words & sneaker photography // Nick DePaula
portraits // Zac Dubasik

Ever since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Nike Basketball has clearly been on a tear with their direction towards sleeker silhouettes championing lightweight containment.

The Hyperdunk 2011 hopes to carry on that legacy of high performance that we’ve come to expect from the series. As Nike Basketball Design Director Leo Chang explains in our in-depth conversation, he set out to bring literaly every aspect of the shoe closer to the foot. Whether that meant countless trips to Asia to come up with new three-layer upper composites on the spot, or moving the Hyperdunk series to an entirely new last to finally put an end to the complaints of “too much volume,” he was up for the task.

I recently talked it up with both Leo Chang and Nike Senior Product Development Manager Tom Wray to hear all about every last detail built into the shoe. Wray, who has spent a considerable amount of time on the Kobe Bryant signature line and some of the brand’s biggest models, helped Chang to get after perfecting the geometry of the shoe’s sizable midfoot shank and tune the shoe’s Flywire package just right. Enjoy an in-depth look at the Hyperdunk 2011 ahead, as well as several exclusive pullover and early round samples.

Nick DePaula: This is the third Hyperdunk of the series that you’ve done now. Can you talk about some of the things you wanted to improve upon from the last one, and where this year’s version takes us?

Leo Chang: Going into the Hyperdunk 2010, I think we went somewhere pretty cool. Especially in the tooling, where we went with Zoom / Zoom, and I think that was something that a lot of ballers really appreciated. You included.

NDP: Oh yeah. Never a Lunar guy for hoops. [laughs]

LC: The other thing was that we definitely evolved from the original Flywire package, which was a thicker TPU-based and kind of a plasticky package, to more of a Skinwire that was evolved from the Zoom Kobe V. We felt like that could give you a better conformable fit where it went over the toe, but we still felt like we could do better than that. We also wanted to improve just generally, the fit and volume inside of the shoe.

That actually started with the Hyperfuse and the Kobes. Both of those shoes are built on a specific last, and having literally a third of the NBA wearing the Hyperfuse last season at some point was pretty cool. If people were liking the way that played, and maybe it was still a little narrow because of the stiffer Hyperfuse package — but we were on a good path. With Flywire, it’s a little bit more conformable, so we wanted to look at using that last to improve that one-to-one fit. That was the main goal going into this year’s upper. How do we learn from that? The past shoes have been on a wider last.

NDP: Was there anything in particular that inspired some details of the shoe?

LC: Some of the inspiration I got was from looking at the Kobe VI upper package, and how they used layers well. Design wise, I liked how on the LeBron 8 V/2, the whole upper was a combination of mesh and Flywire. I wanted to almost merge those together a bit, and also look to improve on the breathability too. One of the things that we saw on the Kobe VI was they actually perforated in between the Flywire, and gave it some added breathability in between the hot melts. Better fit. Breathability. Midfoot shank rigidity. Those were the goals.

NDP: Yeah, the shank is much more sizable than year’s past.

LC: Definitely, and we went away from the shank that we had in the 2010 for a number of reasons. The shank gave pretty much everyone great support, but it was a bit flat and still bending when we didn’t want it to. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen, and the shank really evolved both in size and geometry.

Tom Wray: Early on, there was a big push to follow the Kobe VI too, in terms of Kurim applications. Here, we can take the best parts of that package and evolve it. On the Kobe, with the scales, that part of the shoe got pretty overworked and played a big role in the look. They had eight or nine colorways for each season, and there was a lot of Kurim out there [laughs], so we wanted to use the same package, but give it a different covering application and top layer.

LC: Early on, we started out with quite a few different meshes too. I don’t know why we hung onto all this stuff, but I knew you guys would appreciate it. [laughs]

NDP:  Well yeah, we always do. [laughs]

Below: The very first pullover sample for the Hyperdunk 2011.

Above: An early round upper sample of the Hyperdunk 2011, that actually incorporates the 2010’s tongue, and the Hyperfuse’s tooling.

NDP: As you got to designing the upper, how did that all come together?

