Opinion // The Air Jordan XXX Is The Most Disappointing Shoe In Years

Jan 15, 2016 | Nick DePaula |

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words // Nick DePaula:

I love Jordan Brand. For more than two decades, the brand represented the very best in footwear design, the most elite tier of craftsmanship and sneaker construction, and deep storytelling that linked the athlete with product in a way no other brand could ever quite articulate.

We saw groundbreaking color atop the very first model. Striking silhouettes and aggressive material executions throughout the first handful of designs. Inventive straps. Celebratory outsoles. Gleaming patent. Rich luxury in the form of the Air Jordan XII. A fabric-wrapped and ergonomic design playing off of Jordan’s “Black Cat” nickname. Even a powerful yet sleekened Ferrari-inspired masterpiece fit for his Last Shot.

The models originally worn on court by Michael set the bar for all to follow, bridging performance technology and beautiful design in a series that shifted drastically each and every year.

Designer Tinker Hatfield even had the famous talking point, “We want to zig when they zag.”

When brands followed the XI’s patent leather execution, Tinker came back with an all full grain leather upper — quality inspired by the greatest ever. When you thought you could predict what was to come, the brand celebrated milestones for the 20th and 23rd anniversary with unrivaled storytelling in the form of detailed and intricate lasered graphics, or a precisely engineered chassis system layered over with a computerized stitched leather upper and thumbprint-cued outsole.

They didn’t just roll out a new shoe — they spent years traveling the world for new materials, new ways to construct uppers and new technologies that would allow them to dive deeper into the stories and inspirations that fueled Michael’s transcendent basketball career. We’d often hear about an 18-24 month timeline for the annual game shoe, a labor of love evident in the depth of design found in each Air Jordan.

With all of that in mind, when I officially saw the Air Jordan XXX for the first time this week, it was the most disappointed in a new shoe I think I’ve ever seen.

For starters, the shoe is practically a XX9 SE.

It’s surely and undoubtedly a great basketball shoe — its intended purpose, I know — but in carrying over the exact same tooling parts and pieces from the very last Air Jordan, the imagination and evolution that made so many Air Jordans before it so singularly iconic is entirely lost.

As designer Tinker Hatfield recapped at the brand’s grandiose launch event in Chicago yesterday, he was up against time in working on the shoe.

How could that be? It’s the 30th shoe though, for the most storied and iconic signature series the footwear industry has ever known. Everyone knew the calendar that the shoe would be up against. If anything, it should’ve launched in the Fall ’15 window, to actually hit on the 30th anniversary of the Air Jordan 1’s 1985 release.

The truth is, there was a different shoe altogether in the works to start, a different design worked up by another known Jordan designer. That shoe simply got scrapped along the way.

That’s how we got to this seemingly rushed and eventual Air Jordan XXX design. Tinker and other key stakeholders met with MJ for an annual dinner just this past 2015 All-Star Weekend in New York, on February 16th, to be exact, and it was decided then that Tinker and his longtime graphic design ace Mark Smith would be taking on the project.

“The next morning, I drew a shoe,” Hatfield admits. “Because I knew I was in deep trouble. We had no time. Then I realized it wasn’t good enough to sketch a shoe. I asked for that particular photo of Michael in the (1988) slam dunk contest, and then I drew.”

From there, the soaring image of Air Jordan himself helped to inspire a worldly “cosmos” theme that would go on to drive the design, but by playing catchup on time, and opting to re-use the midsole and outsole design of the Air Jordan XX9, the landmark model set to celebrate the brand’s third decade of game shoes was already doomed.

Don’t get me wrong — the Air Jordan XX9 is one of the best playing basketball shoes of all time. The fit, traction, responsiveness and explosive comfort is at a best-in-class level. From that standpoint, it’s hard to just go away from a performance formula in FlightPlate (now dubbed FlightSpeed) that’s clearly working.

I just wish it was captured visually in a new way, reimagined for a new generation of the brand’s and introduced in a way that put the industry on notice that the Air Jordan game shoe is once again the silhouette that can set the direction of where basketball shoes are headed.

The XXX should’ve been for Jordan Brand what the Hyperdunk was for Nike Basketball in 2008, and what the Crazy Light was for adidas Basketball in 2011. It needed to be a directional shifting sneaker, at a time when the Air Jordan franchise itself is surprisingly losing the equity and anticipation that it had so strongly grasped for over two decades now.

Instead, the shoe is a repurposed update to last year’s model, with a similarly woven upper, a more targeted asymmetrical knit collar, and a contrasting toecap. There’s also the oversized “XXX” font along the heel — if you didn’t know yet, don’t go searching “Jordan XXX” on Google or Twitter though.

There will be new color stories, and different graphics to be seen, but it’s largely the same shoe.

There’s only the slightest, slightest of differences between the two shoes in terms of its platform construction. If you look at the exploded tooling part images below, you’ll notice that the XXX goes without the extra forefoot and heel TPU wedges that encase the midsole, saving some weight from the XX9’s more robust componentry.

Other than that, there’s just a new texture layered on, as the XXX ditches last year’s elephant print wrapping and wavebone traction design in favor of an abstract repeated graphic of the phrase, “Excellence is never 2nd place” on both the midsole and outsole.

I’m expecting this shoe to be a performance beast on court. It will probably be among everyone’s favorite playing shoes for the year, and we’ll see it worn on-court by the likes of Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and many others.

From a legacy standpoint though, the shoe falls flat for me. I can’t imagine it leaving much of a lasting impact from a design perspective, in an era where the Air Jordan needs to so desperately reclaim its spot atop the landscape of pinnacle basketball products.

What do you think of the Air Jordan XXX? Sound off in the comments section below.

above: The Air Jordan XX9’s tooling parts above: The Air Jordan XXX’s tooling parts

 

 

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