Interview: Marc Dolce Details The Air Max Alpha & Air Max Ultra

Interview: Marc Dolce Details The Air Max Alpha & Air Max Ultra

words, images & interview // Nick DePaula

Known for reinterpreting and reinventing some of the brand’s most iconic past models, Nike Sportswear ventures down a new road this season with the introduction of two sneakers based on cult classics from the last 1990’s. Both the original Zoom Alpha and Tuned Max, great sneakers in their own right, if a bit dated from a construction perspective, are given new life this season thanks to a more modern touch and up-to-date technology.

Designed by Nike Sportswear Global Urban Design Director Marc Dolce, the new Air Max Alpha and Air Max Ultra both introduce Hyperfuse construction to the mix and make use of two of the brand’s recently introduced Air Max units. I caught up with Dolce to hear all about the project, and where the Fuse meets Sportswear lens might take us into the future. Enjoy a look ahead at the cues that inspired both models, as well as some great insights into the differences between designing a traditionally constructed sneaker and a Hyperfuse upper.

Nick DePaula: Can you talk about how the concept of doing the Air Max Alpha and Air Max Ultra inspired by older Nike Running models came about?
Marc Dolce: NSW is where Performance meets Style. We lead the industry with beautifully crafted product that is constantly pushing innovation and technology, and we use a combination of modern and classic craft to do that.

In Sportswear, part of my job is to curate the vault and try to figure out which models to bring back. Sometimes we bring back a shoe straight up as it was, and sometimes we’ll re-design it. Depending on the project, we’ll look to make it perform better or make it more premium. The Air Max 24/7 is a good example of that, and it was the first attempt to use the new full-length Air Max bag. With that project, we wanted to keep the shoe very familiar. It was a success, and we learned a lot from the consumer.

For the Air Max Alpha, we helped develop and test the new 180 Air bag with the Innovation Kitchen. It was ready for us before any of the other sport categories were going to use it. The great thing was, performance started using Hyperfuse and we wanted it to be a technology that we could bring into Sportswear. We looked at a few models in the Archive, and I looked at them just loosely at first to potentially inspire what these two shoes could become.

The original Zoom Alpha was one of the models that I initially had called out, but I went back and forth on it a bit as I went. I always thought it had some interesting overlays, especially on the forefoot, and I thought that we could feature those concentric circles and make it feel protective. I always thought the Tuned Max was really unique with the way it had some Foamposite along the heel. It was the kind of shoe you either loved or hated. But I thought it had the foundation to be reinterpreted into a modern shoe.

I really wanted to look at how I could compress some of the classic DNA from both shoes and then exaggerate that into a modern form. I remember wearing the original Zoom Alpha with jeans and the toe shape was really iconic. I wanted to try and create a new visual effect that would still give it a memorable look and feel.

Above: The original Nike Zoom Alpha.

NDP: Both models have a Hyperfuse upper, a first from your group. What was different about designing them this time around?

MD: By using the Hyperfuse process, you’re allowed to create shapes that you can’t normally do with traditional methods of making shoes. I never sketched the shoes by hand. One of the first drawings I did was on a flat pattern shell, and I never had done that before. With this method of making, no matter how I would draw it, it would be translated into a pattern shell. From the start, it was a new way of working. It gives me a lot more precision and control over exactly how the shoe will look. When you draw a shoe from a profile side angle, there’s a lot of dimension and distortion going on in your sketch, especially in the toe. The top line can always vary, and the factory can sometimes reinterpret your drawing. The cool thing about this was that there was no reinterpretation. My design was sent to the factory and then they would fuse it together. The entire concept of Fuse is great, because it reduces the amount of layers and gives you a better fit. If we’re designing shoes in Sportswear, we can take a classic style and run it through that filter and it’ll come out like a completely different and modern shoe.

When I first started working on the project, we had the Air bag already, and that was the big hero. I wanted that to be the hero, and then I wanted to make sure that we took advantage of the Fused upper and had transparent layers. On the Alpha, we carried over the two overlays in the forefoot that serve as a protective element. We also were able to play around with some gradation, and as we layered the upper, it really allowed for some interesting depth and accenting. We also used some reflectivity as well, and originally, that was more of a functional element. Nowadays, we can be wearing a 3M shoe and take a picture with the flash on and love seeing the shoe just blow up in a photo. I wanted to keep that reflectivity, so you’ll notice it on the Swoosh, on the mudguard and the tip of the toe.

The Alpha also had an interesting waffle outsole design. Knowing that the Air bag was going to be really strong and provide a ton of cushioning, I wanted to make sure there was a smooth transition in the shoe’s stride. The midsole goes from Air bag straight into Phylon, and I built in some lateral and horizontal flex grooves that give you a nice crash pad and transition through the toe.

Above: The original Nike Tuned Max.

NDP: With the Air Max 180 and 360 bags, are both going to be units that we’ll be seeing going forward?
MD: Yes, and the 360 bag provides a ton of value for consumers and people have responded real positively to it. Nike Running will continue to use that bag to lead performance, and for us, we’re going to continue to look into the vault and find ways to bring back some key models from the past that can live on that bag. We’ll be working with the performance group to figure out how we’re going to tell stories on a seasonal basis that can complement eachother.

