The elite choose Kevlar, Flywire and Carbon Fiber to help provide them the chance of writing their names in the rafters and etching their accomplishments out in gold. Two weeks ago Lebron James did just that by earning himself his first ring and first finals MVP. He did it in an elite fashion by putting a tired, injured and over worked team on his back and carrying them to new heights but he didn’t do it alone. The innovators at Nike Basketball crafted a shoe that would allow him to elevate his game to the next level by being light like air and stronger than steel.
From a design stand point the Elite collection provided a vast amount of inspiration for me. It was refreshing to see lightweight created in the proper way as opposed to just shedding layers to create the lightest weight product possible. The Elite series reengineered materials and proportioned patterns to provide the best fit and feel for the Nike athletes as they embarked on an epic playoff journey.
I sat down to break down the Nike Zoom Kobe VII System Elite, the Nike Zoom Hyperdunk Elite and the championship winning Nike Lebron 9 PS Elite with Nike Basketball designers Leo Chang and Jason Petrie.
It’s a long read but it’s worth it!
In particular one thing that I’ve heard about the Nike Elite Series is that you considered it kind of like a concept car. I think it’s a good comparison. I’ve looked at this like if the signature series for the regular Hyperdunk, the regular Kobe, and the regular LeBron is like the Porsche 911, is it fair to say that the Elite Series is like the Porsche 911 GT3 or the higher version of it?
Leo Chang: Yeah, absolutely. J, you could probably talk to this because it probably started from LeBron the whole notion of going from regular season to the Playoffs. You’re going from an already amazing Mercedes to this AMG kind of version of it. So your analogy is spot on, yeah.
Jason Petrie: You know that literally is kind of how LeBron framed it up to us. He has this separate mindset when he goes into the postseason. For him, that’s the biggest stage, brightest lights, I want the ultimate expression of my shoe to come to life for the playoffs. And so when we’re having that initial discussion decided we wanted to go deeper into the product and obviously LeBron has access to vehicles and things that we can only dream about. He’s had the experience of owning the finest in Mercedes, the AMG version, or whatever car it is, so he started immediately making these correlations to these cars where he could tell the difference between maybe a car he had at one point and now the souped up version that he had that he really wanted that to come to life and that drove the thought process throughout this Elite Collection.
My favorite aspect of looking at it is that it doesn’t just feel like a great color-up, it doesn’t look like you guys just kind of looked at that as an inspiration for material, it looks like you guys took this concept car idea and you really applied it in a functional way. Can you guys speak to that?
Chang: Absolutely. Everything we did from the color of Kevlar to the color of carbon fiber, we can’t change those things you know what I mean? Those are all based on the natural raw material color. So to the extent of trying to change it and hide it or whatever it is, we really wanted to celebrate it and place it in areas that are absolutely necessary and let the beauty of performance and function shine through.
You can tell even from the photographs that the shoes have legit carbon fiber because you can see that warm highlight and shadow that’s coming on it. I noticed it right away. I was like, ‘oh God, this is great,’ you know? How hard was it to work with that material?
Chang: Very hard. Super hard.
Petrie: That was something that was very important; having that look, you know people knock off carbon fiber left and right and we wanted to use the real stuff so it’s not only for performance benefits, but hey, this is the real deal and it definitely was a challenge to work with.
Chang: Talking about how difficult it was and you know, you coming from another industry also making product you probably can identify with this too is the cost. For us, it’s not only with LeBron’s shoe but with the Kobe and Hyperdunk we completely opened up new tooling for the counters on those, going from a TPU counter to a carbon counter. The benefits of that is that you actually feel them, you know how it is with those materials, if it’s really nice carbon fiber you get the responsiveness and spring back of that counter. So on the lateral cut it’s actually retaining the shape and it’s giving back versus just releasing and not holding its shape, you know? So for us, the patterning of the uppers coupled with the scanning of just the counter shape had to be so precise because with carbon fiber there’s very little room, very little slack and there’s high tolerances you have to work with otherwise you have tons of gaps because it’s not that soft of a material. It’s responsive but it’s not very soft like a plastic could be, you know what I mean?
