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SELECT 1 on 1: Marc Dolce on the Nike Lil’ Penny Posite

May 16, 2014by Aaron Kr.
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It’s no coincidence that Nike has had so many athlete endorsers whose popularity and selling power have transcended their respective eras. Sure, it helps that most of these names are legends in the sports world, but their ability to still move product years after their retirement is a testament to the mighty mystique of the Swoosh. Through the years, Nike has always found ways to celebrate their heritage and keep their foundational athlete roster fresh and relevant with one generation after the next.

Shoes and apparel linked to revered names like Bo Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr., Andre Agassi, and Deion Sanders continue to resonate with consumers of all ages despite the fact that these guys haven’t actually played their sports in years. Of course, we all know that MJ and his universally beloved Nike Air Jordan line were the archetype from which all this has flowed, but within the Nike Basketball retro universe, there is a definite hierarchy beneath him, and there’s no question that it’s Penny Hardaway at the top of that pyramid.

Apologies to Sir Charles, but aside from Jordan, no retired Nike Bball star can rival the lasting impact of the Penny line. Even before the Foamposite renaissance shot the Penny legacy to immortal heights, his various signature and by-association models were always an object of desire whenever they surfaced. Although his injury-plagued on-court career never got to reach its full potential, Hardaway’s legacy has endured thanks to the popularity of his shoes and Nike’s efforts to keep them in the spotlight.

Not counting the Air Foamposite One, Penny had four signature models during his playing days, but thanks to some recent efforts from the Nike Sportswear division, that number has since doubled. It started in 2009 with the introduction of the Air 1/2 Cent, which referenced the legendary Chris Rock-voiced Lil’ Penny character

and fused a bunch of classic Penny elements together for an enticing new hybrid silhouette. The Zoom Rookie LWP followed in 2011 using the same basic formula, but relying on a different set of Penny-centric inspirations for its design cues.

After that, the attention was shifted back to the original Air Penny lineage which received its first new addition in well over a decade with the unveiling of the Air Penny V in 2012 – a shoe that built off the existing Penny DNA to create a completely original design rather than another mash-up homage. Like the other new offerings that preceded it, the Penny V was met with a warm reception, but the true win was its ability to make the huge time lapse between numbered releases feel like an afterthought as it picked up right where the IV left off in terms of its aesthetic sensibilities.

Now as we look ahead to the release of the latest installment to the 1 Cent family, the Lil’ Penny Posite, it feels like we’re seeing the next evolutionary step. While it does give nods back to some older models, its identity is very much its own and there’s no mistaking it for a ’90s silhouette. With its sleek lines and modern design approach, it’s apparent that the Lil’ Penny Posite is a look at the future of the Penny line, and while that attempted blend of old meets new can be the kiss of death for some, this shoe is clearly too ambitious to be denied.

The difference between these latter day Penny offerings and other like-minded revamped retro efforts is that they’ve been able to not only tap into what made the line a success in the first place, but also translate those ideas in a contemporary way that has made them even more desirable to the current generation of sneaker

enthusiasts than some of the retros. As we all know, surpassing the classics in terms of market demand is a tough nut to crack, but so far, Nike has made all the right moves when it comes to the evolution of the Penny silo.

The first Lil’ Penny Posite colorway will release this weekend as part of the Shooting Stars pack, but before they’re unleashed, we caught up with Marc Dolce, NSW Footwear Design Director for Basketball & NFL to get the inside scoop on one of the year’s most anticipated releases. Marc is responsible for a ton of great NSW models that you’ve bought and loved, and has perhaps most notably been at the helm of the Nike Penny resurgence, so who better to get the story from. Continue on for the full interview, as well as a look at the Lil Penny Posite and a slew of samples that give some insight into various stages of the design process.

Sneaker News:  All these years after Penny’s retirement, his name and his shoes are still a big deal in the Nike universe. What do you think makes the Penny line such an enduring part of the Nike heritage fabric?

Marc Dolce:  Penny was an amazing player!  Through the years, Nike has been able to partner with so many great athletes in the past and present.  It’s what inspired me to join the brand and the emotional connection I have with Nike. Looking back, Penny and MJ had the most iconic shoes in the industry. They were amazing on the court but it’s how they transitioned off the court to the streets that really separated them.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, each of Penny’s shoes were highly coveted. I remember the first time I saw the Foamposite at retail and couldn’t believe how futuristic it was.  I tried to figure out how they were made, and it still looks modern almost 20 years later.  His shoes were a staple of Nike’s archive and history, and the commercials were also classic, with cameos from Tyra, Spike and Lil Penny.

Round 1: The very first sample pullover. Test for shape and proportion.

Round 1: Adjusting the toe color blocking.

Round 2: Pattern trial before the molding, taped up corrections for design revisions.

SN: In addition to the lifesize Penny Hardaway, the beloved Lil Penny character has also stood the test of time and been regularly featured and referenced on Nike releases. What made it the right time to finally give him the ultimate honor of naming a shoe after him?

Marc: Knee High and Livin’ Large! Lil Penny helped the consumer connect to Penny’s life and personality in a unique way. Penny was a little quiet and shy when he first came into the league, and Lil Penny really was a more animated and loud alter ego for him. He also played an important part of the All-Star weekend in New Orleans this past February as Nike’s lead story teller.

Part of my role at Nike as Design Director is to work with a great team and help curate the Basketball archive. Each season, I think it’s important to tell the story of the past and share insights with kids today that they might not be particularly familiar with. In NSW, we have the opportunity to have fun when we tell the stories.

