Jason Mayden has been obsessed with Jordan shoes for 20 years.
Like a lot of other kids who grew up watching Michael Jordan lead the Chicago Bulls to playoff dominance in the 1980s and 1990s, Mayden had a pair of Air Jordans and loved them.
But unlike most of those kids, Mayden parlayed his love of Jordan — and his willingness to do whatever it took to be a part of it — into a career at the brand, a division of Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike.
Mayden’s pursuit of the Swoosh started early, with phone calls to Nike headquarters during his youth. And it paid off with a summer internship at Jordan while he was in design school in Detroit, then a design job after graduation. And next month, he will oversee the commercial release of the Air Jordan 2009, the newest phase of the storied shoe franchise.
Footwear News talked with the 28-year-old designer about landing the job, what he brought to the Air Jordan 2009 and why designing shoelaces may have been the smartest move he ever made.
1. Lots of kids love their Air Jordans, but not all of them end up at Nike. When did you start to dream of creating shoes?
JM: Nike used to print 1-800 numbers on the back of their shoe boxes, and when I was around 12, I took it upon myself to call that number and ask questions. I would see names, like Tinker Hatfield, in magazines and I would try to call them, but customer service would always refer me back to marketing. But it kept me motivated. It made Nike a real place, and it made it seem as if I could actually be here, because there was someone on the other side of the phone.
2. You finally made it to Beaverton in college. Was it really that easy to get an internship?
JM: [Actually], I submitted an application three times. My freshman year, [Nike] lost my portfolio. Sophomore year, the same thing. Junior year, my portfolio made it to Nike, but it was left in the conference room. Fortunately, one of the designers read it, realized it was a college portfolio and delivered it to one of my school’s alumni. He delivered it to the design director, who called me and said, “How would you feel about being an intern at Jordan?”
3. How did you answer that question?
JM: I was in the movie theater in Detroit and I got up and I just screamed. I took the internship, and the first day I was there, Michael Jordan was in town, and I told him that this was my dream.
4. You’ve designed a lot of styles, including signature shoes for Chris Paul and Derek Jeter. Have you always worked on such high-profile projects?
JM: [No.] During my internship — it was about a week and a half in — [my boss] said, “Hey, intern. I know you think you’re hot stuff, but listen, you gotta do shoelaces.” It was a hazing thing, but I took it seriously. I did tons of shoelaces, tons of little straps for sandals. I did about 30 or 40 pages of sketches of shoelaces.
5. You were given the lead design on the new Jordan shoe in 2006. What do you think qualified you in the eyes of the Jordan team?
JM: The first step was when I did the laces, to be quite honest. Because there are a lot of people who are still at the brand today who were there when I was an intern, and they remembered how I accepted the challenge of doing shoelaces. So when the opportunity came along to change directions and do something different, they felt I had proven that I was willing to work hard.
6. What was the first thing you did when you got the job?
JM: Cried. [Laughs.]
JM: No, seriously, I was so excited. The first thing I wanted to do was talk with the team and figure out if there was a new story we could tell about Michael Jordan. The world has seen everything, but one of the things that had been left out was what [Jordan] did as a defensive player, and how defense really defines who he is as a person. Because when you think about defense, it’s strategy, and Michael is one of the most strategic people I have ever met.
8. What else inspired you?
JM: It was natural for us to look at fencing: Fencing is a very deceptive sport, and defense is all about deception. We also wanted to look at propulsion, so we looked at [Paralympian] April Holmes and her prosthesis. The intersection between all those things was footwork. April Holmes has phenomenal footwork as a track athlete. As a fencer, you need phenomenal footwork to dominate in the small spaces. And for basketball defense, you need phenomenal footwork to stand in front of your opponent. Once we identified the intersection between those three worlds and could connect them in a relevant way to celebrate what Michael Jordan did, it all just fell in place.
9. What do you love most about the finished product?
JM: I really loved the detail of Michael Jordan’s thumbprint on the Air Jordan XXIII. And I thought about how thumbprints are unique to every person: They look alike, but no two persons’ fingerprints are the same. I wanted to create some element in the product where the shoes will look similar, but none of the details are the same. So through the injection process [on the blown-glass-inspired chassis], even the left shoe is different from the right shoe [of a given pair]. It gives the person who wears the shoe a unique experience, so they feel they have a one-of-a-kind pair. Normally, with mass production, people want things to be consistent. But we wanted to bring art into the mass-production process.
10. How does this new shoe fit in with the Air Jordan franchise?
JM: It’s a new direction, but at the same time, it has the same DNA. It’s just like when you look at your family tree: There’s a clear connection with the people you’re related to, but no one is exactly the same. For the Air Jordan 2009, we wanted to step out in a different direction and start a new family tree, start a new legacy.