The team at Sole Collector recently had an incredible opportunity to sit down with the creative minds behind the Nike Zoom Kobe V. The latest in the line of Nike’s signature Kobe Bryant shoes has been seen all over the hardwood of the NBA this season. There is no doubt that it performs well, especially with the number of players from teams other than the Los Angeles Lakers wearing various colorways of the shoe, but what is it like to see your design on the feet of NBA stars? Senior Designer Eric Avar, Innovator Tom Luedecke and Senior Developer Jeff Spanks can tell you. They can also tell you that a lot more goes into the process of creating a shoe for one of the league’s top players than you might imagine. Take a look at the discussion that took place below and some great photos of the process in creating the Zoom Kobe V.

words & images_Zac Dubasik
interview_Nick DePaula

When the news hit that Kobe Bryant would be playing in a low-top signature shoe, the hoops world was caught off guard. We expected Kobe to push performance, but would a low-top provide the protection that one of the most dynamic players in the world needed to play up to his full potential? Kobe wasted exactly zero time proving that he could not only play in a low, but that he could excel in it and go all the way to an NBA title in the Zoom Kobe IV last season.

Once the shoe hit the masses, it only took about one wearing for ballers to realize that when a shoe fits as well as the Zoom Kobe IV did, it can be even more reassuring than kicks with a much higher cut. (Ironically, it also took about that same amount of time for the shoe’s forefoot Lunar Foam to bottom out.) Lunar Foam aside, from the traction, to the weight, to the fit, the IV set new standards for what a performance basketball shoe could be. When you find something this good, you almost hope they just don’t mess it up with the next one. You aren’t looking for them to reinvent the wheel (or at least the collar foam package). That’s already happened. But an evolution of the Zoom Kobe IV set a premise that has had sneaker fans eagerly awaiting the V.

Challenged with this high-profile task was a team led by Senior Designer Eric Avar, Innovator Tom Luedecke and Senior Developer Jeff Spanks, all of Nike’s Innovation Kitchen. Luckily for them, they also had some help from Kobe along the way. That’s an invaluable tool in their eyes. “You can quote me on this,” Avar says defiantly. “Kobe is one of the most intelligent, articulate and creative, not just athletes, but individuals, that I’ve met. It’s fun, and it’s an honor to work with him. And I think it reflects that in the product.” Sole Collector caught up with this elite design and development team for a roundtable discussion on the details of the process, and how they were able to create an even more holistic and refined version of the instantly classic Zoom Kobe IV.

To read the full-length version of our interview with the Innovation Kitchen team, be sure to check out Issue 32 of Sole Collector.

Nick DePaula: With the IV being the catalyst for the low cut, what were the things you wanted to improve upon when you started the V?
Eric Avar: You can always improve performance. There’re always improvements you can make. There were a few things with regards to the IV that we wanted to improve. Primarily, Kobe wanted to keep down the path of getting lower – more in collar heights. I think we’ve kind of reached the critical mass points on going too much lower in terms of underfoot heights with the midsole and forefoot and heel. We are always looking to see if we can go lower there, but that requires a little more. So, lower in terms of collar heights, lighter weight, better fit – which we’ve really accomplished with the new Flywire materials and construction. So lower, lighter weight, more responsive, better fit.

Tom Luedecke: It’s just answering to the athlete. Lower, lighter and then, paying attention to the colorways. Every single one will have direct inspiration from the athlete.

NDP: In terms of design lines, how were you trying to make it different than the IV, and was there anything you wanted to carry over?
Avar: There’s one Kobe quote that we always reference a lot, even though each shoe may be different. One of the quotes that we reference, that I think holds true that is a little bit of a standard foundational piece is that he likes something that’s sleek, sharp, precise, because that’s how he plays his game, and it reflects his game. So, I think there’s always an element to some of his product that it’s not too curvy or linear; it’s not too wavy. It is sleek; the lines are sleek. They’re purposeful; they’re a little aggressive. They are slightly sharper, but not too sharp – still in an anatomical way. I just think that’s something that will hold true for Kobe design going forward.

NDP: In terms of materials, this toe is obviously a little firmer. Can you talk about how you guys started to do the bonding process and how that was different than the past shoes, too?
Jeff Spanks: One of the evolutions is going from the flywire technology that we originally had to this new flywire execution. … It’s basically a skin – a PU skin that’s really thin. Again, it’s trying to get you a lighter-weight product. We’re going from a package that was used on the Hyperdunk that had some weight to it for durability purposes, and you are always creating an evolution of that product. We’ve basically cut that weight in half for this package, but at the same time are providing the same amount of support. And then on the design side, Eric and Tom have done a great job of adding additional support in just the areas you need it, and not putting it all over the entire upper, which creates stiffness in the product and doesn’t allow it to work with your foot. And it affects the dynamic fit we were looking for, too. It’s a combination of the new package that we were able to put together with great design and layering of those skins.

