Brett Golliff interviews Tinker Hatfield, Part 1.
“Take it to the moon, take it to the stars….”
Simply put, Brett Golliff the designer does not exist without Tinker Hatfield. I am from a small town in Indiana that has very little exposure to the design world. Growing up I was the kid obsessed with Hip-Hop and Jordan’s in a town full of Country music and work boots. In seventh grade we were asked to decide what we want to do when we grow up. Without hesitation I said I wanted to design shoes. My guidance counselors kindly informed me that this was not a career. Me being the persistent and argumentative young man that I was (and am), I didn’t believe a word they were saying. This led me down a path of finding out who created the shoes I loved so dearly, which in turn led me to Tinker Hatfield. I presented his work to them. At that time, I showed them Tinker’s process for the Air Jordan IX, XI and XIII. They took note.
I spent the rest of my pre-college years preparing for design school. I took over 20 high school art classes and formed a very tight relationship with my teacher. She probably knows as much about Tinker as the average shoe head because every time we were asked to do research on an artist and present it to the class, I chose Tinker while everyone else chose Da Vinci. To me Tinker was better then Da Vinci, he created products that came from deep inside his mind and made them accessible to the masses.
Three months ago I was informed that Tinker was a fan of this very series and had read the piece that I wrote breaking down the creative process of the Air Jordan XI. This news completely turned my world upside down. I could not believe that the man that had and still inspires me to this day actually read something that I had created. I jokingly told CounterKicks Editor-in-Chief John Brilliant that I needed an interview with him, thinking I would be lucky to get it this year because Tinker is a busy man. Two weeks after that comment I received an email from Tinker’s personal assistant setting up what would become one of the most meaningful hours of my life.
I had a month to prepare for this conversation, but truth be told I had been preparing since the seventh grade. I have been writing questions down for years that I would ask him if I ever got the chance. So I went through my trusty moleskin and picked the most powerful ones, the questions that I felt had never been asked. I was given a half hour to speak with him and I was lucky enough to get a full hour. I can’t thank him enough; he seriously made a dream come true.
I broke my interview with Tinker into three parts. This is part one.
The first question is, what projects have given you the most satisfaction?
That’s a good question, actually that’s not a question that many people ask. I have a definite penchant for liking projects that are controversial. Projects that people don’t necessarily always believe in but you kind of prove them wrong, so from a footwear perspective that happens fairly often because there are all kinds of business people or merchandise people or marketing people that are risk adverse, as you know.
A perfect example of a project that was really fun for me was a project when Michael retired. I was working on the Air Jordan X when he retired and it was kind of easy to go ahead and finish that but everybody at Nike said we’re done. We are done with Jordan, he’s retired. I never believed that he was truly retired, I just thought that he really just needed a break and so my personal belief was that he was going to come back. But really even if he was going to stay retired I felt like his brand image, his legacy, if you will, was strong enough that we could continue to develop products with his mark on it and with his philosophy.
So the Jordan XI, which you wrote about; that one is one of my favorite projects because not only did it turn out well but it was done under a cloud of negativity from my own company. They didn’t want me working on it. They didn’t think they could ever sell Jordan’s when he was retired. I just really was spurred on to prove them wrong and certainly that is what happened. So I love that project.
That’s funny, because you look at it now with Jordan Brand being the number two-shoe company, or biggest market share basketball shoe company in the world. And you could say that Michael played basketball in ’01 but the reality is he didn’t play the basketball that everybody knows him as since 1998, right?
Yeah, that’s about right. Yeah, it’s been awhile.
That’s awesome that you had that belief. I guess I come from a different world than most people that have probably interviewed you. Not to credit myself but I’ve dealt with marketing and other aspects like that. Those battles had to have been crazy challenging. I know what it is like dealing with Foot Locker and trying to get a colorway in, let alone trying to get somebody or an entire company to approve a signature shoe of a man that is not actively playing their sport anymore. I can’t imagine what those conversations were like.
It was knockdown drag-out and you know I was fortunate to have been born with kind of an aggressive personality and so it wasn’t difficult for me to fight for things. I was also really fortunate though that people at Nike, even though they were completely against the project, ultimately they acquiesce and I kind of won out. I think it was partly because some people sort of remember some of the previous successful projects and in the end gave me the benefit of the doubt. But even having the project green lighted and then fighting through the picks along the way, there was still the potential that it might not do well on the marketplace or whatever and it was just completely the opposite. It was probably the most successful, more feverish kinds of product introductions that we’ve had.
I remember, not to trail down that lane so much, but I was in fifth grade when that thing came out, and that was the first shoe that – I’m from Angola, IN so that’s a town of about 10,000 people on a good day – I’ll never forget when there was five people on my fifth grade basketball team that had that shoe the weekend it came out. It was just crazy!
Oh yeah. That was fun. Michael himself was involved all along the way but admittedly he wasn’t sure either because he wasn’t playing.
We were both really, I would say neither of us were surprised but we were really pleased that the whole thing just kept rolling. Then when he unretired, that shoe played apart in his next championship so everything couldn’t have worked out better.
That leads me to my next question: Is it dissatisfaction in projects that drives you or is it simply the need to create a vision you have?
I think it is the latter. I really run into designers all the time that are super, uber highly critical of other work or just work in general you know because you have to be judgmental to be a designer to try to find new and better ways to do things. Having said that, I’ve never really been one that turns my nose up at a lot of work. I mean I appreciate what people do, so I have never really thought about it that way, it’s been more just like I am not going to pay that much attention to other things, positive or negative, I just have something to do here and I have something to work on and I am just going to do the best that I can. I’ve always felt confident in my ability to communicate with athletes because I was one myself. It’s been more about visioning and then strategizing on the execution of a vision and then of course the actual execution. That’s been my M.O. and I am actually kind of proud of that because it’s kind of been a more positive approach.
Well I guess that leads me to another question that’s similar to it: Do you design for one or do you design for all? What I mean by that is, obviously you have worked for athletes and the product is being as a problem solver for Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr. or whoever the athlete may be, but the reality is that it is being bought by millions of consumers. So how does that kind of translate?
Most people know me, I think you know, or if sneaker collectors know me at all or athletes, they know me as kind of this Jordan shoe designer and certainly that over time has been a very specific design project with Michael in mind. So you definitely can say that’s a design with a real focused effort to satisfy his needs and wants and in the process move the whole trend needle forward so to speak. I think there is some truth in that statement in designing for one there. People maybe don’t realize that I have designed innumerable running shoes and training shoes. From Huarache type stuff that’s more innovative, to things like a Pegasus back in the day which was more evolutionary.
One of my favorite projects is the Oscillate Tennis shoe, which Pete Sampras wore. That was designed with the Stanford Tennis Team, not with Pete Sampras. Sampras really didn’t like to be involved in change, he was just the opposite of Michael Jordan. He was a great tennis player and good guy and all that stuff but in order to design that shoe I had to go down and work with the Stanford Tennis Team. For me that project and some of the other projects that I have worked on have been actually trying to design for many and thinking about how a broader stroke of criteria and a wider, broader list of boxes that you need to check to try to appeal to a broader audience, both visually but also functionally. I think I do both, I think I have done both and I think they are both interesting. There seems to be more visibility around those unique individual characters like a Kobe Bryant or a Michael Jordan or somebody like that. For me, I’ll take on any kind of project with or without a specific person in mind.
Brett Golliff is a Lead Designer at General Motors and former Designer at New Balance.