Yeah I know exactly what you mean.
Chang: Early on we had parts that we were working with that we were like, oh, we’ll just use the data from the TPU version of the counter and it should be fine, right? And then we ended up having gaps all over the place and it wasn’t bonding right. So re-scanning and making sure it fit 1-to-1 was definitely a challenge. Even the geometry of the heel shape had some issues as well just because there’s complex curves in that, you know? J, you can talk to that massive wing that you put on the LeBron and…
Petrie: Haha. Well I was going for a carbon fiber footwear record… Nah, I’m just kidding. But same kind of challenges, you know? The good thing about the LeBron 9 P.S. is that we were building it ground up so we didn’t have to do any re-scanning as we built the shoe, we knew that we were going to have this carbon fiber wing so we built that into the process but we certainly had the same material problems to solve which we knew we could do but it does take extra time, extra learning, not only for the designer but also the factory as they learn how to build shoes out of these new materials, and using that material in new places. On the upper it’s something that they weren’t really experienced with. They’ve done shanks and things like that before but having it applied to wings and counters in the upper was something that was really new to them. And so hopefully we all kind of grew from it. It’ll trickle down into some of our other models in the future is how we use it, how and what materials we can use, what benefits can be derived from these real space age composites that are now becoming available to us.
You talk about that AMG and you talk about that basic car, right? Those are kind of developed at the same time. So during the beginning of the design process for the LeBron 9 or the Hyperdunk or the Kobe VII, were you thinking about the “Elite” version? Or was it like, ok, we have the regular shoe done now, how do we up the ante on the Elite?
Petrie: With the LeBron, and Leo can answer about the other shoes, but it was part of the same process. As our team started on the LeBron 9, we knew there’s going to be a P.S. because that’s something we’ve done with the LeBron VII and LeBron 8, and we know LeBron’s mindset changes going into that part of the season so he’s going to want a different shoe. It was Soldiers in the past, then we started doing the P.S. And so, yeah, that was kind of the fun part. Like you almost have this dream, concept car out in front — and the LeBron 9 was ahead of it just on the design side based on footwear proportions, and you obviously know how that kind of stuff works. But, we got ahead of it, we actually started the P.S. early to where it was being developed alongside the LeBron 9. So as we were working out problems with the 9, we could avoid them in the P.S., or amp up this thing here or there and kind of play the two off of each other in the end. So they were definitely done in mind, the story of what would happen with the P.S. was certainly in my mind as soon as the LeBron 9 got kicked off. Once we kind of had that thing rolling, it was like ok, so now what is the P.S. going to do with this? What is LeBron’s mindset going to be? What’s he going to want out of this? What are we going to try to do to solve problems for him based on his feedback that he was giving us from wearing the 9 and just where his head was at in general? So they were definitely developed together and with each other in mind.
Chang: With the other two products, I didn’t design the Kobe but I kind of did the Elite version of it. It’s funny because the three products were all started – well, the Elite series were all done at the same time essentially but because the original shoes were launched at different seasons, they ended up being different phases. So on the Hyperdunk, I was actually done with the shoe and I came back to revisit it as an Elite thing. At the time, I didn’t even have that Elite thing in mind when I was designing the inline one. With the Kobe, it was right in the middle of the process of when Avar was working on it and then this whole Elite thing came up. Then it was kind of like a moving target a little bit just based on how that shoe was developing. And with the LeBron, it was the beginning of the process. So it’s kind of funny, you get the beginning, middle, and the end of their product cycles. There were different ways to approach it.
With the Hyperdunk, that was fun because I got to hear and see lots of feedback from real athletes and consumers who’ve worn it and just been able to actually step back from the product and say, alright, well now if I revisit it, what could I do different this time? What could I have done better with the addition of more money to play with that I could have put into it? So that was a really cool experience to do that. And with the Kobe VII, it’s a spring shoe and this is a summer launch of the Elite so it’s only really a season off still, it’s really evolution. And we used the modularity of the Kobe System as a benefit to this Elite thing because you could then switch out tooling and all that stuff. It was pretty fun and interesting because there were different phases to the process.