Luedecke: It actually started with the IV. Just before we needed to sign off on the IV, we tried working on those skins and tried getting those on the IV even. I think even the last interview we did on the IV, we said there were some carryovers that we were trying to work on with the IV that didn’t quite make it. Well, that’s one of them. We were playing with these skins on the IV; we couldn’t get them quite ready in time, but we made sure with the V that they were there, because they are a major new improvement.

Avar: As Jeff was saying, it’s literally half the weight and half the thickness of the original Flywire construction. And it’s a little more dynamic. The overall package allows the whole shoe to cinch in and fit better. You get more of that one-to-one fit. And that was one of Kobe’s first comments when he tried them on. He thought it just fit like a glove.

Above: Senior Developer Jeff Spanks

NDP: And the strength tested just as well as the IV?
Luedecke: It’s actually better, because it fits better.

NDP: Did the Flywire alignment change at all along the strand?
Avar: Yeah. With the IV, it was a little more [of a] straight, which is good. And I think with the TPU construction, that was a good construction. But now with the skins, which are a little more dynamic, I think it was more important than ever to engineer the fibers in a particular configuration.

Luedecke: It’s actually based on the Lance Armstrong cycling shoe. So working with different guys and different parts – just learning how different people in the company are using flywire, and doing it specifically to the lateral and medial sides. On the medial side, you can still see the strands pulling directly in strands of four to the eyelet, straight up. And the lateral side is more like woven spokes on a bicycle.

Avar: [points to medial side] These are more linear, so you get that straight pull, and it allows for a little more flexibility in between, so it really cinches up through the arch. And then here [points to the lateral side] you start crisscrossing, sort of a weave, and as soon as you do that, you start to create more structure. So, where you really need that on the lateral side, for lateral cuts and support, if you look close, you start to see more of that weaving.

Spanks: And on the medial arch, too, there’s more of a sharper radius there, so you want that shape to really fit into the arch and to create it. So, by putting linear flywires, it allows [it] to fit better, but to create enough structure for support.

Above: Eric Avar, pointing out the more straight medial Flywire alignment.

NDP: Can you talk about the tongue a bit? That is almost like a Sphere liner from a couple years past, but still pretty different. Is that something we’ll be seeing going forward with all of the Kobe stuff?
Luedecke: If you take a look at the Hyperdunk, that had a super lofty mesh on the tongue. On the IV, I think we did something similar, taking those learnings and putting them on the IV. On this we said, OK, we want the same breathability and comfort, but maybe a little more lace pressure reduction, so that when you do cinch it
up really right—because this is a tighter package, you do want to be able to lace it up like a soccer shoe—you want to make sure there isn’t too much pressure on the cone of the foot. There’s actually a foam package in there, but it’s cored out.

Avar: We were just trying to continue with the lightweight aspect of it, and also just breathability. It’s definitely a little more breathable than your average tongue.

Spanks: And the foam technology is quite different than the Sphere technology. It’s an EVA execution, or a “new foam” execution … where most of the other Sphere ones have been like a PU foam that doesn’t have the resiliency of comfort that this does. It’s a higher-level version of it. But it is similar cosmetically.

[Directed at Tom] NDP: Last year you talked about how getting collar foam correct took almost the entire process of the shoe. Did that experience make it any easier this time around?
Luedecke: We basically just said to the factory [to] match the IV. That’s one of those things that when you come to a good place, there needs to be a really good reason to step away from it at that point. Obviously we had a bird in the hand with the new flywire execution, in terms of knowing there is going to be something
better than the Hyperdunk or the IV—the next evolution of it—so there’s a great reason to move forward and push hard. But when you get to collar fit in basketball shoes and you find something that works, it’s good. It’s a good thing.

NDP: And this height is just a little bit lower than the IV , right?
Avar: The tongue top and the back tab are all pretty close; it was just primarily this dip.

Luedecke: Nine or ten [millimeters] here [points to collar], and then about five here [points to heel], and I think the tongue top is about the same.

NDP: Another big shift in the shoe is the cushioning, as there’s now Zoom Air in the forefoot of the Kobe V instead of Lunar Foam. Was that based on internal findings on the Lunar Foam?
Luedecke: No, that was your feedback on the Hyperdunk.

NDP: Yeah right. [laughs]

Avar: See, we listen. [laughs]

Luedecke: That’s where it started; I’m not kidding. We were talking about the Hyperdunk when you interviewed us on the Kobe IV, and you were like, “I love the Hyperdunk, but that Lunar Foam crashes out too early.” And literally the same day, we put notes down on paper. So, thank you Nick, it’s all on Sole Collector. [everyone laughs]

Avar: We’d gotten that feedback a fair amount. We still feel like there’s value in Lunar Foam, and we are looking at different executions where we can maximize it a little bit more and have a little more longevity out of it. I think the underfoot feel is very promising. But Kobe also commented, too, that for impact protection, he’s a bigger fan of Zoom.

