Getting in the Game
by Jeff Henderson·
Without question there will be 6,453 versions of everything that happened at Nike at any given point.
72% of these stories are true.
It’s all perspective.
I say this because the complexity of Nike is driven by opinions that become fact that become legend that become myth that become more complicated than anyone might imagine. A meeting that included 4 people will have 7 stories the next day. 25 versions two years later.
So think of the stories you hear out of Beaverton less as rumor or fact. Just accept it as both educational and old-fashioned marketing. You’re talking about their brand, so they win.
While I have my share of stories — all of which I’m the hero in, obviously — I want to talk about the individual that gave me my first brief.
When I first landed in Beaverton our world was grounded by Howard and Donna White. Black people were rare in Oregon, so a family that adopted us the way the White’s did was immeasurable.
At work I was trying to figure out how to break into the design world. I had found amazing coaching from designers like Andre Doxey, Ray Butts, Mike Aveni and Caprice Neely, but the best they could do for me was show what to do ‘if’ I got a project. They showed me how to play.
I needed to get in the game.
One day I’m walking out of the Michael Jordan building when a brother I hadn’t met yet is stumbling through the security door with two giant duffle bags. We shared the official ‘black hellos’ because we were rare on campus and then he says, “Yo! Check these out.”
As unimpressed campus dwellers passed us by, this guy starts pulling shoe after shoe out of his bag. Air Max 95, Bo Jackson, Air Force 1. Color after color. I am literally drooling while people walk by as though he’s showing me drying paint.
“I’m Drew Greer,” he explains. “I do SMU’s.”
Special Make-Ups is a term for projects that typically go through a filter other than the global category team — which delivers inLine or Mainline offerings. This SMU product is given a regional twist through color or material or sometimes can be a completely new product. McDonald’s makes the McRib for a limited time and adds wasabi in Tokyo. Those would be SMU’s.
Drew was showing me new colors of shoes that the world had only seen in 5 colors at best.
Working in the Michael Jordan building I had already seen the Jordan 14 and Pam Greene’s paintings. After two months I was numb to athletes and innovation projects. What this man was pulling out of his bag was a cultural experience.
Why was I not in a mob of people trying to see what he was about to pull out these two magical duffel bags?
“These cats here don’t understand what I’m holding,” Drew laughed as I gritted my teeth because I knew they weren’t my size.
“When we get sizes, I got you!” Drew explained before I could think of asking. “I need the right folks wearing these on campus so these folks can learn.”
This was 1996. Pre-internet. Marketing couldn’t read three pages of Hypebeast to fake culture. You had the vibe or you didn’t.
I explained to Drew that I wanted to be a designer.
“Word! Young brother, hit me. I got ideas,” Drew explained as he zipped up his duffel bags of unbelievable magic.
Over the next couple of weeks I’d stop by Drew’s office and walk away with everything he had to share. I was never a collector so I’d wear them and move on. From Sheed’s to Roc-a-fella’s, I had more AF1’s than I could handle.
I watched how Drew built a small SMU collection focused on urban doors in NYC into an international phenomenon with the help of the Sams, the Jerrys, the Fultons, the Motokis, the Leyvas, the Vaughns, the Parkers (if you know, you know).
In my simple mind I saw him flip three shoes in the beginning: the Max 95, the Bo Jackson and the Air Force 1.
The Power of Three
The ’95 was hot from day one. The Max ’96 was a brick and folks weren’t over the shoe with the gradation. That shoe went hard. They did big numbers. Everybody got a pair.
And then it dropped.
The ’95 is so iconic that you can’t wear it everyday. You can’t look at it everyday. It’s not a staple. It’s an experience. It’s dessert. It’s special.
But that was the heat — and business — Drew needed to build from.
Second on the list was the Bo Jackson — the Trainer SC. Obvious in a lot of ways, the ‘Bo Knows’ campaign helped build Nike and those shoes invented the category of cross-training. People were asking for it.
Color and silhouette weren’t a for with what people were wearing and it wasn’t unisex like the ’95. In comparison to the ’95 it was a no-show.
And then there was the Air Force 1.
I don’t know if that shoe was on shelves when Drew put his out, but Uptown was asking for the Uptown.
The slow burn of that one shoe was blocked by the flash of the ’95. The team in NYC was allowed to grow the legend with cultural partners in a way that made it stick. Drew became synonymous with building demand for sneakers by limiting the production and distribution. This kept the shoes hot.
From my low-life vantage point I watched the AF1 pay for what would become NSW (there were about 12 name and business evolutions before its current alignment with performance and fashion). Building new product to the mix of vintage product was an obvious feature that needed within the group. I watched as performance categories treated these projects, designers and teams as lesser-than (until they started selling).
Legend has it that the basketball category was asked to share their resources to allow space for some of those retro models. “We make a billion dollars on new, performance product. Why would Nike Basketball do old shoes?”
As this growing business worked with existing SMU designers, Drew found an opportunity to plug me in. He wanted to do a slip-on shoe and asked me to draw something.
“Existing tooling. Running. Make it hot. Maybe even a mule. Do your thing.”
Of course Drew had a real brief with photos and words and consumers and numbers but I learned early that any vibe between a PLM, a developer and a designer that needed a brief typically meant that there really wasn’t a vibe.
So I grabbed two toolings (sole units that include midsole and outsole) from running and began to “draw something” for these new projects. I soon found out that the toolings I chose were not available for SMU use. There were lots of reasons why you couldn’t just use any tooling to build the shoe you wanted to make. The category might not want to share the technology. The factory where the tooling exists might not have enough capacity to develop or produce the new shoe. The last you want to use isn’t the last that was used on the tooling.
My mentor on this journey was Caprice Neely. Without pause she answered every silly question I had. There were 50 reasons why the tooling choice was critical beyond my wishes. I wouldn’t have learned any of those reasons if I hadn’t found a spot on that team. Caprice and her squad walked me through what would work and what wouldn’t.
Eventually the team found a tooling that worked and I kept drawing.
Along the way there were several other hurdles but we eventually made a sample. That sample turned into the final product and the Air Max Willy was born. The run was so limited that I couldn’t even tell my family where to buy it. I got plenty of side-eye from performance designers because I was doing fashion — the “f” word.
I don’t love the shoe that much. I think the Morse code says ‘NIKE’ and ‘WILLY”. There were plenty of mules and slip-on shoes that followed, so we must have done something right. I recently learned that a beloved peer is responsible for the Fila Disruptor 2 and he’s as much proud and embarrassed at the same time. Think of it like your high school fashion choices.
The Willy featured a stretch material to keep the shoe from slipping off. The Morse code was confusing for the factory because they didn’t understand that it had to go in one direction. The small logo was not the vibe on campus in those days. That shoe was not a favorite in my portfolio for hiring managers.
None of that mattered.
Kanye often tells the story of his first fashion show. “The headline read ‘Kanye West’s Paris Fashion Show was a Disaster”. All I read was ‘Kanye West’s Paris Fashion Show,’ so I’m good.”
I’m thankful to Drew for stopping me in front of the Michael Jordan building to share what was in those duffle bags that afternoon.
Nothing but magic.