Did the Hyperdunk change a lot? Aesthetically it doesn’t look that different, could you speak to what evolved?
Chang: Yeah, it’s funny because the silhouette is about the same, right? The tooling, the midsole, and the outsole are the same. But I completely reengineered the upper from inside out, from the bootie, going to a Pro Combat tongue right underneath the laces, to thinner mesh along the wings of the bootie and to be able to feel that with the skin on the edges so it’s nice and tight and thin. From the Flywire package, now that we’re using the Kevlar thread, the thread has 1 to 2 percent stretch versus our conventional nylon thread which is about 20 to 30 percent stretch. So that actually allowed me to cut the layers of the composite upper in half. On the inline version, it had four layers: a mesh lining, a hot melt that we applied the Flywire to, a mesh outer, and then skin protecting the areas of the mesh that are susceptible to abrasion. So taking that and being able to cut that in half was pretty crazy. We basically have a lining that we embroider onto, skin on the outside, and then we come back in and actually cut the bobbin thread off the backside of the Flywire because Kevlar is so strong that you don’t necessarily need the bobbin thread. And we actually added more Flywire cables to disperse the pressure a little bit more easily across the foot, but in terms of backside bobbin thread we didn’t necessarily need that because Kevlar is so strong.
Even just reengineering the eyestay, reinforcing how that was done, having little islands of synthetic skin around just the holes by themselves and stripping away everything else you didn’t really need was kind of something that a lot of people may not appreciate because they don’t see it outwardly, it’s really from inside out, but it’s a completely new upper package and so the benefit from that is we cut the layers in half and actually made the material a little more supple and more dynamic so that when the foot flexes in that front, forefoot toe area, nothing is digging in, and just based on anyone’s foot anatomy that material that stretches between the cables really allows it to kind of conform but with the lockdown of the cables it doesn’t allow you to roll over, you know what I mean?
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.
Chang: So yeah, that kind of stuff was all put into that and it might have been subtle but it’s a different package altogether. Then there’s the heel counter which you can tell is obviously a carbon fiber counter versus the TPU version and there’s amazing fit benefits to that. On the Hyperdunk, we actually added some sticky print graphic on the Achilles area too just so that in the heel it provided a little more grip so that the heel wasn’t slipping in and out as much as well. Across the whole Elite collection too, if you look at all the sockliners, they all have this sticky print graphic that we applied to this top cloth of the sockliner so that it reduces internal movement. Again, when you talk about lockdown fit, it starts from the inside out.
It definitely does.
Chang: With the Kobe VII Elite, again, the TPU counter turns into carbon fiber. Then you’ve got the Kurem pattern, this cast urethane pattern on the outer that we said, hey, let’s even reengineer that one. Opening up new tooling on that is an expensive thing to do for the limited pairs that we actually are releasing of this of 10,000 to 15,000. So we kind of went back to the Mamba notion of it’s Playoff time and it’s time to bring the Mamba back out and be more aggressive and deadly. We obviously did the Mamba on the Kobe VI, and I didn’t want to re-do that in the same way. The VI was cool but it was very organic and fluid, kind of more like pebbles, right?
Chang: So I wanted this one to be really precise and engineered so that when you actually look at it it’s a lot more condensed and tighter spaced in the areas of the shoe that you need more support like in the forefoot area, around the metatarsal head. As you get across the vamp in that flex area, we actually spread those scales apart so that they were more flexible. So really using basketball specific needs and applying that to this – somebody would think it’s just a graphic, but we’re making that graphic really functional. And then the other topper on that was just with this cast urethane process you can get really conventional with it and so with every scale being really sharp now, I was like let’s just make it even feel a little bit more deadly and even each scale kind of perks up in the back so it definitely looks like snakeskin where you can feel it and it has some bite to it which you can do with Kurem or the cast urethane which is cool.
