Back in Akron, OH, Mr. James naturally took a fair amount of the spotlight. But he would do. The shoe bears his surname. Plus there was a documentary to promote and the location was his hometown. And physically, his stature means he can inadvertently hog the webcast. But whereas we’ve credited previous installments to Ken Post, the design duties for the VII were given to Jason Petrie – a kindred spirit in shoe fanaticism. Our first conversation was chatting about Ja Rule outside a cinema. While Jeffrey Atkins is always an interesting topic of chatter, talking about Jason’s career thus far, and the creation, that officially reached European soil late last week as a precursor to next month’s general release, would be more pertinent. Trust us on this one. Jason knows sneakers. Entering the industry after posting his illustrations and sketches on Niketalk, resulting in his current designer position at Nike Basketball by way of Fila, he’s definitely the right man to be pushing the franchise further forward. Incidentally, this banter took place before leaked shots of the LeBron VIIs in Uptempo Max colours made an appearance.
You obviously go way, way back as a fan before you were a designer – what was your first pair of Nikes? My first pair that i consciously went out and bought was the Air Alpha Force. The first ones. The ones that haven’t been retroed yet. The ones Michael Jordan wore in ’86. I sold my GI Joe collection at a yard sale, made about 70 bucks, got on my bike, put down 65 bucks in cash and took home the white/royal blue Alpha Force. The grey midsole, the Velcro strap…I wore them out. That was a great pair of shoes. I keep telling Sportswear to retro ’em. It’s nice when it stays in the memory sometimes. It’s for my own personal greed that I just want a pair. It’s almost cool when it’s forgotten, but I just want my first pair. The Alpha is ahead of its time as part of that ‘golden age’ – does it inform anything you do now? Oh yeah, absolutely. I certainly look back at the shoes that inspired me to draw back when i was a kid. Adding another strap, double-stacked airbags…seeing those shoes was like seeing a cool car. The power of the shoes back then, especially if they cost more than the equivalent of 100 bucks was tremendous. Oh yeah, the first day of Jordan release, if you came to school that day…every February that Jordan would come out, and if you rocked them to school the next day, it was crazy. I’ve just turned 34, and people get on at me all the time telling me I dress like I’m 14, but I don’t care. I still love it. Stunting a new pair of shoes out the box and I’m happy as hell. Selling your Destros and Flints to make way for shoes is a serious commitment for the shoe cause. When you were a kid, was designing for Nike your ambition in life? Yeah, absolutely. I just never knew how I was gonna get there because nobody knew how to become a shoe designer. And I used to write Nike letters. I would draw a collection and at night I’d draw lateral and medial midsoles, pages and pages. You were calling them lateral and medial back then? Yeah, because Nike were putting out brochures and I used to read them over and over. Every brochure, from ACG to Bo Jackson, they had displays in stores of airbags and parts of the shoes. I was just mesmerised by that. There was a sports store a block or two from my house and I would just go there they had the Air Ace display there, with the Jordan tooling, that’s such a nasty shoe. In college, did you study sneakers? I got a couple of lucky breaks. I just stayed true to the love because that’s all I knew how to do. But if you had a choice to do something on your own, I’d just do a shoe, and that’s when you get into it and your work really shines. A couple of professors saw that and helped me out taking that next step. It’s an easily discouraged thing because it sounds like a pipe dream. The ‘Future Sole’ competition is a positive step. That’s awesome. I just wish I could be more involved, but it always comes around when I’m busy, but I always get to look at the shoes. If they have had that when I was a kid, I would’ve been grinding for that all year long. It’s opened it up to a whole load of good designers out there and we’re gonna be out of a job! You can see these kids improve from year to year. We’re steeped in old references…we can’t help it, but those kids bring something different to the table. Did the internet – Nikepark and Niketalk for example, where you were on as ‘ALPHAPROJECT’ open things up for you in a major way? That must’ve been liberating. Absolutely. Not only was it instrumental to me practising and doing, and logging market research. It got me in at Fila, working as a paid shoe designer, so there’s no question it did. I guess being on those boards, I thought some stuff sucked, so I thought I’d put mine up.