We thought Lil Penny would be a clever way for us to explore the personalities and drive a unique color and material perspective, drafting off of things like Lil Penny playing golf, the Frozen Moment ad, or his expertise as a chef.

It’s interesting to think about how our consumer wasn’t even born when some of the Lil Penny commercials first came out. We started the Lil Penny concept with the 1/2 Cent in 2009 and revisited him again in 2013 with the Frozen Moment commercial & Bubble Gum-inspired Penny 5. Now we’re excited for the full launch of the Lil Penny Posite in 2014.

SN:  Compared to the more literal call-outs on the 1/2 Cent and Zoom Rookie, the Lil Penny Posite appears to be less built off the existing Penny framework and more unique and original in its design. Where did you draw the aesthetic cues from for this model and what prompted the new direction?

Marc:  It’s important to have a balance of the past lineage and DNA, so there are some details from the Air Up and Foamposite. You’ll see some nods to the flow of the Air Up in the shapes on the upper here. The construction is similar to the Zoom Rookie. It helps create a family and builds on the success of the past models. It’s also important to bring the model into the future with detail, shape,

construction and innovation. Penny’s DNA with Foamposite was cutting edge, so with the new model we wanted to again push the technology to a new direction.  A strong character line defines the upper, which was originally inspired by Penny’s love of cars in his garage.  It helps accentuate the shape with dramatic highlights and shadows through the toe box.

Round 3: Refining the toe shape, referencing the Air Up pattern.

Round 3: Refining the outsole.

Early versions featured the 1 Cent logo on the tongue rather than the Lil Penny silhouette.

SN:  With most of the newer Penny offerings falling under the Nike Sportswear umbrella, are they still created with performance basketball principles in mind?

Marc:  At Nike, innovation and performance are the key drivers for the brand.  In NSW, our focus is on driving comfort from the inside out. We’ve created products like the AF1 Comfort, the Lunar Force 1, and the Huarache NM.

We also want to dab into premium craft, with treatments like Cork, Denim, suede, and florals. Our primary goals are to make the product more comfortable for people to wear on a daily basis.

Round 4: Higher topline.

Round 4: Swoosh placement and adjusting outsole.

Round 4: Original rounder heel design.

SN:  Can you give us a quick rundown of some of the tech and material features of the Lil Penny Posite?

Marc:  Overall the upper is made with Nike’s metallic armour finish and there are reflective details and overlays too. It’s designed in a way for the upper to be more flexible. We removed the traditional nubuck eyestay material that you saw on the Foamposite and Rookie for a sleeker look here.

The hero is the chrome molded ankle wing that provides support and adds a bit of style.  The shoe features a full inner sleeve, for a secure and snug fit and just a comfortable feel. Your foot rides on a full-length Lunarlon midsole with a heel Zoom airbag.

Upper molded components.

Original outsole design and printed outsole test sample.

Final outsole, 3D print.

SN:  Is Penny still involved in the design and conceptual process when you create these new models for him and does he provide feedback along the way?

Marc:  Absolutely! It all starts with a phone call and talking about the initial brief and goal for the project.  We talk about some of his influences and insights. We traditionally work 2 years in advance and during the development process, he’ll text us ideas and share photos of items that can push the project into a new space.

Most of the PEs in the past are direct requests from Penny, like the “Shooting Stars” Foamposite or “Memphis Blue” Rookies. We’ll also meet with him several times to review the progress and talk about color, graphics and materials. Penny has built a great relationship with the entire team and it helps us to build rich stories and to create product that speaks directly from the athlete.

Round 4: Test sample with printed graphic.

Round 4: Heel modifications.

SN:  What was the thought process behind combining the Lil Penny Posite with an Air Foamposite One for the Shooting Stars two-pack?

Marc:  That was easy! During a meeting with product team, we talked about showcasing the story of Lil Penny. We all remembered the classic commercial where Lil Penny is sitting on the couch and asking when he’s going to get his own shoe. This became that opportunity to tell that story, and we wanted to highlight the new

model and complement it with a classic Penny shoe to create a special commemorative 2-shoe box set. Opposites attract, so there’s one white shoe and one black shoe. Inside the box lid, there’s the classic Lil Penny line, “You guys remind me of my shoe closet…I got 2 Pennies and a bunch of loafers!”

SN:  At this point, Penny has had almost as many shoes post-retirement as he had in his playing days. How far can the Nike Penny line continue to grow in the future?

Marc:  He has, and I think there’s still so much opportunity! Our goal is to build compelling product that our consumers cherish, and just like we’ve seen Michael’s footwear be coveted by a new generation, Penny gets that same respect from kids today.

We look at Penny’s career and life as a storybook with different chapters, and we’re taking the consumer on a journey. During his career, he had 5 amazing signature shoes in the Air Penny 1-4 and the Foamposite that Eric Avar designed. He also wore some great shoes before his signature shoe, like the Flight One, Air Up and Go LWP.

We’ve created prequels with shoes like the Zoom Rookie, a hybrid with the Half Cent, and most recently, we also extended his signature series with the Penny 5.

Our team is always really excited to work with Penny and he’s so involved and still loves giving his feedback all these years later to make sure his shoes have that added layer of character and detail. Hopefully that’s shown through as we continue to introduce new models and themes for him, and we’re all looking forward to what’s in store for the Lil Penny Posite. There will be more chapters in his story.

A huge thanks to Marc Dolce and NSW. Look out for the debut of the Nike Lil’ Penny Posite as part of the Shooting Stars pack releasing this Saturday, May 17th at select retailers.