LeBron James has made people pay attention this NBA season. Not just because he’s a contender to win another MVP award, but rather that Nike has made the LeBron 15 one of the most visible sneakers of the year. It’s easy for people to check your footwork when you’re the best basketball player, but the Nike LeBron line needed a strong reboot after the past four versions of the shoe—11 through 14—had fallen flat. Nike’s answer wasn’t to bury its head in the sand and hope everything turns out ok. It made the first Flyknit LeBron sneaker and paired it up with one of the most genius sneaker marketing campaigns: LeBron Watch.
The concept behind LeBron Watch is quite simple: Nike would take the LeBron 15 and color it up to look like archival Nike sneakers. Admittedly, there isn’t anything revolutionary about it. But the execution of the plan, on the other hand, was flawless.
“The idea of LeBron Watch came up with the idea of making people pay attention to what LeBron’s wearing every game,” says Nike LeBron designer Jason Petrie, who has worked with James since his seventh signature sneaker, which released in 2009. “We talked about how we could bring those PEs to market. We kept having those discussions, but we were like, ‘OK, but what do we fill up that space with?’”
The LeBron Watch has run all the way through Nike’s history, turning the 15 into versions that take inspiration from the Waffle Racer to the Air Max 95, Deion Sanders’ Diamond Turf, and even James’ own signature models of the past, such as his South Beach LeBron 8s. LeBron debuted those shoes and they would go on sale during the game on Nike’s SNKRS app, often selling out within seconds or minutes.
The first shoe that inspired the LeBron Watch collection wasn’t a shoe at all, rather it was the original orange and grey Nike shoe boxes that became the genesis of the project.
“We started working with LeBron and he didn’t like my first couple stabs at it. So we went back to the lab. It started with the box idea, the first one, and then they started to flow,” Petrie says. “Thinking about the Heroes Pack we did with the LeBron VII, with Primetime and Penny. We actually worked on a Penny [for LeBron Watch] that we ended up not doing. It just came to life from there. As soon as LeBron saw a few of those, he was like,‘Ah hell yeah. Keep going.’ So we worked up a bunch of them.”
The campaign has been successful, but not all the concepts that Petrie and his team tried worked out. “Some of it didn’t look great. We tried an Air Max 1 and Air Max 90. It didn’t translate as well,” he says.
LeBron Watch hasn’t been the only attempt from Nike to make a cultural splash with the LeBron 15. It’s also been seen through the collaboration with Kith’s Ronnie Fieg, who reworked the 15 into two different models: One for performance and the other for lifestyle. The performance model has RiRi zippers down the front of the shoe, while the lifestyle is much higher, has no laces, and has a system of straps that read, “Long Live the King.”
The collection was first unveiled at Kith’s New York Fashion Week show this past September, where LeBron himself walked down the runway in the sneakers.
“The biggest challenge was the concept of having a performance shoe transcend to the street. The situation became much more achievable once I saw the LeBron 15, and how strong Petrie's design was between the upper and the tooling,” says Fieg. “From there, I did what I thought was necessary to help transform it to become a pair of shoes that could easily be worn with more fashion-driven apparel and that would elevate past the performance aspects it was specifically designed for.”
Making sure the 15 was a strong shoe was important for Nike. But Petrie didn’t let the lack of success with his past four sneakers affect his current work with James. “I came from NikeTalk. I got O.G. thick skin from getting flamed or roasted on a message board,” he says.
It’s a tall task to please James and know that the whole world is going to see the sneakers that you made for him, and be the judges of them, too. But so far, things have turned out alright for Fieg and Petrie. “[LeBron] said, ‘That's a beautiful shoe. It's like a work of art,’” Fieg says in reference to the first time James saw the Kith collaboration.
Petrie adds: “I think that if he’s proud enough to show it off or play in it, it’s been vetted to me. My mission is to make sure he’s comfortable and happy about the product and can play at the highest level without worrying about his shoes.”
LeBron and the Cavaliers are still playing this season, and there are more sneakers to be worn. Whether they’ll be LeBron Watch sneakers—he’s already worn renditions of his first sneaker, the Air Zoom Generation—or regular PEs or shoes that are available to the public is yet to be seen. “The season’s not over. The Playoff LeBron is a whole different thing,” Petrie says. “We’re looking forward to how that goes. LeBron Watch is just a concept that I’m still thinking about how to bring it to life. Definitely in no way is it over, in what you’ll see LeBron wear on court.”