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If you’re reading this, chances are you don’t remember a sneaker culture—make that a sneaker industry—not shaped by Tinker Haven Hatfield, Junior. By now his story is that of legend: one of Bill Bowerman’s track and field men of Oregon (a pole vaulter), he joined Nike as a corporate architect in 1981 and became a sneaker designer via a company wide contest in 1985.
Hatfield’s designs revolutionized footwear across all sports.
Within three years he was THE sneaker designer, having come up with everything from Air Max to cross training and taken the helm of Air Jordan with the revolutionary (pun intended) Air Jordan III. Hatfield’s influence on Nike, as well as entire generations of product designers who came after, cannot possibly be understated. Here’s the thing, though: Hatfield, who turned 63 yesterday, has been doing this for 30 years now. What happens when he stops?
Hold on. Don’t start panicking yet.
For starters, Hatfield—now Nike’s VP for Design and Special Projects—doesn’t seem remotely interested in retiring yet. He’s as engaged in his work as ever (hopefully you saw the four-part interview DJ Clark Kent and I did with him here), and seemingly only stops to think about his own legacy when someone else prods him (as he did as a part of Jordan’s 30th anniversary celebration in NYC). As Nike’s most forward-facing designer, he’s embraced that side of the job as well. The job is a far different one than it was when he became a designer 30 years ago, and he’s a big part of the reason why.
After all, it’s been his designs—from the Air Jordan III to the Air Safari to Back to the Future’s Nike Mag—that have made sneaker culture, well, culture.
This is all not to say that there weren’t great sneaker designs before Hatfield, and that there haven’t been significant sneakers designed by others since. Nike’s own Air Max 95 (Sergio Lozano) and Air Foamposite 1 (Eric Avar) were the products of Hatfield’s contemporaries. Entire lines, including Scottie Pippen’s, Penny Hardaway’s and Charles Barkley’s, were produced under the direction of other designers. But they followed Hatfield’s blueprint established via Air Jordan, and no doubt received his input somewhere along the line.
It’s interesting to see how Nike has blown up as a company since 1985, when Hatfield started designing sneakers. Coincidentally this was also when the first Air Jordan was introduced, and its impact can’t be understated either. But the simple fact is that Nike, which hit $1 billion in sales for the first time in 1986 and made $25 billion last year, owes as much of that to Hatfield as it does to Jordan. Maybe more.
Because while Jordan was a purely basketball product for its first decade-plus, Hatfield’s designs revolutionized footwear across all sports—from Huarache to Air Max to Andre Agassi’s Tech Challenge line. And once retro happened, it was Hatfield’s designs that drove it. No matter what they’ve been paying him, it isn’t nearly enough.
There is retro, of course, which ensures that Hatfield’s designs will remain on shelves and in collections long after he stops creating new ones. (He’s tried to stop, at least with Jordans, and has been pulled back in more times than Michael Corleone.) It will even be possible to browse through his sketchbooks—and now iPads—to bring old visions to new life, like this year’s Air Max Zero. But in his own way, Hatfield is every bit as irreplaceable as his longtime partner.
There will be no next Tinker, just as there will be no next Jordan. When he finally does retire, he’ll leave a sneaker world far different than the one he entered back in 1985.
Maybe instead of searching for a would-be successor, we should just say thanks.