design a great house without knowing the people who will live in it. Hatfield applied this with Jordan. “I don’t think Michael had ever been worked with that way,” he told the Portland Tribune in 2005, “In fact, I don’t think anybody in the footwear business had done it that way.”

Both the Air Jordan and Air Jordan II were high-tops. Chatting with Hatfield, Jordan threw out an idea for a shoe that was less restrictive. Mid-tops existed, but they weren’t popular as far as basketball shoes went. They were seen as a compromise: less stable for the ankles than a high-top. But Jordan dreamed of a lighter shoe.

Hatfield kept hunting for inspiration wherever he could find it. Among Moore’s few prototype designs, Hatfield saw something exciting. The photo of Jordan that had been used to promote the last two shoes— jumping to dunk, legs split outward, ball in hand extended toward the basket—had been penciled out by Moore as a logo. The logo was buried in the files, never intended for use on apparel. Hatfield loved it and, without consulting anyone, he placed it on one of his first Jordan III designs.

While researching materials, he’d come across some suede-like nubuck embossed with a pattern that resembled fake elephant skin, perfect for the trim. He also used a material called floater, leather that’s been tumbled so the natural wrinkles lost when it’s tanned and processed reemerge as a texture. It had never been used in athletic shoes before, as tumbled leather can grow softer (thus weaker) when processed. But Jordan wanted to wear a new pair of shoes every game. The tumbled leather wasn’t just a nod to Jordan’s love of fashion and those Italian leather shoes he was now sporting. It also served a practical purpose: Jordan wouldn’t have to break the shoe in.

Hatfield crafted a rough sample as quickly as he could. Another designer, Ron Dumas, took the sample and clarified Hatfield’s ideas. As Hatfield recalled: “No one slept for days.”

On the day of the presentation, Hatfield and Knight flew to California, where Jordan was golfing. When they arrived, they found Jordan’s parents waiting for them in a conference room. Jordan was still out on the fairways. Sitting next to the president of the company, Hatfield felt the enormity of what was about to happen start to sink in: “This,” he remembered, “is the biggest presentation of my life.”

Four hours later, Michael Jordan walked into the room. He wasn’t happy to be there. He had been golfing with Strasser and Moore, who’d recently given an incredible presentation on the new brand they wanted to launch. Now, they were on the verge of signing. “All right, show me what you got,” Jordan grumbled.

Hatfield stood up and started asking Jordan questions. He asked him to recall what he’d said earlier about the shoe’s height, its weight, about his Italian shoes and leather patterns. Hatfield started showing the sketches to Jordan, who was beginning to warm up: For the first time, someone had actually paid attention to what he wanted and needed. Jordan asked to see the sample.

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Hatfield pulled a black cover off a lump on the table, and there it was: the concrete-elephant print lining. The soft, sturdy leather, the Nike Air bubble on the bottom. A lower, mid-rise cuff that distinguished it from virtually every other shoe on the planet. Instead of a giant Nike swoosh on the side, the side was clean. The swoosh had been relegated to the back. And in the front, on that oversize, plush shoe tongue: the Jumpman silhouette. It was a symbol, Hatfield explained, of who was at the forefront of the shoe— and the company.

Jordan grabbed the sneaker, smiling. He’d never seen the Jumpman logo as anything other than an idea. Now it beamed from the front of the sneaker, and Jordan loved it. But perhaps most important, someone had found a way to take his needs as a basketball player and his ideas as a fashion connoisseur and meld them into a single design, one that was distinct from anything else on the market. When Jordan started talking about different colorways for the shoe, Hatfield knew he was in.

“Phil Knight thinks I helped save Nike that day,” Hatfield has since said. “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that’s his perception.”

The Air Jordan III hit shelves in February 1988, retailing for $100. They were the shoes Michael Jordan wore while famously winning the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest—flying from the free throw line to the rim. They were also the shoes he donned for that year’s All-Star and league MVP awards. And, before long, they’d yielded one of the most iconic tag lines (“It’s gotta be the shoes!”) of any ad campaign in the Spike Lee–directed Mars Blackmon spots, starring Lee himself as Blackmon.

Jordan, of course, remained with Nike and has since collaborated with Hatfield on 19 iterations of Air Jordans (or “Js,” as they’re known), which have remained the most popular basketball shoe line in the history of the market and the most coveted sneakers in the known universe. The Jordan Brand subdivision of Nike made $2.25 billion in 2013 alone and accounts for nearly 60 percent of the American basketball shoe market. Today, Jordan refers to Hatfield as his “right-hand man” in all things design-related. Hatfield has since become vice president of design at Nike. He’s still taking inspiration from unconventional places (for the Jordan XI, he consistently cites a lawn mower).

As for the original Air Jordan III, it’s been galvanized in rap and pop songs and is regularly ranked by sneakerhead publications as the greatest Air Jordan of all time. And in 2001, the Air Jordan III became the first Jordan to be rereleased (or “retroed,” in sneaker parlance) and sell out in full. In fact, the highly coveted limited-availability III is the shoe that sparked the robust sneaker-collecting culture that exists today.

None of this would have happened had Hatfield followed convention. Instead, he went rogue in the simple, revolutionary way that is shrugging off common wisdom: Maybe athletic shoes can be more than just functional, and stylish shoes can function beyond their form. It took an architect to bring that idea to light.

Years later, Hatfield would ask Jordan why he ended up staying with Nike. Jordan replied that two factors swayed his decision: the advice of his father—who told him to stay the course—and a gut feeling. Jordan could feel that someone had managed to tap into him as a three-dimensional human being and translate that personality into a pair of shoes. And that, to Jordan, was special. In other words? It’s gotta be the shoes.


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July 15, 2014 - 8:00am
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