In honour of the sneaker's 25th anniversary, guest editor Chris Danforth dissects the origin tale of MJ’s favourite Jumpman silhouette.
On paper, the Nike Air Jordan XI is not a conventional basketball shoe. It wasn’t when it first released in 1995, and it isn’t now.
The Jordan XI is marked by several distinctions, and most notably, is known for being one of the best-selling Nike shoes of all time and Michael Jordan’s personal favourite in the Jumpman lineage. “It’s hard, you know,” Jordan famously commented, “It’s like saying ‘Which one of your kids do you like the most?’ XIs are my favorite. IIIs are my next-favorite. Probably XII or XIII comes in third.”
But the success of the Jordan XI is even more astounding if you consider the design process of the shoe started in 1993, the same year that Michael Jordan announced that he was planning to step away from the NBA. At the same time, some at Nike argued that Jordan’s signature line should in fact conclude with the Air Jordan X.
When he returned to the league in 1995, Jordan was so infatuated with the XI, that the OG “Concord” colorway was the only shoe he laced up for the regular season in ’95-’96, the beginning of his second three-peat with the Bulls. That year, Jordan was named MVP, All-Star MVP, and Finals MVP, on the road to securing his fourth NBA championship. He led the league in scoring, and the Bulls clinched the best regular season record in NBA history at the time, 72–10. It’s gotta be the shoes, right?
Designer of numerous Jordan models, the first of which being the Jordan III, Tinker Hatfield revealed, “Like an athlete who's trying to win, I sort of took over and I put more thought and more technology and more innovation into the idea of the Jordan XI than anything I'd ever done before in my entire life at Nike.” This thinking resulted in two of the shoe’s definitive features; a full-length carbon-fiber plate, coupled with full-length Nike Air cushioning, and the eye-catching patent-leather rand. The patent leather was actually a request from Jordan, who had asked about the possibility of making a shiny leather basketball shoe.
Ken Black - art director and product graphic designer for the Jordan XI - worked with a team that included Hatfield, as well as other developers and designers for footwear and apparel. Black told END., “We weren’t designing a shoe, we were creating a story about the greatest player to ever set foot on the court and the style he brings to the game and the world, in the form of a shoe.”
Speaking on the decision to feature patent leather, Black explained, “At that time, Michael was really into dressing to the nines, and he was talking about a patent leather shoe that you could wear with a tuxedo. So crafting a shoe that had the ability to be worn with a tuxedo informed everything we did. Including using the branding as a clean detail across the top of the foot, positioned perfectly between the laces as you look down at it. That was inspired by how fashion brands like Prada and Armani would handle branding on a product like this.”
"I put more thought and more technology and more innovation into the idea of the Jordan XI than anything I'd ever done before in my entire life at Nike."
- Tinker Hatfield -
"We weren’t designing a shoe, we were creating a story about the greatest player to ever set foot on the court"
- Ken Black -
Carbon fiber elements in the sole unit are another definitive feature of the XI. Black notes, “I can remember these carbon fiber plates when they came in being super strong and having cool flex to them while being super lightweight and also looking amazing. I think the carbon fiber was probably part of the reason for the clear outsole. Tinker knew that seeing the technology (like exposed Air from years before) added to the impact of the design solution.”
Hatfield created the first version of the shoe in a pared-down, black and white colorway. The shoe’s OG “Concord” colorway actually comes from the purple hits on the sole, “I chose Concord Purple just to mess with people,” explained Tinker.
Jordan was then given an early version of the XI, and asked not to wear it until the official release date. Of course he did no such thing. He laced up his early pair for the first time in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals vs. the Orlando Magic, and the rest is history.
In 1996, the Jordan XI appeared on the silver screen in ‘Space Jam,’ a cultural moment which helped shape an entire generation’s perception of Michael Jordan and Air Jordan sneakers. This animated classic also birthed a new colorway of the Jordan XI, aptly dubbed the “Space Jam” edition. The sneaker has become inseparable from the movie itself, just as much as (if not more than) the movie’s de facto soundtrack “I Believe I Can Fly.” When the “Space Jam” XI was last treated to a retro release in 2017, it was the largest and most successful shoe launch in the history of Nike, according to Nike president Trevor Edwards.
Today, Nike Air Jordan XI remains a keystone of sneaker culture, and one of the most collectable basketball shoes of all time, even decades after Michael Jordan wore them on the court. The holiday Jordan XI drop is an event that sneakerheads hold their breath for all year long, and the last few years have brought us retro versions of the “Bred,” “Concord,” and “Space Jam” colorways.
This year, Jordan has introduced the “Jubilee” XI, a new colorway that celebrates the 25th anniversary of the shoe. Inspired by original sketches of the Air Jordan XI, the “Jubilee” edition is punctuated by silver accents and detailing, as well as Jordan lettering on the eyestays as a nod to OG samples.
Nike Air Jordan 11 Retro 'Jubilee'