Spanks: There’ll be different versions of Lunar Foam down the road, but this just fit really well with the execution and the design.

Luedecke: Just like Flywire, you need to get something out that works, and then you keep making it better, and hopefully keep making it better. That’s part of our job and mission statement.

NDP: So how did you decide on the met Zoom Air bag as compared to a wider one that extends across the forefoot?
Luedecke: It goes all the way back to the 2K4.

Avar: We analyzed the peak pressures of where you really need it, and it also, I just think, allows for a little more overall flexibility and conformability on the foot.

Luedecke: I don’t know if it was the exact same configuration. I think the 2K4 had a 6mm bag, and this has an 8mm bag. So you have a thicker bag, but also the overall height is lower, so you are getting even more of the Zoom and less of the foam.

Spanks: That’s why you really feel the Zoom bag in this configuration. I think that’s a great point about what you said as far as the Zoom forefoot bag. When you get to a thicker bag, it creates some stiffness sometimes. Just like with the upper where you have located support, this is located cushioning. It’s exactly where you need it, and it’s minimal because we are trying to create an overall lightweight product.

Above: A look at the heel counter of the Zoom Kobe IV.

NDP: The heel counter of the IV was external only. Does this have the same configuration?
Luedecke: No, it has an internal counter in this one. We went a little more minimal with the heel counter. What we worked on was actually the heel rake. Last year, we tried to really pinch it. This year, this package is so nice and tight to the foot that we didn’t have to actually fight so much with the heel. On the IV we definitely forced that heel to be really tight. This year, we really worked on this rake in the back so that this really is close to the foot and leans in a little closer. That’s something that we continually try to refine – get that heel fit right, get the midfoot fit right, and then the forefoot almost becomes the third most important thing. Usually, when you are sloppy everywhere, you really want to focus on the forefoot. I think we are now to a point where we say, “OK, we’ve got the midfoot figured out, we’ve got the heel figured out, we’ve really got you locked down here.” So, with the forefoot, we can say, “Hey, there’s a little bit of room where the toes can move and be comfy.”

NDP: With the upper being so much lighter, did that allow you to be able to use the extra counter without giving up too much weight?
Luedecke: Yeah, and we’re a full ounce lighter than the IV.

NDP: With the traction on the IV , you went with a full herringbone pattern. Was the new traction just to create a more personal story with Kobe?
Avar: It was a little of both. We were trying to reduce a little more weight potentially, and then tying it in to the personal heart story. It’s very much a herringbone process, just slightly extrapolated.

NDP: Is the outrigger a bit more pronounced?
Luedecke: It might appear so because of the shape that runs right above it, but it’s fairly similar.

NDP: How does the outsole differ in terms of width or the way it curves through the midfoot.
Luedecke: It’s pretty close to the IV. I think what we tried to do was really carve out material where we could. So, minimizing the thickness of the rubber in the midfoot where you don’t really have any real abrasion problems, cutting out windows where you can and getting really tight on it. To me, one of the major differences was really sculpting the midsole. When you pull on these flywire uppers, the midsole actually has a chance to deform and get closer to the foot in the midfoot. It’s really thin in the arch so that when you do lace them up tight, the midsole has a chance to actually follow your foot contour and get as close to a perfect fit as you can. I think that’s one of the major differences in terms of the bottom unit; it’s not so much the rubber. And the cupsole obviously shrunk the sidewall a little bit. On the IV there was definitely this big cutaway in the forefoot.

Luedecke: Kobe often talks about soccer. All the way back to when we started working on the IV, Kobe talked about wanting a true low. And that’s sort of been the mantra for the last two or three years. We actually made a soccer upper on a Zoom Kobe III bottom and sent him those, and that for us was a great way to visualize how this could actually be a great basketball silhouette. We took a look at the last that was used on those original soccer shoes to see what it was in the arch that made them so conforming. And it’s that sculpting.

NDP: How did Kobe’s personal weartesting go with the V? Was he as involved as he was with the IV ?
Luedecke: He was much more involved. We probably met four or five times with him on the V. The first presentation we did was right before the team left to go to Beijing. Jeff was presenting a lot of work around heart rate and all of the technical details. We showed him a strategy around the V of how we got to be so low. We had one of the samples with us, and that just made him flip. It was a lot lighter than the final sample, because it was just a rough prototype. There was no lining or anything, and it was about 8.5 ounces. And he was just like, “Yeah! Keep going!” Then we had the good fortune to meet up with him continually after that.

Above: A look at a sample made with an incredibly narrow footbed.

