In Part 1 of 2 in a major exclusive interview, Counter Kicks talks with the man behind Baron Davis‘ new signature shoes: Eric Miller, Senior Designer at Li-Ning. Miller shares with us the complete design story behind the BD Doom shoe and takes us behind one of the most creative and iconic footwear logos in recent memory: the Beardman. Continue reading for the global unveiling of the Li-Ning BD Doom…
*UPDATE: Win Baron’s kicks RIGHT NOW! MUST FOLLOW THESE INSTRUCTIONS: SLAM x Counter Kicks x Li-Ning BD Doom Sneaker Contest Giveaway
Counter Kicks: Introduce yourself to our readers on your background and how you got into the footwear industry.
Eric Miller: I grew up in New York and went to Syracuse University for Industrial Design. I knew I wanted to do design and knew I wanted to do product and sports specific design. Didn’t consider footwear specifically. I mean, I always kind of wanted to do footwear but was thinking more maybe on the equipment side, possibly snowboarding or skate, so I was thinking of honing it in there. And then as I went on – I’ve always been just a straight sneaker freak – so as I was finishing up school, I was just honing in on footwear and footwear companies, footwear projects, sports specific research, investigating the biomechanics of the foot, and then finally did my thesis on a pretty cool sport equipment project.
From there I graduated and got my first job with Converse in Boston. So I flew out to Boston, moved there, and then I was doing Lifestyle product for them. I had a few offers on the table out of college but I went with Converse. I figured it was a good kind of opportunity in terms of what you would be able to learn in terms of going somewhere that had a very in-depth infrastructure or system that you know you would have to essentially fit into rather than just do your thing and do something fun. So, I went to Converse and then Nike bought Converse 4 or 5 months later after I started working there and they switched me over to hoops design once they realized I was kind of a basketball head and a lot of my designs were more performance based. I did a few different things with some of our new athletes there at that point in time. Then, you know, since Nike had purchased us it was probably 6-8 months into the ownership of Nike when Bruce Kilgore and a few of the big shots out at Nike flew out and invited just two of us to move out to the Nike Campus and learn from their basketball greats. We sat in the Innovation Kitchen and just soaked it up for a couple months. It was myself and Duane Lawrence, the Converse Dwyane Wade designer. I was actually one of the guys that pulled Duane after he was done with college into Converse and we’ve been best friends since. He was one of my best men in my wedding.
So, the two of us were invited to go up to the Innovation Kitchen at Nike and we sat there for about six months. The deal was originally to go up there for 3-6 months and return to Boston being a little bit more versed on Basketball and performance needs, techniques, shoemaking, and stuff like that. Eventually, the shoes we were working on kind of all just clicked. Everything we were working on came together, so we ended up staying out at Nike and worked in the Kitchen on the Dwyane Wade products and all of Converse’s other athletes at that point in time. We stayed out on Nike Campus on the same Converse gig and just built a team around us there between marketing and developers. There were some guys on our team that were based out of Boston and we hired a few guys from Nike and kind of put together a cool thing.
That became a few years. And then things were just starting to break down. Converse has always been kind of wack in general. Their program is not really together so I think you could give them a gem and they’d never even really figure it out. All they want to do is make money off the Chuck Taylor pretty much. So I ended up breaking out of Converse and then I came to Li-Ning. I was already based out of Portland here and I had heard good things about the Creative Director that they hired. His name is Alan Hardy and he’s a senior veteran from Nike and he’s awesome. I realized at Nike and at Converse I wasn’t really learning anything for a while, so I broke out. Alan hired me and I started working for Li-Ning about a little over a year and a half ago.
I was the first design hire. It was something new, and I knew it was a risk and not much was proven. But I knew, again, the upside of it would be that if we do it and we do it right and have fun with it, the upside might pay off into something a little bigger than any of us. So that’s what I did. And we pulled Duane Lawrence over little less than a year ago now and he’s been doing some awesome stuff for us. Li-Ning is about 3,000 people company-wide. Obviously most of them are based out of Beijing, China, and they already have designers over there and design talent and a huge product team. So we pulled over a few of the little bit more advanced thinkers and stronger design-language type guys.
