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Designer Jason Petrie Discusses the Nike Air Max LeBron VII & More

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Wherever people discuss sneakers, there always seem to be two different schools of thought. Some sneakerheads love the advancing technologies and futuristic aesthetics that grace many contemporary Nike Basketball styles, while others pine for the simplicity and flowing lines of the classic models from the 80’s and 90’s. No matter which side of the form/function fence you’re on, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t room for both, but blending the two is not always an easy task. Lucky for us, Nike designer Jason Petrie just might be the bridge between that gap. Equipped with a fascination and understanding of the latest in cutting edge performance technology, Petrie also carries with him an unapologetic reverence for the classics. That combination lends itself to some thoughtful designs that seem to capture the flavor of the good old days, while still incorporating the latest innovations and technologies.

A perfect example of this union is the new Air Max LeBron VII, a shoe that has been crafted with the best of both worlds in mind. Not only does the LeBron VII boast features like a full Air Max sole unit and extra large Flywire window panels, but it also sports a slick look not usually seen on the type of sneaker made to support 6’8″ NBA power ballers like LeBron James. Sneaker News’s Aaron Kr. recently had a chance to sit down with Jason inside the Nike Basketball inner sanctum to discuss the Air Max LeBron VII and some other projects that are currently in the works. Keep reading to check out our interview with Jason Petrie, as well as a look at some unreleased sample versions of the LeBron VII like alternate Red Carpet, SVSM and Dunkman prototypes.

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Sneaker News: As far as Nike goes, the LeBron VII and the LeBron line in general have to be one of the bigger projects around.  What was your reaction to being given such an important job?

Jason Petrie: Yeah, I mean it’s the biggest basketball project we have.  We always say ‘LeBron leads Nike Basketball,’ so with that comes a lot of eyes and ears and attention and focus, so I was a little bit nervous at first, but I’m confident in my abilities and confident in the fact that I know the game and I know shoes pretty well, at least to me.  So I fell back on that and I had Kenzo (Ken Link) who did all of the other LeBrons and he was an amazing teacher and helped me transition.  He set me up with LeBron and made it really comfortable.  The thing I was most worried about was the relationship with LeBron.  I feel I can design sneakers, but it was more about how Kenzo and LeBron had a really special relationship and it’s almost like a family the way LeBron runs his business and who he works with.

SN: So you cracked that inner circle?

JP: Yeah, and I just wanted it to be where I was trusted and it could be seamless.  They trusted me. I trusted them. It was a good relationship.  I’ve had some relationships with other athletes where it was kind of like pulling teeth and maybe you were in the same room, but they’re not there to be paying attention to the design.  If you really want a signature shoe and get those insights, you have to have an athlete who you have that relationship and rapport with and you can just chat and talk about stuff and that’s when the real insight comes.  But he took care of that and that was really the only thing I was really nervous about.  Other than that, pure excitement, pure ‘Let’s get it on!’ I have so many ideas and stuff I want to try.  It’s like the ultimate challenge and what I’ve lived my whole life to get to, so it’s all great.  Sometimes it’s really challenging and really frustrating, but other times it’s just…  Like seeing him start the season in the VII’s made that whole year and half of the battles and trips, wins and losses and now it’s just like ‘Ahhh.’ We did it and he loves it, so it’s great!

SN: As far as the design of the shoe, was it your idea to abandon the Zoom technology and add the Flywire and the Air Max?  And if so, was there any resistance or opposition to it?

JP: The whole Air Max thing… It’s funny. I see online like it was my call or LeBron’s call.  That’s such a big deal and we knew we had it coming because we had seen it in the works for a long time. And initially, in all honesty, I didn’t want to do it.  LeBron is Zoom. He’s established Zoom, and I love Zoom.  Until they started getting the Air bag kind of finished and they started explaining the benefits of the bag, and we started looking at LeBron’s foot and hearing some things LeBron was telling us like, ‘Hey man, I can’t feel the Zoom’ in a couple shoes he’d been playing in.  We started cutting up into some shoes and what we didn’t want to do was say ‘Oh we have an airbag’ and just put it out there because we can.  We wanted to make sure it was better.  So we went through a whole lot of arguments. Some people were fighting for it. Some people were fighting against it. But then we started seeing those benefits and we were like ‘oh man!’.  And then we started seeing high speed videos, and hearing back from people wear-testing it.  Then we got our own pairs to play in and we were like, ‘Wow, this is really cool!’  Let’s see if LeBron would be into changing his ride, cause we’ve heard him kind of complaining about what’s been going on and this might be pretty cool.  And again, this is super early on and he tested an early prototype and was like ‘Yo, the ride is great!’  He knows Zoom and he knows Max, but he’s like, ‘Whatever provides for me the best. Give me what it takes to get me where I’m going.’  So with that we were like alright, ‘Boom! Lets go!’  So that established the Max thing and we were all into it from there.

