Ten years ago, on a cold December night, the Air Jordan XIX was introduced at Meatpacking District hot spot Cielo. Jason Kidd hosted, the bar was open and models strutted on a makeshift runway, all clad in Jumpman-emblazoned clothing. The XIX itself was under a glass case in a back room; for the select media members in attendance, photography was prohibited.
Obviously, things have come a long way in the past decade, in many regards. For one, phones have cameras now. And with the business of sneakers growing exponentially, mainstream media coverage of what had once been a niche hobby has skyrocketed.
As such, the unveiling of the Air Jordan XX9 was a far more substantial affair. There were hors d’oeuvres and a small buffet, before a decent-sized group of invited media and the Jordan Classic high school all-americans entered an auditorium. After a brief video presentation, Michael Jordan himself emerged to give the world its first look at the XX9, which retails in September for $225. (You can see Russell Westbrook wear it in the playoffs.)
With the constant stream of retro sneakers, it can be easy to forget how involved the man behind his eponymous brand has been over the years. Hearing legendary designer Tinker Hatfield describe the midnight phone calls from Jordan during the two-year development of the sneaker–and seeing M.J.’s relative lack of enthusiasm when asked about the Bobcats making the playoffs–it’s obvious the game shoe is his baby.
“He’s not my wife,” Hatfield said about his level of interaction with Jordan. “But it’s close.”
The Jordan Brand set up two rooms dedicated, respectively, to innovation and craftsmanship. That was fitting, as the game shoe has always somewhat straddled the line between form and function, probably slightly prioritizing the latter. After all, it needs to be worthy of the greatest player ever, even if he long ago hung up his sneakers.
The XX9 brought back the Flight Plate cushioning system, its predecessor’s finest aspect and arguably the greatest technological advance in Air Jordan history. But just because something was already good didn’t mean it couldn’t become even better. A tendril on the outsole serves as a bridge between the heel and forefoot Zoom Air bags; Jordan compared its smooth ride to a Ferrari shifting into gear. (And he’s someone who would actually know what that feels like.)
“The Flight Plate for the XX8 was a new concept, and it worked really well,” Hatfield said. “But once a product’s been out there long enough, you learn more and more about really how well it works. … The wear testers were telling us that (the XX8s) were faster, played quicker; they felt the propulsion off the floor and the springiness of it, and the rigidity like a sports car.
“But we were also hearing that the transition from heel to toe wasn’t as smooth. [The XX9] is a direct reaction to smoothing out that transition.”
The true highlight, however, is the newest innovation: a performance woven upper they called Flight Weave, which feeds into the “Tailored for Flight” mantra assigned to the sneaker. The woven upper features 25 million pixels–Hatfield compared it to a high-definition TV–designed to provide the wearer with a unique fit seemingly tailored to his foot. As a result, though every sneaker has a story, the XX9 takes that concept to another level.
Much like the Air Jordan 2, the brand looked to Italy for luxury materials, in this case utilizing a manufacturing process that generally is utilized on silk ties, football jerseys and labels affixed to clothing. The one-piece upper was created in Italy using something called a weaving machine, and then was affixed to the sneaker.
The end result is a layer of fabric similar to Flyknit, but more high-end in terms of material. The upper met the brand’s goals in terms of “structure, support, interior comfort and exterior abrasion resistance.” In layman’s terms, though the XX9 is the most lightweight Hatfield-designed Air Jordan and provides a sock-like fit, it’s proven to be incredible durable in testing.
Past game shoes were inspired by fighter jets, motorcycles or Ferraris. The XX9, for all the luxury it connotes, had a somewhat more off-beat genesis.
“Day 1 for me was someone bringing me a woven air bag from an automobile, the ones that pop out when you crash, and those are woven,” Hatfield said. “They’re woven for strength, and then they have this other thin layer on top that makes sure that they hold air enough. … We had a couple other people that were taking that process and doing a jacket–like a woven jacket that looked like an automobile air bag.
“That was Day 1 for me. I’m going, ‘Why don’t we use that for a basketball shoe?’ And that sort of sent me down the road of drawing differently, using the woven process.”
Hatfield sketched out the XX9 on what looked like a paper mache sock, an admittedly new experience for someone used to drawing on flat surfaces. Add the fact they were using a manufacturing process never previously used for footwear, and things were so tenuous that he actually had a backup plan ready in case the entire thing went bust.
“I like to make people nervous inside Nike,” Hatfield said with a chuckle. “I don’t know, I just get a kick out of people sweating.”
In the end, thankfully, no Plan B was needed. And for Hatfield, his latest labor of love ranks highly on his personal assessment of his esteemed resume of 17 game shoes.
“I always felt like the Jordan XI was kind of my favorite design,” Hatfield said, gesturing at my Concords, “not just because it had patent leather on it or whatever. It was the first shoe with carbon fiber, it was the first shoe using a nylon upper that was specially designed for basketball, it was the first shoe with patent leather, it was the first all-over clear outsole. I always thought that was one of our biggest leap forwards in performance.
“So all of these years later, it seems that the XX9 is in that league. To me, it seems the most different from anything before it–since the XI was to the shoes before it.”
Leave it to the man who inspired an entire generation of sneakers to sum everything up succinctly.
“We put a lot of hard work into this,” Jordan said, slowly turning the sneaker over and over in his hands. “It’s not just something you throw your name on.”
What do you think of the XX9?
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