The Air Jordan XX8 SEs (shown above) are the next step in a basketball footwear evolution that started back in ’85 with an electrifying basketball player named Michael Jordan. Today, his shoes are packing more and more technology into every inch, helping elevate your game each time you take the court. We connected with Rob Bruce, Jordan footwear designer, to find out how your next pair of Js can help you fly.
MF: The aspect of these shoes that seems to get the most attention is the flight plate. What’s going on there?
RB: About three years ago I was finishing up a gig in Tokyo as a creative director for Nike, designing footwear over there for that market, and I was asked to come back to lead the invention for Jordan. In coming back I realized there’s a lot of great history from the past, but a huge amount of opportunity going forward. At Jordan we started rallying around this idea of Flight. We wanted some sort of performance advantage that we can build to [make] this notion of Flight [a reality] for the brand.
I’m an industrial designer, so I wanted to talk to experts in biomechanics and trainers to really understand how the body works so we can leverage what’s going on naturally and to figure out what we need here. Nike Air has been a signature technology from the late '70s all the way through today and into the future. I started looking at Zoom Bags and cutting up a whole bunch of shoes to see what was working and what wasn't. I realized very quickly that when you deconstruct a shoe by taking the Zoom Bag out of it, go to the lab and go, "Hey, what is this thing?" They (the lab) will say, "It’s very responsive cushioning." In a drop-ball test, the ball will drop onto the Zoom Bag and bounce pretty much back to its origin point, which tells us in an efficiency state there is about 95% energy return.
MF: It doesn’t sound like you needed to change anything.
RB: In the past, we had to overbuild the shoes because the sport was so grueling. That really efficient Zoom Bag, we buried that inside of a foam shoe and covered it up with all this old-school technology. That deadens the efficiency, and it goes from 95% energy return down to 40-45% energy turn, and it cuts its performance in half. I thought that was kind of lame. So I thought, "What if we built a shoe in a different way?" We started reconstructing the shoe and building it in a new way. The outsole protrudes about three millimeters and has a negative gasket around it, so it’s kind of like having a piston underneath your forefoot. Then we asked if we put a plate on top of this, what would that do? We tested it and it turned out it increased the shoe’s efficiency, so that 45% became 75%. It’s pretty massive if we compare that to other shoes in the marketplace.
MF: What about making it lightweight?
RB: This is actually the lightest Air Jordan we ever made. It’s been very important for us to really focus on performance on court and reclaiming that status as a brand. In basketball, if you can’t make a light shoe, you’re not even in the conversation. In the past, Jordans have wavered and had some street cred versus actually being playable on the court. We took a hard stance and said were not going to compromise and put a whole bunch of crap on this thing. This is the lightest Jordan ever at 13 ounces, which is pretty significant coming from our past. And I think that’s a benchmark for us now. So now the Air Jordan 29, 30, 31, they will become lighter and lighter. We’re trying to create retros of the future.
MF: The SE doesn’t feature the shroud that you find on the original XX8s. How does that shroud affect performance?
RB: We like to think of that—the shroud—as a proprioceptive sleeve. You see a lot of athletes wearing compression sleeves to promote blood flow and to just give them a sense of feedback when they're playing sports of where their body is in space. So this stretch collar gives that athlete that feeling—it’s like a built-in compression sleeve. What’s great is that becomes the ultimate canvas, too. In a lot of our launches of Air Jordan XX8 we had some pretty compelling artwork that’s gone on the outside shroud that has completely changed the look of the shoe.