Tea for Two


by Ben Taylor / @benitaylor

When not writing for SLAM, I have a job at an advertising agency in London. We are lucky enough to work with some incredible clients, and I am privileged to be able to spend my time working on projects that I’d happily do for free. But, two weeks ago I was given the opportunity to tick off a true, all-time career aspiration—to work on a project for Jordan Brand. Not only that, but I’d get to work on it with a couple of very special collaborators—legendary artist Dave White, and Jordan ambassador and Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony.

Melo was in town to play for the Knicks, the first time he had been back in these shores since helping Team USA win Gold. Dave, a renowned sneakerhead and Jordan fan, had been asked to develop a custom version of the new Melo M9 shoe, with the brief of honoring Melo’s record-breaking, 37-points-in-15-minutes performance against Nigeria last summer.

The two met at London’s prestigious Savoy Hotel to review Dave’s design concepts, and of course, to enjoy a spot of afternoon tea—the results of which you can see in the film and behind-the-scenes shots above.

After the meeting, Dave kindly offered to talk to me about the project, his inspiration, and what it was like to work with Melo.

SLAM: How did the project come about?

Dave White: The project literally came about with a phone call out of the blue.

SLAM: What is it about Melo and his game that made this exciting to you?

DW: I love basketball and always have, and you can see Melo’s a big personality on-court, he sees what he wants and just goes for it. It’s a very physical game, and he has a very distinctive style which has always been with him. Seeing clips of him as a kid, he has no doubt of what he wants, and if he sees that opening, it’s on and nothing stops him. I love that.

SLAM: It was pretty cool to see how big a fan of yours he is, that must have been quite surreal?

DW: It really was, I had something special made for him when I heard he liked my work. It had to be something fitting and symbolic. It was one of my previous series based on Americana. The piece was a 24 ct gold leaf version of one of the Native American Warriors, exploring the nobility and respect for all life that surrounds us.

SLAM: You mentioned that you felt like your stories, how you grew up, had a lot of similarity to Melo’s story—for those who might have seen you work, but might not know your background, what’s your story?

DW: I had a wonderful childhood, times were tough and we didn’t have much, but I had the most incredible parents who always supported what I wanted to do. I always knew that drawing was what I loved and would spend all day making images of things I was obsessed with—planes, Star Wars, etc. I never had a gameplan, I just worked hard and have been working for 20 years as a painter now. I never imagined that making paintings of sneakers in 2002 would have sent me on this incredible journey. I am very grateful for all of the projects I have had the pleasure and honor to have worked on. I guess our similarity is we both as kids never ever would have imagined that we would end up working with the brand of the man who changed the world, and be able to chase our dreams on our different paths.

SLAM: As an artist and a massive sneakerhead, what does it mean to be working with a brand like Jordan?

DW: I actually find it hard to comprehend sometimes, it’s an incredible honor to work with them and it really is a dream come true, seeing your ideas being brought to life by the team leaves me speechless to be honest.

SLAM: You must have an all-time favorite Jordan…

DW: The Air Jordan V, I have it tattooed, I could never afford them when I was at college and seeing Jordan flying in them with the light hitting the 3m Jumpman was just mind-blowing. I go through black and white phases and still can’t decide on which.

SLAM: A lot of people might not realize that London and the UK has a pretty rich sneaker culture of its own—what do you think makes the UK scene different?

DW: Without question it’s the people that make the culture special, London has a rich and very deep history of sneaker culture, from the independent stores and people who run them to the absolute die hard collectors. London has a unique style and mix of people who reflect the energy and vibrancy through their dress sense. Sneakers have always been a massive part of that.

SLAM: You mentioned yesterday a previous Jordan project you’d been involved in in L.A. that really inspired you—tell me a little bit more about that…

My very first Brand Jordan release encompassed an Air Jordan I—for me the AJI is a fantastic canvas to work on and it was about making something special. I wanted to make something that just screamed heritage and celebrated the flag, the glory days of basketball…with my twist. Only 23 pairs were made and through the magazine Sole Collector an online auction was held to raise money for charity. Over $23,000 was raised for ‘WINGS For The Future,’ the Brand Jordan charity, which was amazing.

‘WINGS For The Future’ is an incredible program that supports future talent and young athletes. I was asked to work with a group of art students from Inglewood High School, to oversee them designing and making a mural which decorated the main wall to the basketball court. I can’t tell you how blown away I was by the talent, passion, love and respect that ran through the school. It was a freezing rainy day in L.A. and the kids worked none stop to make the mural magnificent and fitting. The energy at Inglewood High School was amazing and is something that will stay with me, those kids were truly inspirational.

I will never forget the face of the t-shirt competition winner, who got his design made into a Brand Jordan t-shirt to be sold in Foot Locker in the local mall. It is this unsung stuff that makes the brand so incredible for me. It was a wonderful day and seeing first-hand how it completely changed people’s lives was very moving.

SLAM: With a project like this, where do you start? Are there similarities to how you would start a piece of artwork?

I guess this one has been different as it is far more than just executing personal ideas, this is about saying something that means something to Melo. It’s an organic process indeed like painting and things develop and change to suit the direction of the collaboration.

SLAM: You showed Melo a bunch of interesting options—where did the inspiration come from for those?

DW: My ideas from the start had to signify a number of things for Melo. Firstly, some key elements: the use of gold, and in particular 24 ct gold leaf, which is a link to a material I use in my work, to symbolise rarity and magnificence. Of course, this is a direct link to the gold medal that Melo won with Team USA in London last year. Also, the numbers 37 and 7 were starting points, celebrating the point record and the number he plays for in the Knicks.

Two starting points were exploring energy, one was very much like a firework, like when you light a sparkler and that incredible vibrant energy. Another was an explosion of almost magma like volcano flame. Both of these had reference to the organic and explosive nature of the sport.

The star element refers to a number of things, the USA flag, the celebration of winning and a kind of a wish for a dream, that you do as a kid. The spray of them also gives the illusion of movement from the toe box to the back, almost like magic in a cartoon.

SLAM: And the shoe that Melo picked, talk me through that design—how you got there, and what you have planned with it…

DW: I was nervous to be honest, as you never know what a person’s taste is without meeting them. And I went in totally cold with no idea of his likes and dislikes. He picked the one that meant the most to him and that was clearly the one that celebrated the win in London. The backbone behind that was very similar to the Air Jordan I we made, to make something that looked like something a Gold medal winner would wear on the podium.

I want to make this extra special, befitting the amazing year he has had and this is the fun bit now. Flat illustrator templates never ever convey the idea fully. My vision for this is the gold leaf applied into the stars that would be laser cut offering texture and dimension alongside a white 3M, so when the cameras are firing away trails of light and stars would be left. A few other touches I want to be a surprise that Melo won’t even know until he has them on.

Working with the Art Director Dave Frank at Brand Jordan is always special, he is an incredible talent and we will both be working hard to make the shoe as special as it can be, befitting a Gold medal-winning champion.