When it came to creating the LeBron 8, Nike designer, Jason Petrie, had some significant hills to climb. Not only was he faced with the daunting task of topping the hugely popular Air Max LeBron VII, but during the tumultuous summer leading up to the LeBron 8 launch, the public’s perception of the Nike/NBA golden boy seemed to have taken a serious turn for the worse. Would LeBron’s unpopular decision to go to Miami be detrimental to the success of the Nike LeBron line, or will super-star power and a slick new shoe prevail once a little time has passed? Either way, there was little margin for error with the LeBron 8. The LeBron 7 took the line to new stratospheres of both aesthetics and performance, so expectations for the 8 were lofty to say the least. Add to it that now you’re faced with having to win back the consumers who’s feelings towards LeBron may have changed since they picked up their multiple pairs of LeBron 7’s.
What a difference a year makes. The Air Max LeBron VII instantly made Petrie a star in the sneaker design world, but before he could even bask in the success, it was time to get to work on the next year’s follow-up. With sneakers being designed so far ahead of their release, it was impossible to predict all the potential future obstacles when developing the successor to the LeBron 7. Even if he had known, Jason probably wouldn’t have done a thing different. But there’s little need to worry if you take the approach that he did when designing the LeBron 8 – figure out what worked last time and then make it even better. Then figure out what didn’t work so well and make that better too. Seems simple enough, but there’s a lot of hard work that goes into making that a reality.
With the Lebron 8 officially hitting retailers last week, we recently sat down with Jason to talk about the much-anticipated new shoe, as well as LeBron’s controversial decision, new team/home and the future of the Nike LeBron line. Keep reading for the full interview, complete with a look at some never before seen concept sketches and renderings for the LeBron 8. Thanks again to Jason for taking the time to sit down with Sneaker News, and stay tuned as we go further into the process behind the Nike LeBron 8.
Sneaker News: Before we even get to the LeBron 8, lets take it back to the controversial summer leading up to this release. What was your reaction to “The Decision”?
Jason Petrie: (Laughs) I was surprised… but then not so surprised, because it looked like he was dropping some hints that we just didn’t pick up on. Just like everyone else, I was expecting maybe somewhere different, and to hear Miami… They had kinda fallen off of my radar, so I was shocked.
SN: Did you guys at Nike have any inside scoop or did you hear the news on the ESPN special like the rest of the world?
JP: Yeah exactly. We had been around him right before that at his camp and you were hearing rumors about everything, every which way but loose. So you knew not to believe anything until LeBron actually said it. I know that even though we heard everything, we didn’t know anything! So it wound up being right along with everyone else that we found out.
SN: After the public backlash over what was considered an unpopular decision by what seemed like the majority of basketball fans, were you worried that the popularity of the LeBron sneaker line would take a hit?
JP: Well, I don’t know if worried is the word, but I definitely pondered the possibility. It took a little while for all that stuff to radiate a little more before we found out how much backlash there was, because immediately, you didn’t really know how much there was gonna be. And as it started building, I was like, ‘Could this have an effect? Will it have an effect?’ But I think, at least for me personally and the guys that work on the LeBron (design) team, we know what LeBron’s capable of, and we’ve been around LeBron enough to know the reasons why he would make a decision like that and what kind of guy he is, and know that he’s just gonna play basketball. And I think people are gonna forget real quick once they (the Heat) get to the mission at hand, so it was never something we dwelled on.
SN: Aside from the drama with the Miami decision, there were some other uphill battles facing the LeBron 8 as well. The LeBron line was already popular before you came on, but the (Air Max LeBron) VII really kicked open the door and took it to another level. Did you feel a lot of pressure to top it with the (LeBron) 8?
JP: I think with every shoe we do, especially with the signature shoes, you’ve always gotta top what you did the year before. With the 7, we even kinda surprised ourselves with the reaction we got from that shoe and what we wanted to do was improve on the things that we did well on the 7, and then how can we improve and change some of the things that didn’t work as well. Because we’ve learned a lot about Flywire and Max and how the systems come together through building the 7.
So we really wanted to take that knowledge and use that for the 8. All the while, knowing that we really upped the bar with the 7, and now the 8’s gotta do that again. That’s part of the whole transformation. The upgraded materials and the upgraded feel and fit and finish of the entire shoe. We really went back and looked at everything to make sure that we didn’t fail, because we knew there would be a lot of eyes on it. There always are.
SN: What performance/tech upgrades were made to the LeBron 8 that people might not know about just by looking at the shoe?
JP: Well, one thing you can’t really see at all is the integration between the Air bag and the upper and the internal collar foam package, which is now kind of a dual density, more of a tuned package that really locks your foot in and feels really comfortable surrounding the foot. And the interface between the Air bag and the upper is now softer and integrated better with a less clunky midsole and lighter outsole. And looking at the side of the shoe you wouldn’t notice, but when you turn it over, you see the “8” kind of removed, showing the foam underneath, where before that, it was solid rubber.