That is really cool. Were you basically just sitting in (Adobe) Illustrator moving each one of those scales around or how were you doing that?
Chang: Yeah, there was some fine tuning of each of those for sure in Illustrator and just cross-sections making sure that even on the medial side – a lot of people might scuff their heels or bring the medial sides together or hit their ankles a bit so I wanted to make sure it wasn’t sticking up as much in the medial area so that you don’t cut your ankles or something. You want it to cut other people, you don’t want it to cut yourself you know? [Laughs]. Well, not literally – you know what I mean.
[Laughs]. Yeah, I know what you mean.
Chang: We also took the modularity thing with the Kobe System of being able to swap in and out midsoles and took advantage of that and said, alright well it’s Playoff time so let’s make sure he’s as quick and responsive as he can be and let’s go with the full-length Zoom midsole in that one. So there was an upgrade in terms of cushioning and responsiveness. You know for us, like me and Jason – I’m doing a lot of talking here, sorry J – he’s probably not even on the phone anymore, he’s probably in the bathroom or something.
Chang: But across the board we weren’t just looking at making these products uber-lightweight. It was about lightweight but also maintaining cushioning, stability, protection, fit, like a dynamic fit – all that stuff was really important to us and not just scraping every ounce out of it.
I think that’s a good point. Obviously lightweight has dominated the footwear industry in all categories for the past like five to seven years, right? And for me it’s like, you do lightweight when it’s necessary. There’s a point in having the lightest product, that’s fine, I don’t really feel like that’s that hard of a goal to achieve – it’s doing it properly and still having the performance elements that need to be there and still being lightweight is a success, if that makes sense. And I feel like you guys have accomplished that, you know? So that’s very respectable.
Chang: Absolutely, yeah.
How much of these findings and the work that went into these three Elite shoes in particular is going to have kind of a trickle down effect? You guys have spent a lot of money on three shoes here. Do these findings and these learnings go mainstream on say the next coming line of shoes? Obviously I’ve seen the new Hyperdunk for the Olympic collection, it doesn’t look like it has as much, but how does all this affect the product line from here on out?
Petrie: I guess the most direct answer is we don’t know specifically how it will play out but we took a ton of learning away from it and a lot of knowledge of composites. I think there was a lot of learning on the production side as well. We’re having a great time just experimenting with new composites and finding really new solutions to these tried and true problems that basketball players have. So whether it’s carbon fiber or it’s carbon glass or a wing made of a totally different composite that we don’t even know yet, or it’s Pro Combat that evolves into a different form or location based on what we did with these shoes – I think all of those are certainly informing us now as we’re building projects for the future. I really love that concept car notion because that’s what it felt like building it, you know being told as a designer: “The shackles are off, there’s literally no price point, go crazy.” I don’t know how many times you’ve heard that in your design career but that would be the one and only time I’ve ever heard it. [Laughs].
Yeah, I’ve heard it zero. [Laughs].
Petrie: It was very freeing, as you can imagine. And that I think these are materials and processes that we have right now, but freeing the shackles and allowing you to look into other industries. You know, it could be titanium, it could be…graphene. Who knows what it’ll be as we go forward. It’s just kind of like starting to think outside of the box a little bit more and being allowed to go grab things outside of the box that you normally wouldn’t have in your normal toolbox of materials and processes and stuff because you know you’ll design whatever it is cost, time, yada, yada, yada.
Chang: And I think with that too is the shackles are off, but then it’s up to the designers also to show a little bit of restraint too, not just literally throwing the whole entire kitchen sink in there with the door and the fridge and everthing. There’s a point of just finding the right balance of what’s really appropriate for the performance of the shoe. You look at the P.S. – you look at all these shoes – you can tell why they’re there. The materials are there for this purpose.
It definitely has a holistic read to it, it’s not just “hey, I got a chance to use carbon fiber so I put it everywhere.”
