Complex and Tinker Hatfield Discuss His Sneaker Past, Present, and Future

September 6, 2013 BY

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You won’t find too many people who would argue that Tinker Hatfield is anything but the single most important name in sneaker design history. The fact alone that his name has transcended shoe circles and is on the verge of being a pop culture trivia piece should be enough to inform you on his sky-high status. As part of their recent piece on sneaker industry insiders, Complex sat down with the former architect to discuss his genesis with Nike, his eventual involvement in the Air Jordan line, and more. Continue reading to check out the piece then head to Complex for the rest of their talks with sneaker industry insiders.

What Got You Into Sneakers?
Why not? It pays way better than being an architect. Architects don’t make Diddly!

Where Did You Go To School?
University of Oregon, bachelor’s degree in architecture.

How Have You Applied Your Learning To Sneakers?
Architecture is an excellent ‘all around’ design education. Seems like I didn’t eat or sleep for about five years because they were teaching us so much stuff. My design education at Oregon was all about solving problems for people and the environment. That really prepared me for designing sneakers, furniture, graphics, architecture and other items in an innovative and modern but mostly practical approach. My own personality has always been somewhat provocative in nature so that part of my design work came from somewhere else than school.

What Is Your Past Experience And How Did Your Past Lead You To A Career In Sneakers?
Before design school I was a national record holder in some high school track events (no, I wasn’t a distance runner). I’m whiter than a loaf of Wonder Bread but for some reason I was fast and very agile. I was also a Sunkist All American in Football. Some college sports recruiters thought I was a black sprinter (until they met me) because of my sprint and hurdle times but also because my name was different. I enjoyed surprising those guys. Anyway, I knew sports at a pretty high level in high school and college which made it relatively easy for me as a designer to sit down and credibly talk to many of the worlds best athletes. I think that insight gave me an advantage when it came time to put designs on the table that helped people perform better. The style part was an extension of Innovation Design for real athletes and then I wove personality and storytelling into those performance designs. Maybe I was the first one to combine all that stuff into a sneaker design, I don’t really know.

What Was The Sneaker Or Moment That Made You Want To Have A Career Involving Sneakers?
There was no magic moment other than I originally came to Nike as the Corporate Architect and quickly noticed that all the real action and fun was revolving around Shoe Innovation. I was lucky to be invited to design some shoes while I was still the Nike Architect. I was really fortunate that the Sneaker Industry was still mired in utilitarian design work. When I started designing shoes it was kind of virgin territory.
What’s The Favorite Part Of Your Job?
Not wearing a suit and trying to act all ‘corporate’. I love the role of a maverick in a world of bankers, accountants and MBAs. Even though I’m a VP I’m not invited to board meetings, and other high level corporate sessions. I guess they think I’m too disruptive but I also think they are protecting their turf from a whacky ‘creative’. I think it’s a mistake to NOT include people like me but on the other hand, it’s fun to be mysterious, even misunderstood.

Did You Ever Think Sneakers Would Take You This Far?
I never thought about how far I could go with the sneaker thing except that I knew Mark Parker and I were possibly on track to change the way shoes and sports apparel were designed and marketed. I just figured I might get a Christmas bonus for it or something like that.

Where Are Sneakers Going To Take You Next?
I’m still ‘concepting’ sneakers but more and more of the real design development and finishing is done by others. Mark Smith is a protege as is Eric Avar and a few others. Those guys are awesome and I think it’s more about me doing the downfield blocking for people with that kind of talent. There are some younger folks like Mark Minor, Ben Shaffer, Tiffany Beers and Jason Petrie who are killing it. I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve, but I really want to help others excel. I’ve had my time in the sun! It’s kinda crazy but I’m doing more architecture again. Big urban planning for the city of Portland, Nike Campus expansion, and sports facilities for the University of Oregon are all currently on my plate. Maybe I will slowly fade away from sneaker design altogether. On the other hand, designing other things may open my eyes up to more sneaker innovation. It’s happened before. Who knows?

What’s The Best Piece Of Advice You Could Offer Someone Trying To Make A Career In Sneakers?
Don’t just draw shoes. Learn the intricacies of other design disciplines like architecture, car design, toy design, environmental engineering, whatever. I’ve not seen truly ‘unique’ new sneaker work from anybody who just knows shoes.

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