The elite choose Kevlar, Flywire and Carbon Fiber to help provide them with the chance of writing their names in the rafters and etching their accomplishments out in gold. LeBron James did just that by earning himself his first NBA ring and first Finals MVP. He did it in an elite fashion by placing a tired, injured and overworked Heat 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 standpoint the Nike 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 Kobe VII System Elite (buy it at NikeStore now), the Nike Zoom Hyperdunk 2011 Elite (buy it at NikeStore now) and the championship winning Nike LeBron 9 PS Elite (buy it at NikeStore now!) with Nike Basketball designers Leo Chang and Jason Petrie.
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.