One of the best things about Niketalk is that people really speak their minds… It never upset me if someone criticised my design. I’m always interested to hear any different takes, and it’s good to see something seen through a different set of eyes. It’s just a drawing. I’ve got a million different drawings swirling around my head, so i love the critique, and it made me get better. That’s what I needed. Any reference to Alpha Project is okay with us… That’s my favourite stuff right there. Onto the DNA of the VII – Ken Post’s work is pretty beloved…how did you end up on the LeBron project? Ken is a great mentor, and someone who, when I first came into basketball has watched out for me and allowed me to learn and do stuff I wouldn’t have done. He wants people to succeed. Because of him, I’ve been put in this position and other steps that led up to this shoe. He and I have a close relationship and he was the Creative Director of Nike Basketball at the time. So I was always around bugging him for the first couple of years, like ‘Hey! What’s going on with Lebron?’ He’d come to me asking about a detail or a sketch so for the IV, V and VI I was able to be involved, and I met LeBron a couple of times. So he had a plan. With the VI, we had some trouble and had to do some design work very late in the process with changes internally. I went on a few trips to Asia with him working on that and the Soldier III and he started talking to me about about whether I’d be the next LeBron designer. He left a little earlier than I thought. I thought he’d be around until the VIII. There’s a lot of politics with signature shoe, I was worried about getting the work done, and he was a powerful personality with a lot of clout – he’s been around Nike for a long time. The creative process involves winning a lot of arguments and battles. I wanted to be taken seriously. With signature you have to take risks and do things that makes people uncomfortable. He had this opportunity to move to Cleated where he’s at now and the cleats they’re making for American football and baseball are crazy. We might do a football shoe at some point, might get back in the frame. But that’s how it ended. We had some ideas that he left and finished off. I showed him it along the way and will do so with the VIII. I still trust his judgement and design advice. He’d been at basketball for 12/13 years at that point and just needed a fresh challenge. He misses LeBron and LeBron misses him. He’s still considered the godfather of this thing. You should do an interview with him, because he’s fascinating. Very big shoes to fill.
You worked on the Stat Force which is an overlooked shoe – it’s notable that the Stat Force II had a 360 midsole and the LeBron VII has 360 Air. I only did the first Stat . The second Stat was done by my boss at the time, Tracy Teague – he’s been around Nike a long time. I finished the logos and storytelling there but I can’t take credit for that shoe. Another design of yours is the Sharkley with has an air of LeBron about it…looking at that shoe at the time it had a touch of LeBron IV about it, but easier to wear. Has LeBron been informing your work up to this point? LeBron has a swagger different to anyone else on this planet. It’s not a bad thing, Mike has an aura, Kobe has a certain aura, but LeBron’s swagger has been defined perfectly in shoes like the IV. If you’re building something robust like the Sharkley, that summertime indestructible feel, and that goes back to the Raid. We saw kids playing in Pennys and Barkleys and we took that swagger, that shape, that tough form. It’s distilled swagger. I appreciate you guys saying that. It’s a shoe I’m proud of. I had a lot of fun making that. Wish we could have done it two years earlier. Has Flywire freed you up a lot from a design standpoint? It’s one of those unique Nike things that comes along at the right time. As things are getting tighter and trimmer, the fortunate thing for us is that people have adopted a material that’s very technical as fashionable. Air was performance-led, but it’s a ‘look’… And it was never planned that way. Building a shoe, it’s aesthetics too. It’s fun to play with, there’s so many ways you can take Flywire. Some of the ways we’re taking it with the concept of what Flywire does is cool. It’s real cool.