We got a guy named “Machine” from there that’s doing our Hoops stuff. So it’s the three of us all kind of coming together and connecting different pieces of the puzzle over the last year and a half it’s all been starting to culminate into cool product now. It’s just the start of something different and the start of something the market might be looking for so that’s kind of where we’re at.
CK: Talk about the Li-Ning brand and company.
Miller: It was started in the early ‘90s by Li Ning himself who was a super successful gymnast which, over in China, it’s like the number one sport, people freak out over it there. He’s pretty much recognized as someone similar to a Michael Jordan-type level national celebrity over in China. He’s a very successful businessman with a bunch of different ventures including Li-Ning the brand. I’ve actually never met him so I can’t speak to anything specifically, but I heard he’s super mellow, super cool and all about the sport and providing equipment for everyday Chinese consumers and we’re now trying to spread that Internationally. We’ve been very successful in China for the last 15+ years and are growing ridiculously now. Our growth is pretty exponential within domestic China so that’s why they setup our office here and that’s pretty much our marching orders right now – to grow the brand in the U.S.
Our Portland office is called the G.I.C. – the Global Innovation Center for Li-Ning. The office started at the beginning of 2008 and we do a lot of different categories – Running, Basketball, Soccer, Badminton, and a whole lot of Chinese favored lines like Ping-Pong, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and martial arts based shoes which is real legit coming from a Chinese brand. Our goal for any product is if it hooks up with an athlete, we’re on it, and if it’s an athlete-sponsored technology or shoe line, such as Baron Davis, we collaboratively work with that athlete and get what they need into their product from a performance level. And then someone like BD of course is a little bit more inspirational. He’s got a crazy charisma and personality on him so we have fun with that and kind of let that live in the products, or try to at least.
Our other main goal we’re charged with in any project is just take everything you don’t need out of a shoe – get the shoe as close to the athlete and closer to the athlete’s goal. You know, strip everything away that’s obviously not needed and just make some statement level performance pieces that actually work and aren’t just about fashion or aren’t just about that year’s fad shoe. We want to make some technologies that we can play with that goes across categories, or elsewhere technologies that might work better for a certain category over others. We just want to step up the quality of design and the quality of footwear overall as a kind of benchmark, so that’s kind of what our Portland office is based on.
CK: Li-Ning is primarily a performance-oriented company, correct?
Miller: Definitely, yeah. Pretty much any line, any shoe lace, anything we draw we’re charged with proving it as a performance enhancer. Even if it’s something as small as the lace tips like aglets. We need to make sure it’s performance based and it’s going to live within the world of sport, whatever sport it is. We want to make sure our products enhance an athlete’s experience wearing our brand of shoes.
Baron Davis is obviously super cool with that. He kind of charges us with making sure his shoes are really going to work for him. This season, he’s wearing the “BD Doom” and athletes like him are so finely tuned that they know what they’re going to be working on next year. So when we were working on the BD Doom – this was in pre-season for the current NBA season – Baron was telling us: “Next year I’m going to be getting real low and making a lot of really quick cuts that’s going to require a good base underfoot and a good cushioning system underfoot and good traction wrapped up all around my shoe so any quick direction I make, I’m not going to be slipping. I want a solid stability base in my footwear and be able to make my basketball moves that much more responsively.”
So he elaborated on that and we had kind of a brainstorm but that’s pretty much what led into the tooling of the Doom. You know, anything we do is always going to be tied to performance, but it’s kind of like the gauge sometimes too. If true performance is 100 percent, like, does every product get to 100 percent or do some hit 90, some hit 95, some hit 85 – so it just depends what specific thing we’re going after for a specific project. So, everything gets up to 100 percent or close-to, and it just depends on the goals for that project.
CK: How long ago did you start working with Baron on shoes?
Miller: I met with Baron in the summer of 2008. It was probably around July or August of ’08. I hadn’t drawn a single thing for him yet. I didn’t even know him well on a personal level or anything. So, I flew down to Los Angeles and we got a car and drove all over L.A. We hit up some stores that he liked, talked about fashion, got lunch, and just talked about style and what inspires him to perform a certain way, and what inspires him on-and-off court to be the kind of character he is. And, you know, just seeing what he’s wearing – what shoes, what sunglasses, what kind of music he’s listening to – I just asked him everything. He told me what cars he liked, what brands he thought were on the up in the fashion world and how that might translate well into certain details on the shoes.