NDP: As you were looking back over both the Zoom Alpha and Tuned Max, were there any other models that you considered for this project?
MD: I did, but the biggest thing for both shoes was that I really wanted the depth and dimension of the shoes to come through. It was all about making the upper translucent enough so you could see into the upper and see the bootie. When I started all of the sketches, I’d start with a colored bootie, and then I’d work on adding in a reinforced synthetic layer that could help with the structure. After that, the whole shoe is covered by an open mesh and the skins are added to provide protection and bring it all together.

Hyperfuse allows for light weight, it’s breathable and it’s also durable. The light weight comes from the minimal layers we’re using and the open mesh, but that outer skin really adds durability too. The biggest thing that I tried to incorporate into both shoes was a full-length bootie. Ever since the original Huarache, when you have that bootie, you don’t even really have to lace up your shoes and it always fits and will be comfortable. For both models, we really played with the base layer and wanted to create lines on the upper that we just couldn’t do before Fuse. If you look at the original Tuned Max, it had heavy injected molded pieces on top of the mesh. Now, we can build in the structure under the mesh, and it actually provides breathability and support. It’s a modern way to look at shoes, and the upper feels like it’s one piece without the stitching.

NDP: As you guys were developing both shoes, was there anything that was new to you with the Fuse process that was hard to figure out?
MD: The amount of layers that you can put on was kind of challenging. At Nike, there’s obviously a high standard for all of our shoes that we have to make sure that we maintain. Getting the shoe weartested was really important for us, to make sure the shoe worked right in the flex areas. I had to concede the amount of overlays that we could do in the forefoot, and that was to make sure that we didn’t have any delamination. Sometimes when you begin to add more layers, that can be an issue.

Performance has been doing Fuse, but for Sportswear it was a new technology, and for me, using it in the first season was great. I loved it. The first time I worked on it, I felt like it was the way that shoes were always meant to be made and designed. To draw a shoe the way that it will be created as a pattern and have an engineer work on it from there is great. It’s more efficient to design that way, and with the way my brain works, there wasn’t really a learning curve. I knew the dimensions I had to work with, and I just designed within that and really enjoyed that. Luckily, I also have a great development team to create the product, and our Color Designer Shaneika Warden is developing some great color combos going forward.

NDP: That’s really interesting from a design perspective. Obviously, the first two Fuse shoes for you guys here are Running-inspired models. Are you guys looking to branch out and create a few basketball-inspired models that will include either Fuse or today’s Air Max bags?
MD: Fuse really lends itself well to some of the older Training models. Basketball models are a little bit different, because they’re more about the touch and feel of the leathers and molding. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t do that, but we do look at it by silo. Running and Fuse also lends itself really well. Updating what was originally a mesh based upper with synthetics works great, because we’re able to remove the stitching, the foam packages and take away things that we might not need anymore. The same goes for Training, where you want a shoe that’s breathable and lightweight. The Basketball team on the performance side does a great job on their own of offering those insights in new models like the Hyperdunk and Hyperfuse. For Sportswear, we’ve really been looking at other technologies for basketball like Foamposite and more classic constructions. Going forward, there could be combinations of those classic and modern constructions that we might use together.

NDP: It’s weird that it’s been almost fifteen and over ten years now for models like the Zoom Alpha and Tuned Max, and high school kids now might not know those shoes. It’s interesting though that those shoes that might not have as visible of a technology — and even cushioning units that are no longer used anymore like Tuned Max — can have a second life.
MD: Definitely, and we’re really just looking at refining some classics, creating a new aesthetic with today’s technology and showcasing a more modern method of making. Hopefully people will enjoy that.

Available Now: Nike Air Max Ultra and Nike Air Max Alpha

Retro Vs. OG: Nike Air GO L.W.P.

Retro Vs. OG: Nike Air GO L.W.P.

words and images_Nick DePaula

Originally worn by the likes of Penny Hardaway, Jason Kidd, Tim Hardaway and many others around the NBA, the Nike Air GO L.W.P. was, in its heyday, a performance monster and the first Nike Basketball shoe to introduce Zoom Air, which then went by the less sexy name “Tensile Air.”

Designed by Eric Avar, the L.W.P. featured a lightweight nubuck upper, full-length neoprene sleeve, heel Air Sole unit, forefoot “Tensile Air” and a unique continuous design that made for great colorblocking that wrapped around the entire shoe.

As we learned during our interview with Nike Sportswear Basketball & Training Design Director Marc Dolce, the decision to bring the L.W.P. back was an easy one, but as is the case with many older shoes from Nike’s historic vault, all of the L.W.P.’s original design files were lost, adding in a bit more work than normal. The shoe had to be entirely re-designed and re-developed from the ground up in order to be retroed, and as you can tell below, the Sportswear group got pretty close.

The most noticeable changes between the original version that released in 1994 and the 2011 Retro version are seen in simple color accent differences like the “Flight” script along the collar, and the much-loved “Nike Air” that adorns each heel. The update features more royal in both spots. For the most part, the midsole proportions, upper materials and collar heights are all right in the same zone, making for a pretty true-to-form Retro. The only glaring difference between the two is the much smaller Swoosh logo found along the tongue of the 2011 L.W.P.

After much anticipation, the Nike Air GO L.W.P. has finally returned, and in this detailed comparison with an original pair below, how many differences can you spot between the two?

Available Now: Nike Air GO L.W.P. Retro

Retro Vs. OG: Nike Air GO L.W.P.

Marc Dolce Details The Air Go LWP Retro

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