words & images_Nick DePaula

It’s no secret that Nike has enjoyed quite a bit of success through the years by bringing back several classic icons from seasons past. But just how does a shoe go from the depths of the brand’s expansive archives and return triumphantly to the shelves of your nearest sneaker store or the pages of your favorite sneaker catalog?

Sole Collector caught up with Nike Sportswear Basketball & Training Design Director Marc Dolce to hear all about the Retro strategy and process behind the group’s most recent Retro: the Air Go LWP. Originally penned by legendary basketball design great Eric Avar, the smooth and flowing upper of the LWP graced the NBA hardwood in 1994, worn by several of Nike Basketball’s brightest young guards and forwards.

Read along for a detailed description of how Dolce and his group can bring life to the Air Go LWP once again, from the first discussion of a return nearly four years ago, to the re-design struggles along the way that do the original justice, even over 15 years later.

Nick DePaula: How long ago did you guys first start talking about bringing back the Go LWP?
Marc Dolce: The first time we wanted to bring back the LWP was when we did the ½ Cent. We looked at some of the shoes that Penny wore before some of his signature models, and there were a lot of athletes that wore it. Tim Hardaway wore it –

NDP: My man Mookie Blaylock!
MD: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. And it’s funny to look back, because there were so many players out there wearing it. Around that time was the first that we started talking about bringing it back, and that would’ve been for Fall ’09. We ended up waiting til Spring ’11, and that would be for another Penny story, now two years later.

NDP: So originally, you guys were planning to drop the LWP alongside the ½ Cent then?
MD: Yeah, and we just had so many shoes that season, but the first time that we were planning to do it would’ve been for Fall ’09. It’s just one those shoes, that every time we took it out on the road, it was always in people’s top 5 and was consistently ranked at the top of people’s lists out of all of the archive models we’d take out to show and get feedback on.

NDP: Once you guys started to look into bringing it back, what’s the process like? A lot of people might think, “Oh, it’s an old shoe. You can probably just press a button and have it re-appear.” But there’s a lot more work that goes into actually re-designing and re-creating it, right?
MD: Everything on this one was kind of crazy, because none of the original files still existed. We had to rebuild everything. I remember doing the modeling for the tooling, and it took me a while to get the sample from archives, so I was basically using photographs from online to get started and re-create the top line to the midsole.

We had all of the logos still, but the graphic on the bottom, I had to re-create that to try to look like the original’s. It’s funny, because there were some things that I missed during the first round of samples, like I forgot the Max Air window had the “Nike Air” logo in there. Once I actually got the archive sample, I had to add that back in. And how many times have you come by to yell at me about things that were off? [laughs]

NDP: Hey man, I just try and pick out every possible thing to try and help. [laughs]
MD: Which is fun. And the idea behind the LWP was we were also going to launch the Flight One and the Air Up. We were going to re-launch all three of those together, but we felt like that might’ve been just too much in one season for Spring ’11.

NDP: Will you guys be re-visiting those models at another time or looking to bring inspirations from them into another project?
MD: Right now, just the LWP will come back. My goal is to definitely bring the Flight One back out, and I think the Air Up might be a little further out. I definitely think the Flight One is one of the shoes that’s on our radar, and we just have to figure out a way to make it work. There’s definitely demand there, it’s just a matter of if we have enough.

NDP: When you guys do decide to bring back models like the LWP, how often are all of the original tech pack sheets and samples around so that you can just go off of old stuff?
MD: Anything that’s in the last 10 years, we usually do have some tech packs to reference. Anything before that, we have to re-create. If we have an archive sample, it makes it a whole lot easier, but there’s probably three or four times a year where we don’t. This was a great example of that, and a lot of the initial work was just going off of memory and images that we find online. Eventually, we ended up getting the archive sample on this one, and that goes a long way in helping us with everything down to fonts, pull tabs and all of the details.