Baron is obviously really into anything retro, including his beard, so playing off that we came up with a lot of the retro detailing on the shoe. We came up with his logo just being kind of the classic, straight-on, almost cartoon figure of him. I checked in with him on road games last season, showed him sketches, and he’s real creative. I’ve worked with a bunch of guys that don’t really give you much feedback or give you anything to go off of. You’re just kind of shooting in the dark sometimes. But with Baron, he’s really into his line and what his name will mean on product and he really likes to affect it. And he’s got a good sense of style, too, so that helps a lot. You know, I could show him something really sloppy, like a sketch that I drew on an airplane, or I could show him something really refined like a nice clean rendering and he’s going to be able to respond to either, no problem. So that’s a really awesome detail to our work relationship. I talked about us going to stores before, so we went to a bunch of sneaker spots all around L.A., mainstream stores, skate shops, I’ve met up with him at his high school one time, so pretty much every sense of him that I can absorb and build on knowing his character and turning that into his footwear and his footwear details and help sell that story. Hopefully, once the Dooms officially launch here in the U.S., people will really be able to understand like, “Hey, this is the BD shoe. This isn’t going to be confused with anybody else and this isn’t going to be confused with any other brand or sponsored athlete.” It’s just going to live as its own, and that’s kind of what the goal was behind the BD Doom – to just create Baron’s first, kind of simple, classic signature shoe in a line of however many we go with. We’re going to give him a new signature shoe each year, or maybe a few, and we’re just going to build a little bit of love around him.
Baron’s a huge asset to our brand. The dude knows everybody in sports, stateside and International. Not just hoops. He’s about as International as you can get from an American/Los Angeles perspective. He knows athletes, musicians, you name it. And obviously on court, like the way he played against the Celtics at the end of December hitting the game winner for the Clippers in Los Angeles, and that being where he’s from, where he played high school, where he played college. He’s a southern California, L.A.-type of dude playing in a major market city, so he’s a huge asset in that way for us to be able to lean on him and have him wear our footwear. So from our perspective, we just try to keep him happy in terms of athlete relations. And at the same time, create product that’s really going to affect the marketplace in a positive way for us and just bringing something new, something different to the whole basketball shoe game.
CK: Beyond the retro styling for the BD Doom, was there anything else in particular that you were inspired by, or something Baron asked for on his shoe?
Miller: Yeah. Obviously the BD Doom is going to be his intro and debut signature model so we wanted to make it kind of an instant classic. Keep it super simple and have cool, contemporary details for the filter that it goes through but overall keep it simple and iconic. Something that 5-10 years from now might still be cool and nothing that really relies on 2009 to make it cool.
Baron had given us some inspiration on the tooling [midsole/outsole configuration of a shoe] early on that really helped us kind of nail specifically what we wanted to do with the bottom unit. Like I said before, he told us he’s going to be making a lot of quick, stop-on-a-dime movements that he hadn’t really been making in his career and that he was going to really step that up in terms of the power he needs in his feet to the court. He said he needed better traction than any Reebok shoe he’s ever worn.
So what we did with the tooling here is we kept it super simple. There’s not even a single color pop on it. We made it all traction, all herringbone, and it’s pretty much similar to some of the old school cup-soles you saw from Nike, adidas, or Converse back in the day. And then we gave it a good radius all the way around, especially on the heel, and on the lateral and medial forefoot. We gave it a good, generous radius and pulled the rubber up where it normally would have just stuck out. Most rubber on a basketball shoe is about 4-4 1/2 millimeters thick. This one we pulled it up and it’s probably around 8 or 9 millimeters thick but it’s cored out from behind like on the flex grooves on the bottom. It’s not all solid rubber, so when you look at it from an exploded view, the bottom view of the rubber kind of almost Lego-fits into the bottom nest of the foam midsole. And so we got more out of the rubber that we’re molding by wrapping it up around those corners, especially in the heel, toe, and forefoot but the shoe didn’t get the weight of it. So this was a solution that met both worlds and it was kind of like a hybrid. We watched a bunch of high-speed video throughout the process and looked at it on a normal stride and on a normal cut and the heel on any brand’s shoe just completely deforms and crumples on itself. So in that respect, we wanted to give the shoe the support that it needed but also the traction wrapped all the way up. Baron hit us back a bunch of times saying he loves all the rubber in the heel and the heel technology story. And it’s super simple, but it’s just about pulling the rubber up so that on any extreme angle of impact, he’s got protection and complete connection to the court.