Leo Chang: We looked at things like sublimating the Swoosh into the pattern even, but we ended up feeling like it wasn’t as rich as we’d want. Really, for this whole shoe, it started out with me not actually having a real design on paper, but I knew what I wanted from material combinations. I had the factory take the Hyperdunk 2010 and try new upper packages, and then I began to draw what the upper silhouette and lines could look like. I knew we needed protection in the toe and in the heel, and then I went back after weartesting and looked at covering up even more areas, like the eyestay holes to make sure they didn’t tear. The Flywire pattern definitely evolved along the way.

NDP: So there wasn’t actually as much of a direction in terms of the exact design when you first started out?

LC: I definitely wanted to stay within the Hyperdunk language, but I was more driven by the concept of the composites and what the layering system could do. I wanted to let that guide the design, and there’s definitely still a lot of the same language. You still have the exaggerated collar and the high to low feel. I just really wanted to worry first about this super lightweight upper that fit great. The first sample we got, I put it on, and it was like, “Finally!” It was the upper that really achieves what the original Flywire upper set out to achieve. It had a great one-to-one fit, there weren’t any pressure points when you had it and it flexed well. I think that was one complaint that we got on the 2010.

NDP: Yeah, I thought the same thing. And it varied by color. The team colors were fine for me, but on the USA version though, that white synthetic had a *pop* to it when you flexed.

LC: Yeah, and those are the little things that we want to get better at. We weren’t happy with that, so we just were looking at making the fit and flex even better.

NDP:  Each year, the Hyperdunk gets lighter. Was that the case again here?

TW: We’re still really looking to push lightweight performance. The Kobe V and VI had come out in the 10.5 and up zone, and Leo was looking to have us get the Hyperdunk in that zone. By starting minimal and adding support just where you need it.

NDP: Where’d it end up?

LC: Actually, we got a few samples back that were in the 10.5 ounce zone, but we felt like — and it wasn’t that it was too light — but we just wanted to make sure that we got the fit, support and durability down right. When you start taking away more, people think it’s not going to be as durable and it’s not going to be as stable. We actually started out with an internal counter to get a bit lighter, but then we added on an external counter to get a better 3D molded heel shape and lockdown. We felt like adding things that were a benefit would be better than getting it lighter at an expense. Now, it’s around 11.5 ounces, and we basically are around the same weight as the 2010. It’s micro-fractions of an ounce lighter than last year, but the upper fit, the shank and the heel counter are all so much better, in my opinion. People are going to love it.

NDP: Can you talk about the outsole design? One thing that you notice right away is how both the heel and forefoot Zoom units are visible through a window.

LC: That was something that we just wanted people to know that it was Zoom / Zoom. Last year, there were still some questions about the cushioning set-up, so I just wanted people to be able to know right away this year when they turn the shoe over.

TW: It’s a great call out, and Zoom is our best technology, but people often just have to trust that it’s in there. Rarely do you see it.

NDP: Is it 14mm in the heel and 8mm in the forefoot?

LC: Yeah, exactly. And also, having the window and cut-away in the heel gives it a nice deflection back there. On the outsole, we also have the same dynamic herringbone and outrigger for traction and support. Actually, we were looking at the 2010 and even on some Kobes, and we were seeing some blowouts right above the outrigger on the harshest of cuts. Extreme cuts. When you dip too low with the rubber on the midsole, sometimes that skinwire can peel out. We wanted to creep that up this time around for more durability. I actually got a letter from a couple of kids that said the upper peeled out there. So the first thing I thought was, “Well, how do we solve that?” We added more rubber up around the outrigger to really protect that zone.

NDP: Is the stance a bit different than before? They seem to have a bit more toe spring than last year.

LC: Well, since the last is different, you naturally just have a little more toe spring here. If you look at the Kobe V and VI, they have a bit more of a kick in the toe, and that’s because of the last.

TW: Pretty different fit than the QF-8 last.

NDP: Yeah, and I’ve always heard the QF-8 described as just a more generally accommodating last.

LC: The general man’s last.

TW: It was the go-to last forever. All of the Jordan game shoes were done on the QF-8 forever.

LC: What we were finding was that it works great with leathers and synthetic leathers, but once you start getting to this zone where you have a really thin composite package, it creates a lot more volume within the shoe.

NDP: Interesting; the platform can then feel wider.

LC: Exactly, it feels more wide and sloppy inside, and you really need a sleeker, more form-fitting last here, like the Kobe last, to really get the fit and stability that you want.

