Breaking Down The Design of the Air Jordan 11


Air Jordan 11 PrintI don’t have to tell you the importance of this weekend’s release of the Air Jordan 11. If you know sneakers, you know why it is important. You know that it represents the return of the Michael Jordan to the NBA in 1996. You know that Michael wore it during his record breaking 72-game winning season with the Chicago Bulls. You know that Michael Jordan won his second All-Star MVP, his fourth regular season MVP and fourth Finals MVP in that shoe. You also know that Michael Jordan won his fourth NBA Championship in it.

But what you probably don’t know is why exactly that shoe looks the way it does. Why the materials are what they are and why Michael considers it to be the shoe that extended his career. Don’t worry though, I am here to educate on why the Air Jordan 11 is one of the most important sneakers to ever be designed.

Air Jordan 11 Organic Design

Organic Design

The best way to describe the general aesthetic of the Air Jordan 11, is form follows function. If you look closely at the shoe, each line grows from one another. Start at the middle of the shoe and follow the line, or rand, of patent leather. It rakes higher in the heel, comes down and caresses the Achilles, dips down towards the midfoot and then arches back up to surround the Metatarsal. Then it immediately drops down to allow for flexing and then back up to wrap over the top of the shoe in order to support the forefoot. The line serves as the most important part of the shoe because it sets the tone for the rest of the aesthetic and also the performance. Going down, the midsole mimics the patent leather line but is more dramatic in the forefoot flex zone. From there, the rubber outsole grows and supports the key anatomic zones of the foot.

While this wasn’t the first shoe ever to be organic in its nature, it was one of the first shoes to be so aesthetically beautiful while doing so.

Air Jordan 11 Cordura

Cordura Nylon

Every product has a major design process that goes on behind the scenes to help bring the product to life. One of the special things about that process is discovering similarities in subjects that are often considered unalike and finding a common link in them. For instance, what do the Denver International Airport, an Arc’Teryx backpack and the Air Jordan 11 have in common? Cordura Nylon. An ultra-lightweight fabric that conforms to a shape because of its high elasticity but also retains its strength. The Air Jordan 11 is essentially a Cordura sock with strategically placed overlays for additional support.

One area of support is the webbings that array around the midfoot, which is also part of the lacing system to lock to your foot in. As you tighten the lace, the webbing and the Cordura interact to strengthen the foot but also still be flexible creating an optimal fit.

Carbon Fiber

The shank plate of a shoe is there to provide rigidity during lateral to medial movements. It helps you retain energy as you change direction and explode during take off in the opposite direction. Shank plates are made of a variety of materials, various plastics, graphite or glass infused but the use of Carbon Fiber on the 11 dramatically changed the design of shank plates forever. Carbon Fiber increased the strength of the piece exponentially while also reducing weight and mass. So basically it makes it harder, better, faster, stronger!

Clear Rubber

There is something about seeing the inside mechanics of a product that is just mesmerizing. Every awesome mid-engine supercar has a beautiful way of making the raw performance of their engines viewable. But just being viewable isn’t the only reason it is cool; it’s because that engine is just as beautiful as the rest of the car. It is a piece of art. It’s literally performance art. And the 11 is just that, performance art. The entire sole unit is manufactured out of clear rubber and on certain colorways the rubber is tinted blue. Many people describe this tinting as “ice” or “icy.” While the tinting adds aesthetic value it is actually tinted to keep the rubber from hardening and also from yellowing over age.

Not only is clear rubber a unique look but it’s also a performance feature, as it has a higher grip ratio than just standard rubber. Therefore giving you better traction. The clear rubber also allows you to see other performance features of the shoe, similar to a mid-engine supercar, as you can see the whole carbon fiber shank plate through it. Which creates a very dynamic look.

Air Jordan 11 Patent Leather

Patent Leather

The most polarizing element of the Air Jordan 11 is the patent leather rand that encompasses the whole shoe. There have been many stories as to why patent leather was selected for use on the Air Jordan 11. One story is that Michael wanted a shoe he could wear with suits, basically he wanted a tuxedo for the basketball court. Various R&B groups helped reinforce that idea in 1996,  including Boyz II Men. If you look closely at some of Tinker Hatfield’s sketches for the shoes you will find notes of him comparing the shoe to cars, in particular convertibles. He notes a canvas top with a shiny body side, which is essentially what the 11 is. The Cordura Nylon upper is the top and the patent leather is the shiny body side.

But the real reason patent leather is used was to solve for the constant blowing out of shoes Michael was having, in particular in the forefoot area. Tinker had been watching film of Michael and noticed that Michael was rolling over the top of the midsole during direction changes, which would slow him down. Which in return could ultimately mean him winning or losing a game. So in an effort to give Michael every competitive advantage possible, Tinker set out to find a material that was both supportive and elastic. What he found was patent leather.

Patent leather is very fine, quality natural leather, that is treated with varying coats of varnish, sometimes plastic, and then it is then baked to adhere the varnish directly to the leather. Once finished you have a leather that is softer, flexible and highly glossed.

When applied to a basketball shoe, it is a leather that conforms to your foot while protecting it as well. It also provides a very dramatic look for the court and creates a mass hysteria of followers. That will eventually wait in line for days and hours, both digitally and physically, to get a pair every year around Christmas time. It also creates the most iconic basketball shoe ever, the Air Jordan 11.

Other posts by Brett Golliff:

Brett Golliff, footwear extraordinaire, is founder of, contributor for Complex, and has previously designed for New Balance. Check him out on Twitter and Instagram.