Underfoot, we’ve got the TPU plate running through to cradle his heel and make sure he’s not going to get any kind of foot injury. We want to keep his foot nice and rigid in the heel so we don’t get any type of foot deformation or anything like that. So, that was the goal for the tooling. It’s super simple. The inspiration came from Baron himself on what he wanted, what he needed, and what he predicted he’ll need this season so I thought that was pretty cool. As a designer, sometimes you sit down and go, “what the hell does this person need?” but Baron already told us, so it was cool.
In terms of the materials, Baron likes a lot of nubuck leathers and full-grain nubucks, something super posh – that’s why we put that on a lot of the toes of the Doom colorways. And you know, he’s a flashy dude, he likes being in the limelight. He likes the way he’s announced with all the fluorescent lights and spotlights and glitter, so anything shiny he likes. That’s stuff he told us, so we put patent leather on the shoe and obviously that’s trending right now so it’s kind of a perfect need and what we want to give him kind of scenario. A lot of the overlays have a little bit of shine to them, all the way up to extreme shine, depending on the colorway. And that kind of gives it a good balance of material.
Then we have the 3M reflective dots on the upper. We really wanted to have like a next level type of detail that is still keeping in the tradition of what our goal was for the shoe and still keep things super simple. We threw a couple different patterns on for the dots until we got this one that kind of just gave you some shine but kept it pretty subtle as well. If the lights not on it, it’s just more or less kind of a tonal detail, but once the light flashes on it whether it’s an NBA on-court camera that’s flashing or just something out on the street like a headlight coming by snapping a flash of light on you, your shoes light up real quick. It’s just kind of a cool, special detail that we thought was still in the super simple zone, but effective. And Baron loved it. He wanted us to make sure that the shoe would work well on the streets as well as on court. You know, off street signs have the reflective material and you see it popping up every so often in certain areas or accessories and apparel. Obviously it’s been on shoes before so it’s nothing innovative or new, but there’s certain messenger bags that are just covered in it so you know you get good visibility while you’re out on the streets. You’ve got New Era 59/50’s that are covered in 3M for visibility and fashion, so we thought it was a good detail to add to Baron’s shoes that met what he needed and again made it a little bit more special too. And obviously, the Clippers play at the Staples Center and if you’ve ever seen images of the top of the arena at night, they have these neon dots – like a dot matrix pattern that covers it – so the feature is kind of a foot on his home court and like all about being able to defend his home court and relate to his fans in his town. So that was a little bit of the tie-in as well on the dots.
CK: Tell us about the “Beardman” logo which is catching a lot of attention right now.
Miller: We worked with Baron on logos and came up with probably 30-35 different logos that were B’s and D’s intertwined, to using his nickname “Boom” or “B. Davis” or his jersey number and all of these different things that we worked in and they were all pretty cool and all related to him. And then I did one logo that was just kind of a crack-up in like a Wu-Tang style, Chinese, U.S. Hip Hop type of bearded character. It was just kind of a joke. So, we showed Baron about 35 logos and then one of the last ones he saw was actually the “Beardman” – or what turned out to be the Beardman. He liked a bunch of them and he wanted it to be a certain style but then when he saw that one, he was like, “That’s tight. That’s definitely one of my favorites. Let’s re-explore that one, refine it, and see where we end up. And eventually, we ended up with the Beardman logo that you see on the shoe.
