They’ve Got the Jazz


words Chris O’Leary | image Andrew Link

Seeking inspiration for the Air Jordan 2012, Tinker Hatfield needed to look no further than Jumptown.

It’s more than the acutely perfect tie-in name that the long-time Air Jordan designer liked when he started to learn about the historic district that today sits at the doorstep of the Rose Garden, the home of the  Portland Trail Blazers.

Jumptown isn’t—or wasn’t, as  Hatfield describes it thriving in the 1920s and ’30s—a spot in Portland that had the Jumpman logo splattered across its windows, crafted into neon signs or chalked onto sidewalks.

In its day, Jumptown was jazz and the style that permeated from that neighborhood and ones like it across America. Encouraged  by what he’d read about the culture of those neighborhoods, Jumptown in particular, Hatfield wanted to revisit that style in the Air Jordan 2012.

“I was sitting down and working on it, thinking about the 2012. I was looking for some inspiration,” Hatfield, an architect, city planner and the sneaker industry’s design guru begins. “I’ve been working on a project in Portland to help revitalize a part of the community referred to as Jumptown. It was really a hopping neighborhood that was the center of the black entertainment district in Portland. I was working on that project and I knew about that former district and all the famous people that were there. Louis Armstrong to Lena Horne, and Portland was one of the major stops on the West Coast.

“The reality is these neighborhoods sprung up because people of color were sometimes excluded from going out to clubs in other parts of town, so these neighborhoods catered to the desires of people who wanted to go out and recreate and not be discriminated against. You can just sort of imagine that that’s a cool thing.”

Hatfield paints the picture of a vibrant, original and stylish neighborhood. The streets were lined with clubs, the sidewalks teemed with people set on getting out, having fun and looking good in their own way. Zoot suits—featuring padded shoulders, long coats and trousers that were high-waisted and wide-legged—started to come into fashion for men. Eventually, inevitably, Hatfield made his  way from the often brightly colored suits to the equally bright shoes the men wore.

“The very first sketches show a basketball shoe that really looks like it was a wingtip with a saddle turned into a basketball shoe. That’s how the form of the shoe and the coloration started to come together,” he says.

With that, the Jumptown-inspired shoe shifted under the watch of designer Tom Luedecke, who took to adding in the technical aspects of the 2012. The most obvious feature of the brand’s flagship joint is a wide variety of technology.

“We have three midsoles for three different styles of play in basketball, showcased by our signature players,” Luedecke explains. “We have Chris Paul moving around you to get to the basket, Dwyane Wade jumping over you to get to the basket and Carmelo Anthony going through you to get to the basket.

“So cutting and sprinting for CP (Zoom Air in the heel and forefoot), jumping and landing for DWade (Zoom Air in the forefoot and an encapsulated Air-Sole unit in the heel) and real physical in the paint for Melo (full-length encapsulated Air-Sole unit). The midsoles have cushioning built specifically for these styles and make the product feel different under the foot to get the most out of these playing styles.”

The interchangeable insole isn’t new to the Air Jordan, having boosted the playing experience in the 2011 model with quick and explosive options. Before that, variations of this concept presented themselves in the IPS (Independent Podular Suspension) features dating back to the Air Jordan XX in 2005.

“It takes a while to design and engineer [the idea of choices] in a system that holds up to the rigors of pro basketball,” Luedecke says.

On top of the three insoles this year, the Jordan 2012 lets you choose whether you want a high-top sneak or a mid-cut.

“We built two booties as an extension of the choices you as an athlete will have in this product to adapt to the unique situation you are facing that day or game,” Luedecke says.

“The lower cut bootie is minimal in weight while giving you extra support security in the forefoot with a non-stretch mesh. It’s geared toward a CP-style of player or position.

“The higher-cut bootie with a strap provides ample toe protection with a cushioned material in the forefoot to help with toe jam and the regular pounding of working below the basket. It also provides more proprioception—feeling where your body is in space and in what position relative to the ground—by wrapping around the ankle. It’s geared toward a Melo or Wade-style of player or position.

