Q & A: Jason Petrie
The designer of the LeBron 8 talks sneakers with a room full of ‘heads.
by Chris O’Leary/@olearychris
As I mentioned in my post on the LeBron 8 media wear test that took place in Miami this weekend, we had a chance to talk sneakers with Jason Petrie. Petrie designed the LeBron 7 a year ago and was in charge of the LeBron 8 this year. The guy said he loves talking sneakers and he wasn’t lying. After a 20-minute presentation on the LeBron 8 and its evolution through the 2010-2011 season, he opened up the floor to us and we ended up talking for another 20 minutes about the design process, about what the summer of The Decision was like for him and he gave us some great insights on the making of the South Beach LeBron 8, among other things. If you’re a sneaker enthusiast, you’ll enjoy this.
Question: Are we to assume that the longevity of the air bag in this shoe is less than the v1 or v2?
Jason Petrie: Great question, but absolutely not. It’s engineered to be exactly as durable and all of those things. The shoe is going to be as durable as any of those shoes. What we’ve tried to do is get the weight out and carve away those things that were excess that (LeBron) didn’t need for those 28 games. Again, this is just all about LeBron and what he needs. So this is a pretty specific solution. The durability is there, the cushioning is there and it won’t fade after that. Maybe someone who isn’t LeBron’s weight might enjoy the shoe, like a regular guy who’s 150 to 180 pounds. You can kind of get a feel that’s a little better shoe for you. It might be a little better than the v1 or v2 was with the weight, but it’s just as good because it’ll last you all day long.
Question: You guys have used Zoom and Max Air a lot in the past. How does this compare to, or how much further along is it than say, a Penny IV?
JP: That’s a great point because we got really excited about this because I loved playing in all those Max/Zoom combos. With that new air bag, it’s vastly different than it was with the Penny because it has a lot more Air. With the full-length bag we’ve got about 80 percent more Air than the old full length bags (from the ’90s). It’s about the same with this new one. It extends wider and further out on the shoe. We call it a pork chop bag because of the shape. But what that does is again, when you come down and crash, there’s so much force going into the shoe right there, but it pulls that air forward so you can still feel it and then it gets out of the way before it gets to the Zoom in the forefoot. Those old bags, there’s a lot of PVU and foam there and that’s what allows to get more air out of (the current ones).
JP: That definitely happens. We get that with college guys a lot when we want to switch over to March Madness and everybody has superstitions and sometimes the coaches and trainers don’t like it. But the thing with LeBron, he’s always telling us to push him. Make him feel uncomfortable and that’s what I feel like we did. Giving him three shoes, this is the first time Nike’s done something like this. We’ve kind of experimented with something like this in the past but never to this level and never really talking to the athlete along the way. He knew it was coming, he expected it. The great thing about working with LeBron is that he trusts us and he knows we have his best interests at heart and all we want to do is build him the best performance product that we can for him.
We’ve been doing playoff shoes for him for a while. He came to us and we were talking about doing 82/28 for a few years now. He’s talked about, ‘How do we take my game shoe and evolve it into the post-season?’ We did (Nike Zoom) Soldiers for a while, which had a completely different design, but he had this notion of an AMG Mercedes. You go with the Benz, or you can go take it to AMG and they can take that Benz and take it out to here. It’s going to cost you some dough but you’re going to get some more horsepower, you’re going to get some more Italian leather, all that stuff. That’s a designer’s dream: how do you take what’s already an amazing shoe and how do you build on it and make it even more incredible?
The thing is, some of this stuff, it wasn’t even available when we started the V1. It’s such a long process. Hyperfuse for LeBron, it wasn’t even ready yet. We’re using technology when we start designing (a few years back). It’s also cool to see it come to life. I hope you guys enjoy the experience as much as I enjoyed designing it.
Question: When Nike has a new technology that they’re obviously pushing, like Hyperfuse, do they come to you and say they want to see Hyperfuse in a LeBron James shoe, or do you see the technology and want to incorporate it?
JP: It’s kind of both. Hyperfuse is something we’ve been working for going on four or five years now. This all started with a trip our team took to Asia to look at outdoor basketball in China, that’s kind of where Hyperfuse stemmed from. We’d been waiting to use it. At Nike when things come along like that, it’s usually something like Hyperfuse or Flywire. Usually it’s a premium price point because it’s a new technology and we’re developing it and so there’s a higher cost associated with that. But it’s also because it was probably developed with a certain athlete in mind. Flywire is built to lighten up shoes for athletes across the board, right? And it’s supposed to provide that strength. So that applies to everybody. Certainly we’ll take that into LeBron. The Hyperfuse wasn’t ready. We put it in the WBF (World Basketball Festival, last summer) because that was a more general shoe and we didn’t have a chance to test it for LeBron, to see if he was comfortable with it. But yes, they wanted it. Nike wanted to express and we at Nike Basketball wanted to express our best and newest and that’s how we stay ahead, is pushing the limits. I think now you’re starting to see people copy ‘Fuse and it hasn’t been out that long. We always have something in mind for our guys. Especially, Kobe, LeBron, Roger Federer, the guys who lead our brand.
JP: If they make it to that game, we have the tendency to do some special things for special moments, so I would imagine that you might see something like that, but at the same time, players are pretty serious business. We’re like the teammates, taking it one day at a time and listening to LeBron. We’ve had some conversations about it. We’ll see. We like to make noise and you know that. If they get there and that happens, we’ll look to do something special.