You know, I almost didn’t even show Baron the logo. When you show an athlete something, you can’t just show them any random thing. With Baron, we put together these presentations that kind of cater to him but you don’t want to show anything stupid or whatnot. So I almost didn’t show him the Beardman and I think that’s kind of like evidence of why it turned out to be cool and kind of different. I hesitated on showing him and he saw it and instantly was like, “Yo, I NEED a t-shirt with that logo on it. Next time you see me, bring me a shirt!”
So I refined the logo and emailed him a bunch of them. Baron’s super easy to communicate with and I met up with him again wherever he was at the point in time and showed him the refinements, saw the ones he liked, and we just kind of decided to go with the Beardman. He was like, “You know what? First off, shoes are for kids. Kids are pretty much what fuel the system.” I think that gets lost a lot in footwear and at certain brands you kind of talk to yourself with your own language and your own technology and athlete stories. But at the end of the day, it’s pretty much kids buying shoes and wearing them on the street. So that’s kind of why Baron was saying I want THAT logo. It’s fun, it’s super cool, it’s super simple, and it’s just super him. It’s not just a monogram of “BD” or “Davis” or anything like that scripted. It’s something really specific to Baron. No other athlete could rock that logo and get away with it. And so he just really liked it and said this is fun, let’s make this a fun shoe.
CK: Any other details Baron asked for specifically on the BD Doom?
Miller: Yeah, I mentioned he’s a super retro dude. So when Baron saw the original laces, he just said it was too basic of a lace. He wanted something detailed that had a cool grain or lines. That’s where the lace and the heel tab or heel pulley webbing came from. Those were ideas that he had that directly influenced the shoe.
And going back to the original Beardman logo I had designed, there was a secondary logo on his headband that was just a “B”. It was a script letter B, for Baron. That was the original logo. Then I had another logo with a typeface that I had created and drawn that was kind of a hybrid look. It read in English but it looked like really ancient Chinese. It was kind of something specific to Li-Ning but kept in a really cool, modern detail. You can see that original logo script on the back of the Li-Ning Beardman t-shirts. It has the Chinese aesthetic, and then it’s also written vertical because all Chinese words, sentences, language and everything is written vertical. So it was just like all these different nods to the Chinese brand as it hybrids with this American NBA superstar that we’re using to help get into the U.S. and International markets. So, that was my initial logo proposal. Baron said, “I like it a lot, but I want something a little bit more Los Angeles, maybe L.A. Dodgers inspired or along those lines,” so that’s when we switched up the “BARON DAVIS” typeface that’s stacked on the back of the t-shirt to a more classic, bolder look which you can see on the inside tongue of the BD Doom shoe.
Unlike most athletes and endorsed guys, Baron’s really involved. So when you ask: “What did he affect?” It’s a lot. Our office is small right now so we can be kind of nimble. We can drop everything, hop on a plane, and meet Baron in Miami when he’s playing the Heat, or meet him in L.A. when he’s at home hosting somebody, or meet him here in Portland when he’s in town for the Trailblazers. We always keep our meetings super casual, like if you were to meet up with a friend. That’s why we always have fun, we’re always laughing and telling jokes, catching up. But, you know, eventually when it gets down to business and his shoes, we just kind of keep that spirit and fun personality and relationship going and let it live in the shoes too.
That same relationship goes for the rest of our office as well and that’s really different than a lot of brands which is something I love about Li-Ning. When you’re at Nike and you’re doing somebody’s shoe, you’re the only person that meets them, you’re the only person that touches them, the only person that can influence the shoe. And that’s fine if that’s the policy you want. But with our brand it’s really inspiring and unique to have this living relationship with everyone where someone will have an idea and it doesn’t really depend on who or where it came from if the idea works, or it makes the shoe better, or lighter, or perform better, or look better, or relates to Baron better. It’s just in. Our office is super casual compared to anywhere else that I’ve worked and that’s really a different factor from what I’ve experienced in footwear before.
[PART 2 OF OUR FINAL TWO-PART INTERVIEW WITH LI-NING DESIGNER ERIC MILLER COMING TUESDAY.]
Follow Counter Kicks on Twitter @CounterKicks for the latest Li-Ning and BD Doom updates.