Interview // Designer Leo Chang Details the Nike KD9

words & interview// Nick DePaula
portraits // Jacques Slade aka @Kustoo

Through the years, Kevin Durant has had specific requests for his signature footwear.

KD Flyknit Racer 1There was the stretch of years where he’d randomly decide to alternate between having a strap or no strap. There were the times he’d beg his Nike team for Foamposite on his shoes, first resulting in a glossy copper KD IV for Christmas that was a bit of a compromise, and later on an actual Posite-based collar on the KD7. He’s always been a Zoom Air guy, even pushing for larger volume units and more cushioning and his career evolved.

More recently, Durant was asking for Flyknit, Nike’s more modern fully knitted upper fabric. He first wore it casually when he was strolling around London in the Flyknit Racer in 2012 during the last Summer Olympics, and he’s since grown to love the basic softness and comfort that the material affords.

When he saw it first introduced in hoops atop the Kobe IX, he began pushing for Flyknit to be incorporated into his own signature sneaker.

“That’s when Flyknit first jumped on the scene,” recalls Durant in a detailed interview discussing his new shoe. “I was telling my guys, ‘Man, I would love to have that on my shoe.’ It looked so nice, first of all, but I didn’t know how it played. To see Kobe in it, I was a little jealous.”

So, here we are.

The KD9 features yet another highly sculpted, highly explosive full-length Zoom Air unit, and it also introduces Flyknit to the Durant series, offering up that softness and flexibility, as requested by the athlete himself.

To hear all about the newest KD model to be launched by Nike Basketball, Nice Kicks recently caught up with Leo Chang, the category’s Design Director and the only designer to have penned a Durant signature shoe.

Read ahead for our in-depth interview with designer Leo Chang, detailing Kevin Durant’s 9th edition of his KD signature series with Nike.

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above: Ian Stonebrook, Nick DePaula & Leo Chang

Nick DePaula: I always ask you the same question first. [laughs] Coming off of the 8, as you guys were going through the process of getting feedback from KD and other players, what were some of the big picture bullet points that you wanted to improve on and incorporate into the 9?

Leo Chang: One thing is we knew that we definitely wanted to stay with the full-length Zoom bag, but we looked at how we could make it better and more responsive. Then, we wanted to push the engineered textile idea, going from Flyweave to Flyknit. It was going to feel different and look different, and there are things you can do with knit that you can’t do with the weave. Really, it became about pushing those two things.

NDP: With the knit process, what were some of the biggest differences, in terms of how it’s designed and also the stretch?
LC: The feel of it, really. You can get this material to be softer and also more zonal. The possibilities are definitely a lot more targeted. The weave is a little bit more consistent throughout. You can tune it, and get it to have stretch zones and other things, but we wanted to go for more of a lockdown feel here, and I think we got that.

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above: The Kobe IX’s Flyknit pattern

The benefit of knit is it’s a really comfortable material to start with, and it’s softer by hand just because of the nature of it. Starting with that as the base, that was something that Kevin talked about, to have it already feel broken in. That was something he said at the beginning.

He’s really superstitious about what he wears and sometimes wears a shoe until it breaks down, so that really drove that idea. He’s also been bugging me about wanting knit since he wore the Flyknit Racer in 2012 at the London Olympics. He fell in love with that shoe, and said, “I want that for a basketball shoe.”

NDP: I loved playing in the 8 and thought it felt great. What were some of the things that you modified for the 9’s Zoom Air unit here? I see that it’s got more rubber wraps in certain spots and also some radiused edges.
LC: The bag here is thicker than the 8’s. There’s a 16 mm size unit in the heel, and that tapers to 10 mm in the forefoot. You really get that natural taper that most shoes have from front to back. Visually, you see a lot of midsole, but there’s actually not. There’s a whole section of the midsole that’s cored out under your foot, so you’re standing right on top of the bag. The foam is there along the side to help smoothen out the transition of the bag.

If you love Zoom, and you love where the KD6 Elite or LeBron X bag was, but you didn’t like the way it was a little slappier, didn’t bend and was a little clunkier, those are the things that KD himself experienced. On the KD6 Elite, he loved that Zoom sensation, but he just said it felt like he was swimming in mud a little bit, because it was way too stiff and clunky. That’s something I learned a ton from, and I said, “Ok, I love that you hated it. I can make that better for you.” We tried to do that.