It’s funny what you said, because when this first started, it was conceived as four shoes and we whittled it down to three. There is a fourth shoe out there that nobody has seen and that nobody will see anytime soon unless you come hang out in my office. It’s a little different than what you’d expect. It was conceived as four quarters of a game. But after talking to LeBron, we decided we could do it in three shoes.
Question: You said you’d started working on it before LeBron had made his choice on Miami. Did you guys know ahead of time what he’d be doing?
JP: We didn’t know ahead of time, that’s for sure. I was watching that special and I was thinking, ‘Please don’t pick some place cold.’ He made the right choice, as far as I’m concerned. We were at his camp that week and you can imagine the rumors. It was Miami one day, Chicago one day. It was a rampant rumor that was going crazy. I actually left thinking he was going to Dallas. That’s how wrong I was. He totally fippped us.
The thing that’s totally cool and I need to ask LeBron about this, the day before he made the decision, he was wearing a pair of Miami Heat colored Penny 2s. I wonder if he was trying to throw us a little something as to what he was going to do? We were sitting on the side going, ‘Is he? What’s going on over there?’ I need to run that by him. I was surprised.
The shoe was red and black, in Cleveland, that’s waht we did for him (In Miami) as well. We did the shoe in colors of every team that had a chance of signing him, because we had to be ready for whatever came out. I dont think LeBron knew because literally nobody in our organization had a clue. Those kind of things we have to be prepared for and it was a scramble, but our color material team is world class and they got together with design and marketing and made some colors that were beautiful that I wish we could have brought out. But I guess it doesn’t make much sense to have a Cleveland colored LeBron out now. I don’t think there’d be too many people happy with that. We’re just glad he went red and black, it turned out right.
Question: Can you talk about some of the challenges of designing for someone like LeBron? Is there a balance that’s tough to achieve?
JP: Anytime you build a shoe at Nike, a performance shoe, it’s tough. There are so many rigors that the shoe goes under. It has to last. It’s a running shoe combined with a cross training shoe, combined with a wrestling shoe. It’s all of these different things and it has to work. Then you talk about someone like LeBron. The dude is really a beast. He really is enormous, right? He’s so strong and obviously there’s got to be durability and blowout concerns in the upper, right? We have to protect him. You come down with so much force with all of that body weight, obviously that’s going to take a toll on your knees and back over time. That comes into play.
Then you’ve got the athlete and their personality themselves that you have to balance with it. With Lebron, we came up with a credo and he came up with it. Lock me down so I can fly; protect me from myself and make me lighter. Protect me from myself, that’s what we have to do. He’s such a beasst, he could hurt himself because of the force that he exerts on a shoe. Lock me down make me fly, LeBron likes a shoe…he puts on Pro Combat and he likes to feel the heat of the pads. He used to play football so he likes to feel buttoned up and tight and protected and locked into his shoe.
We really want to focus on that lockdown and make me light. It’s not about making the most light shoe that you can. It’s about making it appropriately light for him. He likes it light, but you don’t want to be out there in a running shoe, because he needs a certain level of protection and confidence in that protection that it instills in him.
There are many challenges and you’ve got to go through many years of building the thing and that’s a whole other animal, but it’s a long, long process and an amazing challenge. To me, I love basketball, always have. Huge LeBron fan, huge Nike fan. It’s like a labor of love. I don’t look at it like we’re in the lab, mixing stuff together providing solutions for the world’s greatest athletes. It really goes by fast. Its an extremely fun challenge.
JP: It’s just a different benefit. With Flywire, it’s all about that lightweight kind of strength but in a different manner, using the cables. This, it’s also a composite as well.
Fuse is a different composite that allows you to do different things. You can work with breathability a lot more and you can work with support. Flywire, you can put a certain number of cables in a certain area but you can’t stack them on top of each other. With Fuse, you actually are able to stack things. What we do is take that flywire out. Fuse and Flywire right now don’t have much together. We’re still working on that.
(Switching out Flywire for Hyperfuse) we still have that strength in there, but because the Flywire won’t work with the system yet, it’s not in there. We feel like it’s just a different solution. We had flywire in the first two (LeBron 8s) and now that this one is ready it’s a chance for us to take a leap into a brand new technology. We had (Flywire) in the LeBron 7 and we’ll probably have Flywire again becuase it’s an amazing technology as well. To us, it’s about using the right thing at the right time.
Question: With the color and material teams working together, as a designer do you have stuff you’d like to see?
JP: They’re desingers as well. We play basketball together, we create all of these things as a design studio. It’s a team effort, for sure. With the first sketch of the shoe, I have a billion colors.
The South Beach (LeBron 8, V1) was how I wanted the shoe to be blocked. Eugene, our code designer, he took this notion of Miami Vice and all of that and brought in the teal. I added the pink and we’re off to the races.
The leather, this is one of those great chances of blind luck, the black pebbled leather on the eyestay, it was actually a mistake. That’s not what we asked for, but it came out so fresh, we were like that’s it. That’s what we want. Everybody kind of participates in making that come to life.
Entourage is a color that’s straight out of talking to LeBron. It’s sometiemes just done by design, but Eugene and Derrick and Gomez, that’s our CGN team, they inspire us. I’m more than happy to work with them and that’s now you come up with stuff like that. Without them, we wouldn’t ahve had a South Beach. As LeBron’s desinger I try and be invovled in everything that goes into his shoes.