Zac Dubasik: What was your reaction to seeing how many players in the League are already playing in the V, and how many are even playing in the IV still?
Avar: Yeah, it’s crazy actually. I mean, I had no doubts that Kobe’s clout and influence would have great influence on the League and basketball players young and old, but it’s even faster than I thought. Personally, I think we all agree that a little lower, more minimal, lightweight product—a more Free type product—works more in harmony with the body and is definitely a design philosophy that we all believe in. But to see it in basketball, and basketball at that level— to see that shift—is pretty amazing.

NDP: It seems like there’s at least one player on just about every team that’s wearing them.
Luedecke: From the onset Kobe told us, “I’m going to prove to people that they can play in low-top shoes.” We had the same initial feelings. We are talking about going from the Hyperdunk to the IV, which was at the time a pretty big leap. And he was just adamant about showing people. He wanted to prove it to them and said that if they doubted him, he’d drop 60 points on them. And he did. He actually forecasted that even before Beijing, and he was very confident that it was possible.

Spanks: He’s never swayed from his direction of what he was looking for and his voice. He’s coming from a pure voice, from an athlete that’s on the edge of performance. He wants this, and it trickles down to everyone else. And it takes a while for some people, but who doesn’t want a product that fits better, is lighter weight and more minimal on their foot, so that they can go further and harder in a basketball game in the 4th quarter? I don’t know if you have seen any of the videos, but it shows where you take out an ounce per half pair, so two ounces per pair, and over a game it adds up to like 250 pounds of weight you are taking off. That’s an amazing statistic. Just that weight difference alone, besides the additional improvements and fit, makes a huge statement for the IV, and I think it’s gotten even better in the V.

NDP: Have you found that there is a point that is too low, where you start to compromise stability in terms of the weight?
Avar: I think that as long as you provide the traction and security to keep your foot on there, and the underfoot protected against impact …

Luedecke: It’s like race cars. The more power you can put into a lightweight car, the better. That’s your performance equation. And I think that’s true for footwear as well.

Spanks: I feel like we are in a great zone as far as weight right now, and we’re going to try things to get lighter, but I think we are pretty happy with where this shoe is.

Avar: We’ve gone from probably an average of 15 or 16 ounces in basketball shoes down to 10. So, we are in a sweet spot right now. We’re not going to dramatically jump down to 7 or 8 ounces for the sake of doing it. We think there’re a lot of improvements that we can make from a performance standpoint and stay in that sweet spot. … We are lighter than most running shoes now anyway.

NDP: You mentioned that Kobe tasked you guys to do all of the colorways. Could you talk about that some?
Luedecke: He said that he wanted every colorway to have a story that’s linked to him. Each and every colorway, especially in the spring, because that was kind of the focus from the get go, is [that they are] literally created around a person that is meaningful to Kobe – people that he is inspired by, personas he called it. It started with him talking about the Batman movie, The Dark Knight. He just went on for about 10 or 15 minutes. They had just seen the movie, and we met him the next day in Vegas as a team. He went on and on about Batman, and how it was a new Batman, and you can’t even tell what motivates him and the crazy Joker. So he talked about how he wanted these personas to influence the design of the shoe, especially in color and materials. We said we could do that for sure. Then he mentioned a few other things that came up during the discussion including da Vinci, and Miles Davis came up later on in other discussions. It’s not to say that this is the da Vinci shoe, it’s just that some of the shoes, if you know what the influence was, you can tell that there’s a little bit more of a refinement happening because we had a key to hook it to.

Spanks: There was an incredibly deep dive on the colors. Fortunately, this material package allowed for different release papers and different cosmetics that we hadn’t really seen before in this lightweight package. The designers spent a ton of time on dialing that in and making it as beautiful as it is. And I think that’s why the shoes really are so beautiful, especially with Tom driving it.

Avar: Tom literally sweated every last texture.

Spanks: And it was worth it, because it helps that additional 10 percent of the products that some shoes don’t get the love for. Fortunately, that’s why we are part of this team, so that we can deliver that kind of stuff.

Luedecke: Sometimes in design school you hear this saying that half of the work was in the last five percent. What it really comes down to is the colors, textures and materials – the final finishing touches. There’s a lot of technical work, a lot of heart, sweat and labor on every single part of this shoe, but when it doesn’t look good on the shelves, it can be unsuccessful, even if it’s a great playing shoe. What we wanted to make sure is that every single product that comes out looks like you just want to have it, you want to wear it, you want to touch it, and you want get closer to it. We obsess about it just as much as you guys do.

NDP: Were the five dots on the heel a nod to the Alpha Project?
Luedecke: That’s actually the five dots for the fifth shoe.
Avar: Alpha was always circles; these are squares. [laughs]

NDP: You got everyone really excited that had been hoping the whole Alpha Project would come back.
Avar: I kept those dots on a lot of products, just to mess with people. [everyone laughs]

Below, two early samples of the Nike Zoom Kobe V: