LeBron’s sneaker designer: ‘He definitely takes what he wears seriously’

Nike designer Jason Petrie said of LeBron James: “He definitely takes what he wears seriously and he’s always said, ‘It’s got to be hot.’” 

JR Smith started the season in a terrible rut. Through his first 10 games he reached double digits in the scoring column just twice, shooting 27.5 percent from the field and 23.4 percent from 3 during that span. Then he busted out of the slump with 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting (5-of-7 from deep) in a 124-119 Cavaliers win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

What changed?

“I told him it was the shoes,” LeBron James said afterward. “He finally decided to wear my shoes.”

Indeed, Smith donned the LeBron 15 in the “Pride of Ohio” colorway that game and has kept on wearing them. In the Cavs’ past five games, starting with the Milwaukee win, Smith has reached double digits four times and is shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from 3.

That’s not the only way the shoe has been noticed. Starting with its debut at New York Fashion Week in September, the LeBron 15 has stood out for being different from its predecessors. As Trey Kerby, noted sneaker aficionado and co-host of “The Starters” on NBA TV, put it, “LeBron XV is the Jordan XI of the LeBron line.”

ESPN recently caught up with Jason Petrie, the designer of the LeBron 15, to talk about how the shoe came to be and how LeBron James’ tastes have evolved.

Q: What caused the line to take a pretty strong diversion from what the shoe looked like the last several years?

A: I think really the major contributor to that was being able to build the upper a brand-new way with the new expression of Flyknit that we were able to use. Being able to build a shoe that contains LeBron — which is kind of always the problem, it’s why we build shoes the way we do for him just to try to hold his foot in place and give him the protection that he needs — with this kind of advance in Flyknit, it allowed us to strip out a lot of layers, strip away bulk and extra weight and excess so you get kind of a new silhouette.

Q: I saw swatch of the Flyknit Battle up close and it looks almost like chain mail or something. There is flexibility to it, but strength to it. How involved as a designer are you with the technology that you have available to you?

A: The team that works on our knit products, they’re literally geniuses when it comes to their craft. And with this, we actually knit it in a completely different direction to achieve what we wanted, and what we wanted was a knit that contained his foot but needed to be flexible. It took a couple years to get there. We had the same reaction that you had when looking at the swath. Like, wow, that really looks like chain mail or an animal skin, like dragon scales.

LeBron and I and his team went on a trip to Shaanxi, China, a few years ago and we were able to see the Terracotta Warriors, and I remember us all being kind of struck by the armor on those warriors. And looking back on the history of base-layer protection on warriors through medieval times with chain mail, modern military with formfitting, kind of biometric webbed suits — it kind of all bled into that deal as we worked that problem together.

Q: LeBron made this shoe’s debut at a fashion show. Certainly his last three shoes, there was no mistaking, they were basketball shoes. This shoe has a bit of a crossover appeal. How did that come about?

A: He definitely takes what he wears seriously and he’s always said, ‘It’s got to be hot.’ He understands where most people wear their shoes is off-court. And that’s something we always have in the back of our minds. LeBron, he wants to be fashionable, but he also wants to be unique and kind of do his own thing, not really follow what other folks are doing. Fashion, it is considered, but it’s all driven by the function of the shoe first.

Q: For a while, LeBron’s signature shoe compared to the Jordan line or the Kobes was different because it showed the airbag. Then you hid it. And now it’s back. What went into that decision?

A: Well, LeBron has always liked playing on Air Max. Even going back to the LeBron 2, it was max volume Zoom Air because going back to that need to protect him from himself. And starting again with the 7, we kind of pumped up Air Max with the 10. I think he’d tell you that’s his all-time favorite ride as far as playing basketball in. That had a full-length Zoom/Air Max combo. But it was bulky and we felt like we could do a little better than that. So, we worked on things like Hex Zoom and used all those learnings from all those years and put it together with the best of what we’ve done in the past to create this new Air Max and Zoom combination bag. It’s a culmination of all of the learnings that we had over the course of LeBron’s line, which is really cool.

Q: With Nike Basketball having four active guys with their own shoe, is there pressure to have LeBron’s shoe be unique from the other guys’ shoes?

A: The cool thing is we all sit together so we all pretty much are constantly critiquing each other’s work in one way or another. Really getting inspired by something that someone is doing or jokes about what someone is doing or whatever it is — it’s a pretty ruthless crowd, but in a good way.