NDP: One thing that’s different too is how the triangular window is gone along the collar, and now it’s hinted to with the layering you did.

LC: Sure, and it’s a nod to it. I kind of felt like a broken record again if I were to make the hole just over and over, and I wanted to try something different. The rest of the upper was so meshy feeling, that maybe filling that in made sense.

NDP: Something that Zac and I really liked from the KD line was the notch that you guys added into the collar, which you added here for the first time in the Hyperdunk.

LC: It’s not that expensive to put in there, and the lobes are one of those things that just give you that much more support and extra lockdown.

NDP: From the looks of it, there’s two versions of the Hyperdunk. There’s the first version with the full mesh upper, and the second that you guys are calling “Supreme” that has the beefed up Kurim toe?

LC: The Supreme version was the result of treating the “supreme” version of our shoes as something more than just cooler colorways with new materials and aesthetic treatments. If it’s going to be called Supreme, we should be amping up the performance too. The Kurim stuff is expensive and we couldn’t afford to do it at the pricepoint of the regular version, so the Supreme version gave us this opportunity to do it. The point of the Kurim was to make the toe drag and lateral support areas of the foot even more rugged and supportive. Erick Goto [Nike Basketball Graphic Designer] and I traded the design back and forth to each other and we painstakingly adjusted every bevel angle on the Kurim part! The Kurim design continued the more angular, sharp and fractal design language I had going on in the heel counter. It’s kind of funny looking at some of the older samples and seeing how big the ass was in the tooling early on too. [laughs]

NDP: A little chunky. But not quite 2K5 status!

LC: Yeah, so we scaled that back a little. [laughs] Another thing we changed along the way was the shank not being visible on the lateral side.

TW: A lot of that came from our long-term weartesting and just the shank wear that we could see. We wanted to protect it there. We went right to the end and maybe even a bit past our end deadline to make sure that we had all of the durability checkmarks that we wanted. When you get to a fine line between “super light” vs. “durable enough,” you can’t sacrifice anything.

LC: In terms of the overall design, I really wanted to keep the midsole line language similar to the original Hyperdunk and have a wedge there for support. I had considered having a more built-up wedge even for just super over-the-top midfoot support, but it was a little overkill and it was actually splaying out and compressing down on real hard strides and landings. That was causing the shank, when we had it originally exposed on the lateral side, to get some minor hairline fractures. The shoe was performing great and the shank was great too, but it was just one of those loading fractures, even though it wouldn’t bend. We didn’t want any returns based on that, and even though I loved how it looked with the shank coming out a bit on the lateral side, I really wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to crack at all, so we added some more rubber over the top of it for protection. And actually, the one Blake Griffin wore in the All-Star Game was something we made just for him, and at that point we still had the exposed shank on the lateral side.

Below: An earlier sample of the Hyperdunk 2011, with the….ahem…..more “chunky ass.”

Above: Tom Wray, Nike Senior Product Development Manager

NDP: You mentioned Blake of course, and how was it decided that he was going to be the guy wearing it? Were you aware of that decision while you were working on any of the earlier samples, and did that affect how you were designing it?

LC: He wasn’t involved or discussed really during any of the early samples, but it was just one of those things where we thought it could be a moment, and we wanted him to wear it in the Dunk Contest. For a few reasons, it didn’t end up happening for the contest. He really liked the shoe though, so he wore it the next day for the All-Star Game. It was one of those things where Chuck Terrell, our Sports Marketing contact with the players, was telling me how Blake had been describing his ideal kind of shoe a long time ago, and he told him, “This is what I’ve been talking about! This is what I wanted!” That was really cool, and he likes a lightweight, thinner upper. He really liked the 2K4 back in the day, and he references that a bit.

TW: It’s just crazy to think that a guy who is that big can really be supported and love a shoe like this. When he was at Oklahoma, he wore the first Blue Chip.

NDP: Would you say the biggest challenge along the way was in getting the right material package for the upper?

TW: Yeah, for the upper, definitely. For the tooling, being able to get the shank right and have it give the midfoot rigidity and support that we wanted, but not enter into that fine line where we had too much geometry and too high a sidewall. Getting the upper package to where it was providing the support and durability that we wanted was great too. On the factory side, they get nervous sometimes when we get into these new upper packages and they can often want to reinforce and layer everything. But we got to a really good place on support, and we had to, because this will eventually be a team bank product.

