Why Tinker Hatfield Means So Much More To Sneakers Than We Think


Written By: Brett Golliff

I grew up in what I describe as the Michael Jordan era. I was able to watch him win all six of his NBA Championships. See every one of his shoes sell out. Watch the affect that he had and watch him create an entire culture. In short he changed the world. 

I also played sports; basketball was life. But I knew at a young age it wouldn’t be what my life would become. I was one of the shortest of my group of friends and it was clear as they excelled I didn’t have the athletic talent to go as far as they did. I did however, have a talent that none of them had; art. No matter what medium of art it was I embraced it and learned it to the best of my capabilities. So as all of them kept pushing to be like Mike, I kept drawing. 

I didn’t know what I was going to do with my talent until 1997; I was in the seventh grade. I was visiting my local bookstore, which I did about daily; and they had just received a special edition of SLAM!. It was a tribute to Michael Jordan called 100% Mike. That magazine became my bible. I bought multiple copies of it and took it everywhere. In that magazine was an interview with a man that would change my life forever. It was an interview with Tinker Hatfield. That piece focused on his work on the Air Jordan XIII and the creation of the Jordan Brand as it was officially separating from Nike that year. 

From the moment I read that article I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to become a footwear designer. 

Michael was always my hero but it was more of an admiration of astonishment for what he did on the court. I loved drawing him because his movement was so poetic. However, I knew I couldn’t become what he was in the slightest. But Tinker, that while I knew it would be hard, I felt his job could be attainable in some way. Fast forward to present day and I have been designing shoes professionally for over eleven years now. One of the greatest highlights of those eleven years was the opportunity to speak with Tinker on a few occasions. 

I am not going to over sell the story and say that Tinker and I are best friends or that I know him incredibly well. But I have been able to spend what I consider to be a decent amount of time with and have had some very in depth conversations with him. The reason I brief that message is because I believe it is easy to create myths of legendary figures. I had definitely done that with Tinker. 

I like everyone else, had read all the stories about him and heard about all the design work he had created. The myth of him is what often times what drove me to better myself. So when I did get the opportunity to meet him for the first time I was anxious to say the least. How do I speak to someone with such a legend behind him? Why was I worthy enough to talk with him? How do I even greet him? Do I just say hello? Do I sound like a tool if I say what’s up? I was more anxious to talk to him then I was to ask my now wife to marry me.

There is the adage of never meet your heroes. With the thought being that they won’t live up to the expectations that you have built of them. I understand the thought process behind the statement. The feeling that you have created such a view in your mind of what they will be like that it is impossible for anyone to live up to those expectations. 

My experience with Tinker was the exact opposite of that. 

It is easy to say that Tinker’s gift to the world is his creativity and his thought process on how to create footwear. I don’t believe that though. I see that as him applying his thoughts to the tools he has mastered. What I believe to be Tinker’s real gift to the world is his outlook on it and how he approaches it. He does not get caught up in what he has done. Instead, he looks at how he can use his creativity to solve problems.

Going back to my first time meeting him, it was over a phone call. I had learned that he was a fan of my blogging and we set up a call to talk. I was grateful just to receive an email saying hello. I was ready to frame that and call it a day. So getting on a call with him was far greater then watching Michael Jordan win a championship. I was anticipating a fifteen-minute call; we talked for over ninety minutes that day. 

What I took from that call is that Tinker Hatfield has no idea who the Tinker Hatfield is that the footwear world discusses. What I mean by that is that he either doesn’t realize that he is a myth or does and he just doesn’t consider it. He is incredibly real, incredibly humble and incredibly grateful for the experiences he has had to lead to the opportunities in his life.

Whenever someone asks me about Tinker, whether they know my experiences with him or not; what I always think is how genuine and kind he was. To this day he still goes out of his way to answer questions I have about shoes he designed over twenty years ago. He genuinely cares about what he has created and his memory is impeccable. But what is most incredible to me is that he takes the time to answer the questions.

If there is anything that I find to be mythical about Tinker Hatfield, it’s that I believe he has accomplished something that few have. And that would be creating a one off idea for the future and it actually becoming a real product. Look at Da Vinci or any other great that used their art to predict the future. What you will find is a mind ahead of its time, using the tools that they have to give a view of what the future can become. What is keeping them from executing their view of the future is that the tools don’t exist at their time to make it happen. 

In 1988 Tinker sketched a one off idea for a movie, Back To The Future 2. The concept was an auto-lacing shoe that adapts around your foot to fit you while you sit still. It was perfect for a movie because it had that Hollywood element, the “wow” effect to pull the viewer in. Which is exactly why he created it that way, he knew it had to have that big impact on the screen.

What was unanticipated was the path that shoe would take in relation to the actor, Michael J. Fox. It was not possible to know that Parkinson’s disease would affect Michael back in 1988 and that the concept Tinker created would actually become an idea that could greatly improve his quality of life. Tinker, with a phenomenal team to support; was able to bring that idea to life nearly twenty years later. It is one thing to have an amazing idea; it is a completely different thing to actually execute that idea. Let alone an idea that you have no idea how to execute when you create it.

When I had the chance to speak to Tinker about that idea and my thought process of relating it to other great creators and them not being able to see large concepts come to life, he definitely understood my point of view. However, he just related it back to having an opportunity to create his work. He didn’t think too much into it.

What I have learned from Tinker over the years is that you can’t force creativity. You have to take it as it comes. Everything happens for a reason. He created a one off idea for a movie and it became a concept that legitimately can improve the quality of life for people. He didn’t set out to become the definition of a footwear designer. That is all stuff we the people have placed on him. What he set out to do is likely what he still sets out to do today, create great product that tells a story and has a purpose.