The Elephant in the Room
by Russ BengtsonÂ
Tinker Hatfield is perhaps the most well-knownâ€”and deservedly soâ€”sneaker designer in the world. The one-time corporate architect is the man behind so many of Nike's legendary products and innovations, from Max Air to Huarache to cross-training (yes, the entire concept). But most of all, he's known for his work on the Air Jordan line, as the head designer behind III through XV inclusive (as well as the XX and the soon-to-be revealed XX3). And along with his actual shoe designs, he reinvented the process by which athletic shoes were designed, bringing the athletes themselves into the mix.
Which brings us to 1987. Hatfield was chosen to design the Air Jordan III, which not only would follow the revolutionary Italian-made Air Jordan II (designed by Bruce Kilgore, who was also responsible for the Air Force I), but would have to be so magical as to keep a disgruntled Jordan from bolting Nike. This is what's known as pressure.
Well, Hatfield kept his end of the bargain. Not only did he get Jordan involved in the creative process, the shoe that emerged at the end was nothing short of spectacular. A 3/4 cut design, the Air Jordan III stayed Swooshless, introduced Visible Air to the Air Jordan line, and was made that much more eyecatching by the use of an elephant-print leather on the heel and toe. As legend has it, Hatfield found a tie with a similar pattern in Jordan's closet (no surprise, given his sometimes jarring off-court fashion sense) and incorporated it into the shoe.
And that was that. The shoe took off, Hatfield continued to raise the bar every year, and the elephant print faded into the past along with other Air Jordan innovations such as faux-iguana and the ball-and-wings logo. It eventually would re-appear, but only on the sales-rack bound Air Jordan III retro that dropped in 1994.
Fast forward to 2002. With Nike utilizing the venerable Dunk to try and capture the elusive skateboard market, they did a collaboration with famed New York skateshop Supreme and brought out a Jordan III inspired shoe that flew off the shelves and immediately commanded ludicrous prices on the resale market. Elephant print, it seemed, was back.
The floodgates opened. Nike began using elephant print on all sorts of shoesâ€”an Air Max runner (or two), a P-Rod signature skate shoe, even a formerly entry-level basketball shoe. And other companies started using it on things that I don't even want to talk or think about. Don't even get me started on all-over prints or different colors. Or this.
Look, I LIKE elephant print. The IIIs are one of my favorite Jordans of all-time, and I've worn my Supreme lows into the ground. But there is certainly such thing as too much of a good thing. What made the IIIs (and in turn, the elephant print) so amazing the first time around was the ORIGINALITY. Not the print itself. Tinker Hatfield understood that, which is why he was able to go on to design the Air Jordan IV and leave the elephants alone. If only everyone else could do the same.