NDP: Do you ever talk with Eric Avar, in this case, or any of the other designers that worked on the original models to get a feeling for what their inspirations were back then?
MD: Yeah, we definitely do that. It’s interesting to hear where the original shoe was. Not on this shoe in particular, but like with the Zoom Flight ’95, those circles weren’t supposed to be a piece that was laid on afterwards, originally Eric wanted it to be hollow where you could see through the midsole. The LTD, where the air bag ends in the arch area, that was also hollow where you could see through into the other side. But, there were a lot of limitations with production methods that you just couldn’t do back then, which you could probably get done now. It’s always interesting to hear those stories.

NDP: What is it about the LWP that you think makes it so memorable for a lot of people?
MD: This era of design was just really strong for Nike and for people who enjoy shoes, and the upper of the LWP has a really bold aesthetic and a gesture to it that’s really playful. I think that’s something that we’ll use and carry forward. If you were to put the shoe on a shelf, it’s something that’s noticeable and really memorable. It just has such an iconic paintbrush element to it.

It was also part of the design inspiration for Spring ’11 as we built all of the new shoes that we’d be introducing. They all had to have a really strong character. The LWP actually inspired the running shoe that we did, the Air Max Go Strong. We always look at how we family up projects, and we’ve never taken inspiration from a basketball shoe for a running shoe. Peter Fog designed that, and he used some of the elements from the LWP and combined that with some cues from Air Max product to create a new shoe. The great thing about the LWP is that it was one of the first shoes that had a graphic that was continuous, where it carried from the upper to the midsole and outsole and wrapped all the way around. I’ve always thought that was really cool.

NDP: I like to think the Shaqnosis was the best of that style.
MD: Oh, of course. [laughs] The only thing I wish this shoe had was a little more toe spring, because it’s a little flat in the forefoot, but it does play well. Sometimes you don’t always have to have that much toe spring. I also love the lacing system, with the ghilleys popping out of the neoprene bootie.

NDP: Do you guys sometimes struggle with working on an old shoe that could be from 15 years ago, and holding back from making what could be improvements to the construction or performance by using methods that are available now that might not have been available originally? Or do you always just try and stick to re-creating the shoe exactly as it was?
MD: That’s always an issue during development. There’re best practices that we have today, like heel heights, sockliners, footbeds and things that most people won’t even see. It could even be something with the last that we use. What I try and do is really be thoughtful of who the consumer is and try and give them the same experience with a shoe that I had. If the shoe had a really narrow toe box, visually, I don’t want to change that. I deal with that all of the time, and sometimes it’s visual, and sometimes it could be something physical with the shoe and the way it handles. Sometimes we’re limited by price, and when we want to re-launch a shoe at a certain price, then we have to take something away from it that maybe the original had. Ideally, we try and have it match the original as much as possible.

NDP: Luckily, you guys were able to keep the heel Max Air and forefoot Zoom Air cushioning setup for the Retro.
MD: Absolutely, and that was a big priority for us – to keep the same ride that the original had.

NDP: In terms of colors, it seems like you guys are sticking pretty strictly to the original versions, and then there’re a couple twists here and there.
MD: I think when we re-launch a shoe, it’s important to bring it back out first the way that it was originally. Kids want that. When you change things, it sometimes will look like you made a mistake. We have to be really careful with that, and we’ve had issues in the past, like with the Tech Challenge. It was close to the original, but [the sonic yellow] was a completely different color, and kids definitely thought that was a mistake. We want to definitely respect the kids that are out there and support us. In the first season, we make sure that we take care of the original color, and then sometimes we’ll hold off a season or two and then bring back the second or third original colorways for some more energy.

NDP: And where does this shoe rank for you?
MD: For me, I was about 18 when these first came out. I remember playing in the White/ Black/ Varsity Royal, and I’d definitely say it’s in my top 10. I just thought that the way this shoe was split with the graphic was so modern and so futuristic to me with the way the midsole looked. Penny was also one of my favorite players. After Michael, Penny is my favorite basketball player, and watching him play in them just brought the shoe so much character. The shoe just conveys so much emotion and can almost feel like a cartoon in motion at times. That’s sometimes what some of the shoes today lack. I love the way the graphic carried into the outsole and it makes it feel like the whole shoe, midsole and upper are integrated.

Available Now: Nike Air Go LWP Retro