Even the traction pattern is designed to reduce some of the weight of traditional herringbone. So it’s really just chipping away at things like that and just improving the comfort up against the foot. There are a couple of things that you don’t see immediately. The Air bag looks the same, but I think when you put it on, you can feel the difference between the 7 and the 8, which I’m pretty proud of, because we were really proud of the performance of the 7. And now I think we took it to a new level just by re-engineering those things.
SN: What about some of the features that are more evident to the eye?
JP: Stuff like the collar height. We were able to get the same or better ankle flexion or achilles flexion with the cut at the heel, but you get a much better lockdown because we raised that height. And not only did we do it to increase lockdown, but I was also inspired by LeBron’s stance and him standing tall kinda head and shoulders above most people he’s around. So it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we took it to a high top,’ but there’s a reason why we did that. Without sacrificing performance, we actually increased performance by tuning that topline. It’s something so simple, but you get a much better fit, as well as an iconic look.
SN: When you first sat down to start working on the 8, what kind of input did LeBron give you on where he wanted to see the evolution of the Nike LeBron line go?
JP: He wanted to stay with Max. He felt really comfortable with the 360 Max bag, and it was really becoming a signature for him and something that he was super excited about. At the time we were starting the 8, he wasn’t even really playing in the 7 yet. It was before the season started. He was just wearing it around and was excited about the proposition, and as he wore it more and came to know the shoe more and spent more time in it, we knew we were on the right path. So that was a huge point of his. Another was the comfort piece. He always really stresses comfort and that led to us re-engineering the whole collar and the interface.
Also the notion of carbon fiber was something that we were toying around with and that we’ve seen on the LeBron line in the past, and when we kicked it out to him, it led to this whole conversation about a carbon fiber Bugatti, and he was into that car like, ‘Man I wish I could get one of those things, but a mil(lion) plus!’ You know, LeBron can pretty much buy whatever he wants, but even that car was something he was dreaming about, and I wanted to pull some of that in. When I was a kid, I used to lay in bed like, ‘One day I’m gonna get this shoe!’ or ‘One day I’m gonna get this car!’ and its just cool to think that someone at that level still has these kind of aspirational items that still drive them and motivate them. Maybe he wins a ring and he gets himself that as a reward for winning a championship kind of thing.
SN: And now there’s carbon fiber on his feet to remind him of that every night.
JP: We pulled in the carbon fiber notion by doing the skin in a carbon fiber kinda finish, and as we continue to evolve the line, carbon fiber will become a part of it aesthetically and functionally. Just kinda representing that lightweight strength and how we cage LeBron’s foot and keep it on that footbed to make product solutions for him. All of that was just from directly talking to him and then other stuff I had just seen and picked up like the collar height. So I specifically talked to him about ‘What do you think about raising the collar height? And this is why we did it.’ And he was like, ‘Cool. Go ‘head. Do it.’ At the time, there were some shoes out where that was starting to happen and he recognized that in fashion and thought it could be a cool thing.
All the way down to the materials for the first release color. We had this tumbled black full grain leather on one of the initial samples, and he made the comment ‘What if we did this in black nubuck?’ More of a buffed material, almost a suede. We hadn’t run any samples of that yet and we found a gorgeous material to do it in, and we wound up hitting the nail right on the head. He flipped when he saw it. Right down to the materials on the launch color of the shoe, it’s all taken from him.
SN: With most of the designs and colorways created so far ahead of time, how soon after the Miami announcement did you guys start working on the Pre-Heat/South Beach colorway to have it ready for an October release?
JP: It’s funny. That shoe was one of the original samples. We spun up a colorway kinda similar to that.
SN: Like a ‘Red Carpet’ part 2?
JP: Yeah, almost to go back to that color inspiration, but blow it out a little bit bigger. But then we decided there was no space for it, but we kept it around and when the Miami thing came up, everything came back like ‘Hey, remember when we did that teal shoe?’ We just had to put some pink parts on it and change up the materials a little bit to Miami-ize it a little more and put a little more electricity into it. So we had some work done prior and when we saw (the decision), we spun up some Witness shirts in a Miami Vice font and colors, and as soon as we saw that, it was like, ‘Oh yeah, that shoe would go perfectly with that.’ So we just pulled that into it.
SN: What’s the timetable for something like that? Were you guys getting to work on that the next day after the Miami announcement trying to come up with something or did it take a little time?
JP: Oh yeah. As soon as we heard, the texts started flying like ‘Ok, what are we gonna do?’ You guys have already seen it now. We did Cleveland colors and Knicks colors, the Mavs colors, the Chicago and Miami colors, so that the shoe would be ready.
SN: Covering every possibility.