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SN: How far into the process did the Flywire come into play?

JP: We had a shoe design built initially. This was going to be what they were.  (points to finished version of the LeBron VII) Different versions of this… a carbon weave, a kevlar weave, a really luxury leather, a hand made sort of version.  But then, all the while we were doing this, the Hyperdunk was coming out and starting to see success.  Players more so than sales, where we started seeing people switching to the shoe. Big men, little men, it was phenomenal with the Flywire.  Initially for the All-Star weekend, our idea for the Dunk Contest was to do an F-1 version.  We had rendered up this all carbon fiber version with Flywire and people started seeing that rendering and then LeBron saw it and said, ‘Why don’t we just put Flywire on all of them?.’  So we were like, ‘Okay, cool!’  Like I said, at the time, the Hyperdunk had just come out and he was excited.  He had seen it, he had worn it some and wanted his shoes to get lighter, so we said if you feel like you can play in that, then we’re going to start stripping some stuff out.  So that’s how Flywire came along.  So then we knew we had Max under and Flywire over and that’s when it really started to click, both with LeBron and with us.   After that, it was about refining and testing.  It satisfied all of the needs and became really new for the LeBron silo. So it was a win win. Really fortuitous. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get a great shoe. The chips just fall into place.

SN: It really took the line in a new direction as a result.

JP: Absolutely. Everything was so in flux.  If you remember, before the Hyperdunk, everything was kind of Refresh and retro inspired.  Everyone was trying to do Air Force 1 mash-ups. Then the Hyperdunk came out and technical became fashionable again.  It became a look again and we always want to be technical performance and that’s kind of what held us back from being as fashionable in the past 5 years when everybody was going to these lower profile silhouettes. You just can’t play basketball in that stuff and we always have to stay true to that. What the Hyperdunk did was break down a whole lot of doors and allow this look. (referring to the LeBron VII) This is a very technical shoe here.  Big Max bags, big functional Flywire panels. There’s a whole lot of tid bits on there that changed the way the whole shoe game is going.  Technical is cool again and that’s what we do best, so I think it’s going to set us up for the LeBron VIII. It’s going to be mega-technical. The next Hyperdunk is like a feather. Its so futuristic! It’s pushing us in a new direction that no one else is going to be able to mess with.  Its super-pinnacle, play ball all day long at the highest level kind of stuff.  It’s the most excited I’ve been about Nike Basketball since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here about 6 years now.

SN: Are you involved at all in the new Hyperdunk?

JP: Only in the fact that I get to say, ‘Ooh that’s sweet!’  We’re all kind of involved in each other’s stuff around here.  Its Leo (Chang)’s shoe, but everybody had input along the way.  It’s just the way we work as a studio around here. Leo’s a great designer. He doesn’t need my help.  Leo takes care of the “Hyper” end of Nike Basketball.  So he does KD’s and the Hyperize and Hyperdunks, and I’m here to take care of the strong side, so I’ll do the LeBrons.

SN: So it’s kind of like you’re Force, and he’s Flight?

JP: Yeah, and we’d love to use Force and Flight, but the higher-ups won’t let us do it right now. We’re trying.

SN: Because they think that’s a step backwards and they’d rather do something new?

JP: Part of it is that. That’s where it started a couple of seasons ago. We were doing Force and Flight recently and then the whole Refresh thing and the retro deal.  They felt like Jordan is using Flight all the time and Sportswear is using Flight and Force on stuff. It just got kind of confusing, so we just wanted to use new stuff for Nike Basketball. We’ll get back to it. Sometimes it’s good to take it away when it’s getting used so much. Just imagine when we bring it back and it’s on a crazy lightweight shoe that you can see through and it’s got a new Flight logo on it.  It’s like ‘Flight is back! 2015!’  I think so.

SN: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

JP: Yeah. It’ll be back. It’s so true to basketball and those insights are so real.

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SN: Taking the Force/Flight dichotomy a step further, let’s move on to another inter-Nike face-off. It’s obvious that LeBron and Kobe have their rivalry and anywhere that people talk basketball, there’s a debate over who’s better, ‘LeBron or Kobe?’ So is there any kind of rivalry between you and Eric Avar as far as the LeBron and Kobe signature shoes go?