Even things like his pressure map and where he plays on his feet, for most players, you’ll see the heel flare up on the pressure map, the forefoot and then the toe. In the midfoot, where he broke his bone and had the metatarsal Jones fracture, he actually has a lot of pressure there. We shifted the silhouette of the outsole so that it accounts for that. A lot of running shoes will sculpt away on the outter side of the midfoot, but if you sculpt away from from there, you’re not giving him enough cushioning or support. We shifted that on the lateral side to help give him more cushioning.

1200 KD HeelNDP: People that played in the shoe really liked it, but the 8 also struggled at retail at that $180 price point. How much did the 8’s up and down sales at that price point influence you guys coming down on the price to $150 for the 9?
LC: For sure, I think it did. To say it didn’t, would be weird. [laughs] It was just a reality check for us, to make sure we brought innovation to an accessible price point. I think once you get into that $180 to $200 price zone, it becomes hard for people to want to play in them too. People are afraid to mess them up, and if you can’t get another pair, then it’s tough. We want people to play in the shoe, wear it and love it. We definitely want to be competitive with it.

KD PhotographerNDP: With the 2, 3 and 4, they all had the Wanda Pratt stamp and so many additional personal touches and call outs for his family members and different things in his life. Here, you guys stripped everything away. Why was that the case?LC: You know what, I asked him, “Hey, what do you want on here?” And he said, “I want it clean.” So a lot of that stuff has been removed, but it’s not a reflection of his mom and his brother having a fight or something. [laughs]

They love eachother of course, and get along even better than ever before. They’re all at every game, so there’s no beef in the family or anything. [laughs] It’s just about him growing up, and standing out on his own a little bit more. He doesn’t need to be loud and scream, “I love my mom! I love my brother! I love my dad!”[laughs] He doesn’t really need that anymore, and that’s all known.

NDP: So the only hits are really his signature on the toe, the “Kevin Durant” across the tongue tab and then the “35” and “9” on the tongue tab underside?
LC: Yeah, and there’s some subliminal things too. If you look at the texture on the heel, it’s actually inspired by the texture on a handgrip from a camera, because he’s gotten really into photography.

NDP: That’s right, he’s an official Player’s Tribune staff photographer now. [laughs]
LC: Exactly! So there’s some subtle things like that, that no one probably cares about, that I just put in there because I thought it could be a cool way to texture it.

Mic Drop 9NDP: As you guys got into planning out the themes and colorways, obviously the free agency dynamic was potentially a huge curveball in there. How did you map everything out, and did you have contingency plans ready for different scenarios?
LC: For sure, we were keeping our color palettes a little more open in case there are changes. And honestly, we never know. We don’t have any kind of inside scoop along the way or anything. He hadn’t made up his mind yet either, I don’t think, but we’re always fast to react of course.

9 ForefootFor him, we didn’t want to overrev on the narrative stories this time. It was more about the performance and style, rather than the narrative. I think with the KD6, we went hard on the stories. It’s equally important that from a style standpoint that the silhouette and the colors are big part of it, but we didn’t overrev, and there’s a balance.

NDP: Were there any particular themes or colors he wanted to see? In the past, we’ve seen everything from some watch inspirations to Mumbo sauce and all kinds of things.
LC: It was more about keeping it clean this time around. You’ll see some sport and athletic team type colors, done in a new fresh way. And you’ll see some stuff like the “Mic Drop” that maybe has a little more crossover appeal and can be worn more off-court as well.

NDP: In the playoffs, he was writing phrases like “Have Fun” and “Smile” on the toes. Did you talk to him about that at all?
LC: I think it’s just one of those things where he’s going to find ways to motivate himself. During the game, he’ll pull on his shorts and look down pretty often, so it’s a cool reminder for himself. He used to write “Stay Focused” on his shoes before and other things like that, so it’s been cool to see him evolve and have things that still motivate him.

Ian Stonebrook: In previous years with different KD models, we’ve seen them take shape over the course of the season with different materials. Can we expect to see that here?
LC: The knit took a long time for it to be functional, so you won’t see that change from a yarn perspective too much. You’ll see the color blocking change. We built in different ways to block the shoe through the knit, so you can get some cool 50/50 reads and you’ll see how that look can evolve over time. Then, you saw a really clean all-white knit on the USA one. You’ll see some other stuff that’s really different too, where we call out different zones on the knit more than others. You’ll also see us switch out materials in the collar. It’s a mesh for now that we can change out and evolve.

1200 Final Sketch KD9_Sketch_by_Leo_Chang_original_original Leo KD 9