There is a common story shared among Black designers who joined Nike in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The story of a man who created an entire movement with one decision. A decision that was compelled by an ancestral leaning towards adventure and belief in self. The story of Wilson Smith.
Wilson—a descendant of pioneering Black settlers of the West who came by train, rather than horse and carriage—embodied and exuded the spirit of Creatio ex nihilo, or “Create from nothing,” when he decided to leave a career in architecture to join what was then an unproven footwear company in Beaverton, Oregon. With this divinely inspired decision, Wilson would become Nike’s first Black designer in 1983.
I was only 22 years old when I was told that I would be leaving Nike X-Training, after successfully designing the Monarch and the M7 logo for Michael Vick, to return home, to the place my career began—the Jordan Brand. As Nike’s first Black product design intern and Jordan Brand’s first design intern, I had hoped to work my way up the ladder and eventually return as a senior designer to work on the Air Jordan, a dream that I had carried with me since I was a little boy on the South Side of Chicago. However, as fate would have it, the man who was once an architect decided to once again lay out a plan based on faith and conviction.
Wilson Smith, in his most sincere tone, had asked that if he should be moved to lead Nike Tennis and its newly formed relationship with Serena Williams, that I and I alone should be the one to replace him. He once again followed a divine calling to serve others before himself, living up to the creed of Creatio Continua, or “God’s continuing creative activity.” I can never thank Wilson enough for listening to God’s gentle whisper. His desire to serve and his willingness to sacrifice for the advancement of others is the exact blueprint for my and, so many others’, success. We all honor you, Wilson, not just with our words, but with our actions. We love you dearly, and I hope that you are proud of what I have done with the gift you gave me those many years ago. —Jason Mayden
Jason Mayden is a sneaker industry veteran who spent 13 years at Nike. He continues to work on projects that are grounded in creation and innovation. He was recently named the president of Fear of God Athletics.