“Ultimately, you can also look at individual scenarios and choose a midsole and bootie for that day and what you expect to deliver on the court.”

The rest of the tech-side of the shoe is nothing to scoff at either. Luedecke breaks it down, starting with the easily recognizable floss-like thinness that is Flywire technology.

“We have a Flywire base with polyurethane skins, which makes for a lightweight, strong and durable package,” he says. “However, we draped it in high style with luxury leathers to create a premium crafted expression on the foot.

“This also tells the story we wanted to highlight about the Zoot Suit era and how the youth in that time created an iconic, audacious and daring look which took people by surprise. [Zoot Suits] became a leading culture that shifted the momentum of the times.”

The shoe also features a new high-end style Flight Carbon plate in the sole, with the plate actually working its way into a traction pattern design. Finally, Luedecke used Nike’s lightweight Torch material in the high-top bootie “for protective purposes,” he says.

While Wade, Paul and Melo represent what the brand is about today, Michael Jordan, the logo on the shoe itself, still figures prominently when the shoe is being put together.

“That’s still extremely important to the process, every time we sit down and do one of these,”  Hatfield says. “It really needs to perform for the very best basketball players in the world, and we usually focus in on that mid-sized basketball player on the floor who’s certainly not the smallest, but they’re still quick and powerful.

“They need a super quick and versatile, lightweight shoe and that’s what Michael Jordan embodied as a player. He was a mid-sized player but he was super quick and powerful. He had a lot of speed and agility, but he was big enough that he put so much stress on his shoe. You really had to make sure that his shoe was tough and could stand up to the rigors of the kind of player that Michael was.”

While putting his touches on the 2012, Luedecke thought back to the ’90s, and how Jordan owned the decade.

“I thought about our three signature men, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony [while designing the shoe] of course, but more so I imagined Michael at his peak in this product, which is thrilling and daunting at the same time,” Luedecke says. The designer also points out that even though Jordan is closing in on 50—he turns 49 on February 17—and has his hands full as the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, he’s still making time to give input on his signature sneaker, which enjoys its 27th incarnation in 2012.

“Michael has been an integral part in this endeavor,” he says. “He has supported this product from inception all the way through to completion and I’m very thankful for the excitement, support and insight he provided along the way.”

With Jordan having moved into the next stage of his basketball life, Hatfield’s vision for the Air Jordan 2012 is spot on. While MJ the player was and still is a favorite shout out target for rappers, MJ the owner is much more jazz than hip-hop. Fighting for his Bobcats the way he fought for scoring titles in his playing days, Jordan is more prone to wingtips than sneaks—save for the odd day when he decides to lace up and show his players that he’s the best 40-something player on the planet. The Zoot Suit was well before his time, but it’s a sophisticated notion that jives with where Jordan sits in his life today.

“Tinker provided a wonderful point of departure for the design of this product when he talked to us about the Zoot Suit movement and the emergence of cultural centers in African-American neighborhoods in the USA,” Luedecke says, listing New York, Oakland, L.A., Kansas City and New Orleans as all having their own versions of Jumptown.

“It was a very inspiring time for the youth, who came forth and set out to distinguish their style and voices, regardless of the prevailing forces around them,” he continues.

“Tinker pushed me to think about the Air Jordan 2012 with this background in mind. To be unconventional, audacious and youthful…and that has been a fantastic opportunity to create and refine.”

The story with Jordan Brand is that they’re always refining and creating. Luedecke and his design team are likely years ahead in the planning stages of future models of the Air Jordan. As always, word on what’s next, in this case the Jordan 2013, is always treated as a national secret in their Beaverton offices.

“Our innovation team is working on it as we speak,” Luedecke says of the 2013. “There is not much I’m able to tell you at this point, other than it’s crazy and that it’s another first.”

Whether that means Hatfield will be looking backward, forward or within, or if it’s another game-changing technology sitting on deck, waiting to take the basketball world by storm, is anyone’s guess at this point. If there’s one thing that the Air Jordan line has been teaching the sneaker-loving public since 1985, it’s to expect to be surprised by what’s coming next.