But I do think the guys that we have really have a whole different style to them. LeBron is so much different than Paul [George]. Paul is so much different than [Kevin Durant]. Their personalities, their style really funnel us down a totally different direction most of the time, where you end up with different products and expressions that a lot of times look like they embody the athlete.

Q: Do you have a favorite shoe in the LeBron line? You said the 10 was LeBron’s favorite ride, but do you have a favorite shoe aesthetic-wise in the line?

A: I definitely am a LeBron 2 fan. That thing, really for me, that was when I had just started at Nike. I was a year or two there and it was just so inspiring to see. It was just perfect. It was just a great basketball shoe. Durable. You could flip the strap a bunch of different ways. It had the lasering on it. It had the first “dunkman.” I still love that shoe. I can’t wait for the retro. That’s a classic, no doubt.

Q: A signature shoe used to come out in 5-6 colorways, now a new shoe seems like it has 15. Is that exciting for a designer or is it like, man, you can’t ever get out from the rabbit hole because you could just keep going and going and going with the combinations that you could come up with?

A: It is fun to sometimes go crazy when a shoe can start looking really good in colors and you can have some fun with it. You’re right, you can go all day and we probably shouldn’t on most of those because a lot of times you come back to it a year later and you’re like, ‘What were we thinking?’ So we try to only put it out if it’s meaningful, and a lot of times we have added a lot of new stories just because there was so much to tell.

Q: How far in advance are you working ahead on the next shoe? And, I guess you can tell me when LeBron is going to retire if you’re working on the LeBron 20 already, he’s going to stick around that long.

A: [Laughter] Something tells me I will not know that in advance. I’ll get the shoe ready and it will be, ‘Well, that’s going to be the retirement shoe. Let’s put in a soft insole and just let it be for walking around.’ But typically we’re 18 months out with any kind of shoe, and with LeBron I’m kind of constantly following him around and having checkpoints with him through the year to see what he’s into, what he’s going to be into, so we’re constantly thinking about the future.

Q: On this particular shoe, you shared with me the inspiration from the Terracotta Warriors and seeing the armor. Do you make sure that you have time that you spend with LeBron? Do you always take an overseas trip with him just to have those opportunities where you both can brainstorm together?

A: Absolutely. I just was in Asia with him [this summer]. We try to meet with him a few times a year, catch a couple games. He obviously comes out to Portland for a week of business meetings which is another great time to be able to interact with him. And then, we keep the lines of communication open. And I use that a lot in meetings, in arguments. You know, ‘Hey, listen, I just talked to LeBron yesterday and he said he needs this, that and the other thing.’ That gets a lot of stuff done.

Q: So what level of detailed feedback is he giving? Is he taking out a stylus and pointing to certain parts of the shoe that he’d like specific changes? Or is it more of a general conversation or are you texting about it?

A: It’s kind of a little bit of all that. The stylus hasn’t yet come out but that would be freaking awesome. But it certainly starts with conversation and that initial thought. And he definitely is right there with, ‘Hey, I didn’t like this topline. … This looks a little bulky. … This colorway, I don’t want to do that colorway because I’m not into it anymore. … Where’s my logo going to be? … No, I don’t like the placement as that.’ He’s as involved as you’d want somebody to be. But my job is to filter all that input initially so that what he sees the first time isn’t wildly off base, so it’s kind of in the zone already and he and I have a vibe as far as how that plays out and what that aesthetic is.

Q: His lion logo is on the bottom of the shoe. The crown logo is on the leather pull tab. It’s subtle. And even the swoosh is on the back of the shoe. You could look at that shoe quickly and not even know that it’s necessarily LeBron or necessarily Nike. Is that a risk?

A: We didn’t want to crowd the design with logos for a couple reasons. One, applying the logo to that upper was really difficult. It kind of does a lot of damage to the upper. And just, we felt like it fought against the beauty of the product solution. The form was really pure. So we didn’t want to dictate the design around the logo. We wanted the logo to fit in where it kind of fit naturally. And with a guy like LeBron, everybody knows that he plays for Nike. He’s obviously a Nike lifer. It also harkens back to the Foamposite 1 on Arizona in the [1997] NCAA semifinals. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that it was Nike and that it was special.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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