JP: Exactly. The Miami colors were the ones that just released, so we had that covered, but obviously we had to do something special to launch that “Pre-Heat” color. We just didn’t know exactly what it was gonna be.
SN: Are there any other Heat or Miami-inspired colorways in the works for the LeBron 8?
JP: Not for Version 1, but you might see something later in the collection. Miami is gonna start to inform not only LeBron, but probably our entire line. It’s just a different place. There’s a lot of fresh energy down there. As LeBron spends more time there, you’ll start seeing more of that environment come into the shoes and apparel and everything.
SN: When we talked about the 7, we were discussing how so many classic shoes are known for those 3 or 4 original colorways. How do you feel about the LeBron 7 releasing in so many different colorways? Does it dilute the legacy or just help spread the legacy?
JP: Oh no. I mean, look, there’s a bunch of colorways that we didn’t release that people are still dying for. I thought we could have released another 5 or 6 and been fine. We limit them because LeBron and the guys don’t want that many out there. It may seem like a lot, but compared to the Kobe, it’s like half as many. So, no I feel like every one we put out was pretty strong and a lot of what we do (colorways), we have to do. Like black/black and white/navy and stuff like that. I would like to see some “flyer” colors come out. More aggressive. But to do that, you have to release more shoes and we don’t get to do that, because we try to keep the line tight. You can always do fresh colors and materials if you’ve got a good design. You’ve been seeing it with Nike retros for years now. How many dope Air Max 1’s have you seen?
SN: With the L23 logo being retired for obvious reasons, are the lion and the LeBron signature taking over as the new go-to logos or is there a new one in the works?
JP: That was our messaging for the 8. The lion and the idea of the lion on the hunt and obviously his new signature were kind of a fresh new take representing this new change and this transformation for LeBron. So we felt that that was important to tell his story for this year and as we go on through his line and his next signature shoes. We’ll see what happens with how his branding evolves. The lion head helped us tell the story of what was going on with his career with the 8. And as we go forward with the 9 and onward, you may see something different. That will all come in time.
SN: Aside from the LeBron 8 V2 which we’ll sit down to talk about soon, what else can you tell us about the future of the Nike LeBron line?
JP: We just wanna continue to evolve and respond to LeBron’s needs, as well as push him to try different things like Air Max or Flywire, or whatever it is that he may not be used to. All that in an attempt to get him lower to the ground, get him faster, reduce weight. Really try to push the boundaries with that, and then also how we protect him. That’s what it’s all about. Protecting LeBron and holding him onto the footbed. So you’ll see new solutions for that and in more lightweight ways than you’ve ever seen before. But then also, pushing style. We push performance to the brink, to the leading edge. He’s gonna really be leading us from a performance angle and also pushing the limits of style and fashion as he always has as well. So that’s steady what we’re doing and we’re gonna keep cruising down that path, and we wanna start incorporating his new home, his new team and his new attitude and surroundings and everything. When you look back 10-15-20 years from now, you’re gonna be able to see that shift in the line when he shifted in his life and with his team. There’s definitely gonna be a change. We may not see it as we go through incrementally, but when you look back on it, I think you’ll be able to see it.
SN: While we’re looking into the future, what’s your prediction for LeBron and the Heat this year? Do they get a ring on the first try?
JP: (Laughs) I would certainly love that and I would not be surprised if they do. I’m thinking they’re gonna be in the Finals against the Lakers, but the Lakers are pretty damn stacked! But I can never go against LeBron. LeBron and D-Wade… thats a pretty dynamic duo. And then you get Chris Bosh thrown in there too and that’s gonna be pretty tough. They’re just gonna take some time to gel, obviously, but I think they’ll be right there. The Lakers are gonna be tough though. I’m not worried about anyone in the East. It’s hard to tell with the Heat right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start clicking and go on a 30 game winning streak, end up with a crazy record and blast right through the first couple rounds of the playoffs. But I definitely think they’ll be in the Finals.
SN: You don’t think the Celtics could give them some trouble getting through the East?
JP: Boston’s gonna be tough, but I don’t know if half of Boston is gonna still be standing at the end of the year anyway. They barely won the other night with the Heat hardly knowing who was on the court. They (Miami) had it within 3 after coming back all that way. And now the Celtics just lost to Cleveland, so…
SN: Kind of an ironic twist there, huh?
JP: (Laughs) Yeah, it definitely was. But then again, they (Boston) know how to win championships, so you can never count them out. It really just matters if the team (Miami) can come together. I’m worried about their lack of size in a 7 game series with say a Boston or an LA, but again, with the guys on that Heat team, anything is possible.
SN: Jordan won some rings without much size around him.
JP: That’s right. He absolutely did. People tend to forget that, including myself.
SN: We’ll see how it plays out. For now, congrats on the launch of the LeBron 8 and thanks again for taking some time to sit down and talk with us.
JP: Anytime. Thank you.