LC: Early on, we had a radiant film Swoosh, but it was one of those things where we kept ignoring the feedback that it wasn’t bonding well. [laughs] Because we all thought it looked cool! It’s one of those things that you can do on a Promo level, and when a friend of mine from Nike Training saw it, he took it and did it on the PlayStation Huarache Trainer they did. It worked out great there, but it might not hold up like a team shoe needs to.

NDP: What are the actual strands made of now? I know originally they were tested with Kevlar, and then Vectran was used in the Hyperdunk. Now are they just nylon?

LC: Yeah, it’s a nylon thread. For us, we wanted to help make it more pliable around the foot and have it flex better, and we finally got there. When the Hyperdunk 2010 launched, I wished I would’ve went back then to have a more sleek last. It was a huge volume shoe for us and we did around a million pairs, and when one option is using a general man’s last to fit that many people, we got cautious about using a last that was too tight like the one the Hyperfuse and Kobe are on. But, we looked at the amount of people wearing the Kobe and Hyperfuses, and we figured it was time to jump in there for the Hyperdunk 2011.

NDP: That’s great to hear. I didn’t like the Hyperize at all. I thought it was just way too sloppy and had a ton of volume. I liked last year’s Hyperdunk, but it could still be better.

LC: Yeah, the Hyperize had too much volume, and we made changes with the upper for the 2010 Hyperdunk. Now, we’re going even further with the last.

NDP: The other thing I’m happy you changed too is just dropping the Lunar Foam and going to a forefoot Zoom Air bag. That makes such a difference to me.

LC: Good, and that’s consistent with the feedback we’ve gotten from a lot of other people too. Another thing we’ve really worked on with the Nike Sport Research Lab, just from looking at slow-motion video, is that we can really better tune the Flywire cables so that they’re working to harness you in right over where your foot is moving during a cut and those motions. We got a chance to check this shoe on a high speed video, and it really holds you in nicely. Another thing that makes a big difference too is just looking really closely and refining the radiuses of the perimeter and the outrigger.

NDP: You mentioned that this Hyperdunk is a bit over the 11 ounce zone and doesn’t make a big leap from last year’s version. Is there an end goal with the Hyperdunk now to get to a certain weight? I’m sure you’ve heard, but other brands have gotten to 9.8 ounces.

LC: Yeah, we heard. [laughs] We’re always going to be lighter than where we’ve been. That’s really the plan, but we’re going to make sure that we’re not compromising anything else too. We want to make sure that the kid can always get that nice premium Zoom feel with the Hyperdunk here, and we’re not compromising on cushioning, support or durability.

I feel like in the past, based on some feedback I’ve heard from consumers, they wanted things a little bit more durable here and there. Those are the things that I want to make sure we have in the shoes first, and then we’ll start to look at how light we can get. There’s definitely going to be moments ahead where we’re going to push it, and you’ll see the Hyperdunks get lighter as well, but for now we like where we’re at.

TW: With our team bank product, we just really feel like we owe the average high school athlete a shoe that they can expect to get a season out of. For elite D1 and NBA guys, durability might not be as big of an issue for them. But for a high school kid that goes out and lays down $125 from his parent’s wallet or his own, they should get the better part of a season out of these and we know those are the guys we need to be keeping happy.

LC: People write me letters and emails all the time, and they’ll say, “Hey, I paid a lot of money for these, and I want it to last.” We might’ve had delam problems on a few shoes where people had to return them, and they want them to last instead. We strive all the time to make our products more and more durable, and that’s always the goal — to have a great balance of lightweight stability, durability and comfort. I want to push how light we can go for sure, but there are some realities of what people need the shoes for too. I’ve had kids tell me, “Lightweight is cool, but it’s already pretty light.” So let’s just make sure that everything they need is there. With all composites along the upper that we do, it’s definitely a science project to make sure that each layer bonds right to eachother. We went through rounds and rounds of different materials to get it right.

Available Now: Nike Zoom Hyperdunk 2011

Below: A look at the top and bottom sides of the Hyperdunk 2011’s 3D molded midfoot shank.

Below: Additional looks at Flywire packages, early samples and the all black launch colorway of the Hyperdunk 2011.