JP: (Laughs) You know, Eric is crazy competitive and I am too, but if there’s any competition he’s whipping my butt, so I’m gonna be the first one to say there’s no competition because that’s Eric Avar and he’s a god.  But you know, I think we’re all fans of Kobe and LeBron because they’re both huge Nike basketball guys and they both really love what we do, and they both exemplify what we do.  So yeah, before I worked on LeBron, we used to get into some pretty vicious arguments about Kobe versus LeBron, but now since I’m on LeBron, I’m pretty much LeBron.  But I love Kobe. He’s the pinnacle. He’s just a weapon.  I’ve always liked LeBron since I came to Nike, but now it’s like, ‘LeBron is the best player on the planet!’ But with Eric, there would never be any rivalry.  We just try to make the best shoes possible.  I think what’s cool is that you can look at this shoe and you can look at the Kobe V, and they’re two completely different shoes, just like the players. And you can really see why each shoe is different.  To me, they look like the players, and that’s ultimately what we want to do. I think we just push each other, because right now everybody is like ‘the Kobe IV is the best playing shoe’ and it is.  That shoe plays unbelievably and the V is even better.  What we gotta get to is where they both play so phenomenally and they’re so immediately recognized.  We had to build the VII for LeBron, so it excludes a lot of people from really being able to feel the benefits of the shoe, so we’re working through that on the VIII. Like how do we make that more like… cause you slip on that Kobe and it’s like, ‘I’m going to play right now!’ and we want that same thing for this and some people feel that way.

SN: Yeah! Don’t sell yourself short. This is a pretty comfortable shoe.

JP: You know, I find it comfortable, but I’ve probably read every post on the internet on the LeBron VII and I’m just trying to make it better. And from the get-go, we want to make it accessible to everybody that can play.  We don’t want it just to be about being 6’8”, 290 to be able to wear the shoe.  It’s just that this Air bag is built for a real big ball player.

SN: Doesn’t mean that it still can’t support the smaller guy too though right?

JP: Yeah, and it can and that’s the whole point of re-engineering it for basketball.  We’re learning.  We’ll take some things as we go forward and we’ll just keep getting better at it.  Hopefully LeBron and Kobe will be playing high level basketball for a few years more together. We’ve been talking about it forever.  We want to get them into a commercial and do like a Mike and Charles thing like, ‘My shoe’s got Flywire son!’ ‘Mine’s got Max Air!’ They really love the back and forth. They’re real good friends.

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SN: The reaction to the LeBron VII so far has been super-positive. People seem to really love it.  Do you think that the LeBron line still has a chance to capture a similar kind of magic and mystique that the Jordan line has enjoyed?  Obviously those are big shoes to fill and no one will ever be Mike again, but do you see the potential to reach that kind of status?

JP: Yeah. But in a different way, before everybody starts yelling about trying to be the next Jordans.  What people have to realize is that Michael Jordan and the Air Jordan thing was more than just a shoe collection and an athlete.  It changed the way business was done. It changed the way shoes were sold.  It changed the way the game was played.  It just came along at the right time when all that stuff was new and transformed so much stuff.  I don’t think our culture is in a place where you can have that same kind of shift again.  Because of that shift, it has become this overly hyped marketing where everybody knows everything. You see the shoe 6 months/a year before it comes out if you want to.  So there’s a lot of things that kind of erode that hope of becoming the next Jordan, but what we can be is not the next Jordan, but the next “next.”  And I don’t know what that is yet. Maybe this (LeBron VII) is the start.  I think we have a chance. All we have to do is put out good shoes.  They put out great shoes and hoped for magical performances or magical moments and that’s what happened. We feel like we go all out every day to make the best shoe for on the court. The best storytelling, reflecting his life, reflecting current trends, reflecting inspirations. Whatever’s going on right now and whatever we think will be going on two years from now and what LeBron’s gonna be doing in two years and all that stuff.  I think there’s potential.  It’s hard to say. The shoe game is so different than it was back then, but the cool thing is style is changing now in our favor. I hope we do. We’re gonna try.  That’s all I can tell you.  Were gonna try, and we ain’t gonna give up trying. But I think Jordan is just Jordan.  It’s like Nike… there’s not gonna be another company that’s gonna come along and do what Nike did.  Just cause you can’t anymore. It’s not gonna happen.

SN: What’s in store for the future of the LeBron line? I know the VII just dropped, but what if anything can you tell us about what’s in the works for the VIIIs?  What should people expect or is that still too under wraps?

JP: I’d love to be able to tell you a whole bunch of stuff.

SN: If not the VIIIs, are there any other non-Lebron projects that you’re working on or are you pretty much focused on strictly Lebron business?

JP: I am all Lebron right now.  Because we just literally finished up the VII within the last week or so. We have certain things happening in the playoffs. We have the next shoe to worry about, low tops, etc. So there’s a whole bunch of stuff in there.  I’m working on all that at the same time. The VIIIs are pretty far out though. We’ve got a good start.

SN: Look forward to seeing that from what I’m hearing about the tech emphasis moving further into the future.

JP: Yeah. I think you’ll be pretty surprised.

Thanks again to Jason for taking the time to chat with us about the Air Max LeBron VII and stay tuned for more in the near future.