Someone mentioned that Flywire had been altered especially for this shoe. A more breathable version? It’s not breathable. I never said that – it’s no more breathable than regular Flywire is. What we’re working on is Hyperize with a more breathable version with the cutout windows on that. The panels are re-engineered for LeBron. We wanted to reinforce the wires and push the idea that this is a stronger cable system but unfortunately factory limitations at the time meant we were limited to what we can do. Lebron VIII? We’ll see. We’ve got a whole load of things ready for that. Fot the VII, we got as strong a cable as we could and worked out the geometry so it’s as equal a dispersion of force and pressure over that grid, which is different from the zonal approach which still works very well. Using something as new as Flywire on a LeBron shoe we didn’t know if it would work out, whether he’d blow through it. He puts different forces on things. The shoe has to supply easy transition, rollover support and that’s always in my mind. The last thing you want is for him to come down and blow through the airbag or panel. Speaking of Air, why the return to a bag after Zoom? Was that a specific LeBron request? No. We felt we’d done Zoom Air many times – double stacked it, full lengthed it. I love Zoom but we had something new coming. We’d been working with this bag for nearly two years and we knew that it was lower to the ground, had more Air in it and it’s the first time they’ve made one of these things for basketball. It sounds like marketing speak or rhetoric or whatever, but in thirty years of Nike Basketball this is the first time they’ve done something like that. Zoom Air is more reactive, whereas you can feel this Air unit from the get-go. This shoe has an aura of Air Max Total Uptempo – one of the undisputed greats about it… Man oh man I love that shoe. The Air unit correlation on this is straight Uptempo to me. Well, I definitely took some lessons from that and we did some stuff that accented the bubble like the Uptempo 3.0, but the Max Uptempo isn’t something I looked at directly for inspiration. It’s just one of them things in my head as a shoe that I love, which becomes part of my design vernacular. I’d love for it to look as beautiful as that when all’s said and done. Last year with the Powermax shoe, we did did a colourup in white with black, with a teal airbag with silver hits on the bottom. It was siiiiick…luckily I made a pair for myself. I wanted it to be sold as an homage to the Uptempo.
One thing we’ve pondered, obviously patent has been an integral part of makeups of basketball shoes like the Concord and Jordan XI – does it have any performance benefits? The reason it was used on the Jordan was as a stiff material to keep his foot on the footbed. It still flexed and wasn’t plastic or foam. It’s stiffer and usually a little thicker because of the process. Performance-wise we knew we wanted something like that originally the rand piece going to be foam and Flywire – we wanted to build the ultimate battleship or whatever. Engineering couldn’t get done on the timetable. We landed on this stuff called magic patent which is unbelievable stuff that they add to bespoke Air Force 1s. It’s thick, tough and changes colour when there’s pressure applied to it, this undercoated colour. It was born out of that. We got inspired by the Phantom Coupe and the black on it, so we mixed in some patent and some non-patent and we’re always trying to keep the foot on the footbed. Does LeBron ever get nostalgic for the stuff he wore coming up? He wears the standards, Air Max 95s, Jordan XIs, Pennys and he likes the stuff worn by athletes that inspired him like Emmitt Smith, Dion Saunders. He likes Jordans. He wants to be pushed forward. For me, I wanna see some progression and a little bit of where the shoe came from. A bit of history and lineage in the shoe. He loves the XI and when he saw the patent leather, he loved it. Sometimes patent leather can work. We’re always looking for the next thing that can take it to another level, and believe us we haven’t found anything that’s better yet. Regarding the other makeups – the woven, teal, black almost Escape range colourway was nice. What’s the story with it? I’m glad people are feeling it. I had to fight pretty hard for that and it’s my baby colourway. It’s gonna come out in good numbers, and it’s not at Hyperstrike level. It’ll be easier to get than the ‘More Than A Game’s but it won’t be a general release by any stretch of the imagination. We call it the ‘red carpet’ and the inspiration came from a controversial magazine cover LeBron was on on and we wanted something special for when he debuts the movie. It was obviously something he wouldn’t wear on court. It hasn’t got the Flywire, but it’s super-strong material. You could still ball in it no problem. You mentioned the Soldier, will there be plenty more LeBron models that spinoff the VII? Yeah. The VII sets off the LeBron design language for the year for every product. I can’t tell you how it’s going to change but the way it comes together is definitely going to change starting now, from Soldier to Ambassador. It’s all about to change. There’ll be something that performs for LeBron come playoff time, but the signature shoe is LeBron’s shoe, period, and that’s gonna lead to changes and a cleaner insight to something that’s gonna excite people. Thanks to Jason for his time, and Nike for hooking up this Q&A…Courtesy of crookedtongues.com.