Redesigning Nike’s Air Force One
How a boy from Brooklyn who loved to sketch grew up to rework one the world's most iconic sneakers.
It’s not easy to take on the challenge of redesigning one of the world’s most beloved shoes. For decades the Nike AF1 has inspired decades of fans, and built a rabid cult base among athletes and fashion lovers alike. When it was recently announced that Nike would be coming out with a “new and improved AF1” fans were justifiably worried about what would happen to the line. However, Nike Head Designer Marc Dolce insists it’s a rework, not a redesign. “I was just looking to make it better, ” the Brooklyn native recently told us when we met up with him at Nike’s newest pop-up, Pivot Point at The Barclay Center. “I have a respect not only for the shoe, but also for all the people that worked on the shoe. But it’s been 30 years since it came out and there’s been a lot of innovations [in sneaker design] that have happened. So there wasn’t a reason to redo it, I just feel like it was proportionately imbalanced and could have use a few adjustments— but all I did was make it better.”
Not many people get the chance to live out their dream job, but that’s just what Dolce gets to do every time he walks through the front doors of the Nike offices. A born tinkerer and shoe enthusiast, a chance encounter with a Nike VP in high school inspired the young Dolce to pursue a career in sneaker design, a concept which he previously didn’t even know existed. Since that day, he’s gone on to launch an impressive career with the brand, going from basic designer to manning the helm at one of the world’s biggest names in footwear.
Surrounded by some of his newest designs at Pivot Point, PSFK was able to speak with Dolce about what inspires him to create, and what it’s like to take on one of the world’s most famous shoe designs.
When you’re planning a new design, is there ever a place you go or resource you look to for inspiration ?
I hate to sound cheesy, but a lot of it is inspired by the athletes. I work really close with (basketball player) Penny Hardaway, so he’s a person who always inspires me. I get a lot of insights just by talking to him, texting. Usually depending on the product, if it’s a signature product, I’ll work with an athelete, but with something like AF1 since it’s been around for so long I like going into the archives to see all the history. I stay so late sometimes they have to kick me out and be like “time to go.” Â But for me I feed off energy so I like to get in as much information as I can in a day. That’s what really inspires me. And then just being able to walk the streets, being able to walk around Brooklyn is such an inspiration for me. I love to see how people mix it up, change it up.
Have you always loved shoes?
So I have a sketch i just found from 1991. I drew a picture of Michael Jordan dunking. You can see all the little detail I put into the shoe. So for me, that’s 20 years ago, and just that obsession of that right there was always with me. And the role I have now is great because I get to combine sport technology and fashion together. People ask me, ‘If you weren’t a shoe designer what would you be?’ and i’m like, “Well I’d still be a shoe designer!” I also just love being around art and music and fashion.
When did you decide you wanted to make designing shoes a career?
Growing up I drew shoes and cars, and I didn’t even realize ‘shoe designer’ was a career. Till I met Tinker. Tinker inspired me to come to Nike. Tinker Hatfield is the VP of Nike Design and he inspired a lot of the iconic pairs, like Air Jordans. While I was in high school I had the opportunity to sit in on a lecture he was giving at a museum, and that was the moment when I realized you could actually take drawing shoes and make it into a job. I always figured it was just an engineering job, really technical, and not about design at all.
I’ve always wanted to work at Nike. I was a floor designer for 19 years but I’ve always wanted to design at Nike. I only wore Nikes growing up– I was very brand loyal. I just liked the way Nike did their messaging, it really meant a lot to me the way they were for both artists and athletes.
So when you walk into the office, is it like the kid in a candy factory ?
It’s funny! They did a video of me in the archives and that’s exactly what I said. The resources that Nike has are amazing. I can go downstairs and work with the innovation team and see all the designers. They’re the best of both worlds. On a seasonal basis, they can provide current trends and innovations, that just keeps you abreast of all the information. Even though I’m reading it everyday, all the resources at Nike, I can always know more.
What about the original design? What did it feel like to re-imagine it?
I was just looking to make it better…even having Bruce Kilgore pen it from the beginning, being able to look back at his sketches and go back to the archives, that’s really a defining moment. And we won’t really see a lot of modifications to it. It’s just I’m really focused on that innovation that I can bring to a classic.
For other projects it’ll clearly be a new project and we’ll bring in a new designer, or we’ll be slightly inspired by something else, but with this one and the history of Air Force 1, I don’t know of any other word but respect, I have such respect for the original design.
Is it true you originally were a car designer?
When I was at Pratt I went into graphic design and transportation design, because that was really my first passion. I saw you could create these crazy and amazing forms, but once I saw you could design shoes as a career, I realized that I could create products people wear. And to me that was my change. When you can see people wearing your product on a daily basis? I think there’s that connection I had where I got emotionally invested in the shoes that I create. If you’re a car designer you might get to design a dashboard or a headlight, but with a shoe you can design the whole thing. I still love cars and I still love to read about them, and there’s a lot of cars out there, but to me my first passion is definitely footwear.
It must be hard to shoe shop with you at the mall!
Ha yeah right…I still love to shoe shop with my wife…I’ll always love shoes.
If you live in New York and are curious about Dolce’s alterations to the AF1 (or you just want to stare at some awesome shoes), be sure to visit Pivot Point at 620 Atlantic Avenue (on the Flatbush/ 5th Avenue side of the Barclays Center); Brooklyn.
December 11 through December 23; Monday through Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.