Was that in itself probably the greatest challenge of the project, was that you had no shackles? Sometimes for me, as designers we definitely want to say “I don’t like limitations” but having just like 15 to 20 percent limitations is sometimes helpful where it’s like you know what you’re trying to solve. So was that a challenge at all not having any limitations?
Petrie: You know kind of the hardest thing to do sometimes is edit down. We worked as a team to make sure we stayed on each other because we do feel a responsibility to make sure that these are still accessible to most people. So yeah – I mean, we knew we didn’t want to do a whole carbon fiber shoe it just doesn’t make sense – but to be honest with you, if we would have built the LeBron P.S. the way my kind of initial stuff started coming back it probably would have been $300-350 not because we had carbon fiber everywhere but it was more like a little more Zoom over the Max and I just kind of went way out. But then as we started getting shoes back and realized, hey, we probably don’t need that, we can combine these two things, or we’re not getting any added benefits of this design so why put it in there and charge people for it, you know what I mean? It wasn’t just to use a technology just to say you used it if it didn’t really provide any extra benefits. We’re validating everything we do all along the way whether it be through testing or talking to the athlete or just talking to kids and they can help you get an answer with that challenge very easily.
Chang: When we started the process it was a lot of great ideas and filtering it down to the great ones. Across the board we also have some things that tied them all together like the Kevlar laces, the sockliner with the graphic on it, the sticky print on there, the carbon counters – all these things holistically brought everything together too because they applied to everything. It wasn’t just appropriate for one shoe. It was like these are great things that we can do on more than that. So that was kind of a great moment where we started editing down like “these are the ones that we can keep, these are the ones that we can just put on the LeBron P.S., and we can make them different but then have some tying threads, you know?
That makes sense. How have the players responded to it. Has there been a noticeable difference in them and how they feel about legit carbon fiber being on the side and have they noticed a different fit and feel?
Petrie: LeBron has been like it’s his best shoe yet as far as performance goes and the feedback from him has just been phenomenal. He hasn’t broken it down like all the carbon fiber wings is what’s doing it, but all he knows is it fits great, it feels great, it performs great, it looks great, and it represents him on that big stage. You know, I’ve been excited about the shoe but seeing him see the iterations – and he was excited at first – but by the time we showed him that final one it was all “woooo!” and “shit!” and all those responses that you want to get from your guy, so that’s the greatest reward.
Chang: With the Hyperdunk, obviously it’s not a signature shoe, but it’s a shoe that’s really versatile that a lot of players of all shapes and sizes and positions wear so we went through our regular wear test program to get the best durability test and feedback on those and the thing we got out of that was 80-90 percent of the players who wore them were like “these are phenomenal, these are amazing, the fit is incredible, lockdown is great,” and some of them were like “can we buy these right now?” off our own feet. That was like a really great kind of feedback that we got out of the Hyperdunk was just how much they loved it and they didn’t want to give them back. That was some of the earlier or middle of the process kind of sample that we were learning about at the time. They weren’t even the finished sample and to have that kind of feedback that early was just this resounding, positive thing about just how much they loved it was awesome to hear. That definitely was cool.
Was it the usual 18 month design to production process on this? A little shorter, a little longer?
Chang: Like I said earlier with the different seasons of each of the regular shoes it’s a little bit different for each. With the LeBron, that probably had the most time to execute because J started from the get-go. The Kobe was moving along the process with the regular inline one so that one probably didn’t have as much at the time but again, it’s a season out and so we were taking advantage of the ability to swap in and out components with the modular system, so it was really shortened but we knew we could pull it off. It was different timelines for each.
Petrie: We actually started the 9 P.S. slightly after we started the 9 which was literally right after “The Decision” a little bit later that summer so it’s almost been two years now that we’ve been working on it. You know 18 months is the standard and we got a couple of months jump on that just because we knew we needed a little bit of extra time to work with the carbon and test it the right way and all that. It’s a luxury that we don’t always have but it was nice to have it for these, or for that particular project.