This will be an unpopular opinion, but the Air Jordan V may be Tinker Hatfield’s greatest Air Jordan design. Stay with me here. Yes, the III was his first and the XI is a futuristic footwear sculpture come to life. But the V was something different—an evolution of the IV, to a degree, but at the same time a giant leap forward. Just look at the lines, the reflective tongue, that clear rubber outsole. Everything working in harmony, right down to that embroidered NIKE AIR on the back, which is back for the first time since 1999.
“I think that, when I was working on those first shoes with Michael I was still trying to get to know him a little bit,” Hatfield says. "The III was great because it helped him re-engage with the company. It was probably his true first experience of being a collaborator not just, ‘Here, wear this.’ Then the IV was like, can you top that, so I kind of went away from the exotic and went more technical. There’s not a big inspirational story, it’s a little bit more like, ‘We’re gonna do this new mesh, we’re gonna make this a little lighter, and it’s still gonna look a little different.’”
By the time Hatfield was to begin work on the Air Jordan V, his relationship with Jordan had grown, his own sneaker design process had been refined. And inspiration was everywhere. "I was watching a movie, an old World War II movie, and I got excited about the dogfights, like, wow, that’s a great way to think about a new project,” Hatfield says. "So that gave me an opportunity to keep pushing the technology, trying to make these things a little bit lighter, listen to Michael about what’s not working well enough from the year before, all of that stuff—and then I’m going, ‘Oh by the way, let’s throw in this whole story built around something else,’ in this case fighter planes.”
Upon first glance the fighter plane influence can appear somewhat subtle, aggressive midsole “teeth” inspired by the “Flying Tiger” nose art of the World War II-era P-51 Mustang. But look deeper. "I remember watching the movie and going, ‘I think this shoe could actually have the shape of an airplane only without the wings,’” Hatfield says. The Air Jordan V, with its distinctive asymmetrical ankle collar, was indeed far sleeker than many of its 1990 counterparts. Looking into the past, Hatfield designed the future.
But the fighter plane concept went even further than that. "I would say that the first thing I thought about was the fighter plane analogy to Michael, because he would do that as a player,” Hatfield says. “He would kind of float around the edge of a game, and then he would strafe. How was he strafing, he would fake somebody and go to the hoop and—boom—dunk.”
The focal point of the V is the Jumpman-embroidered tongue, coated in reflective material on the first two colorways. That was the next major step in the design process. “Then I’m going, ‘Let’s make sure that there’s something that no one’s ever seen before,’ which was that reflective tongue," Hatfield says, "I knew I could get my hands on the 3M, which no one had ever used before on a product like that.
"What about a tongue that flashes when photography hits it, what about making that tongue a little bit taller so it’s easier to get into the shoe, he can grab it. I started to think about that because [Jordan] kept telling me he wanted to get into shoes easily.”
(It’s likely no coincidence that the elongated tongue reflected Michael’s own, which was still extended on his frequent forays to the basket. The photographers often caught both.)
"All of those things were kicking around, then you just sort of get rid of a few things, stick with a few as well,” Hatfield says. "In the end when you look at the composition, you have to say to yourself, did I overdo this one, or is this story cohesive? And I felt what I ended up with—what we ended up with—was a good mix.”
There was more: The mesh side panels a technical upgrade over those used on the IV, a sticky clear rubber outsole that let the Jumpman embedded in the midsole come through, the first lace locks used on an Air Jordan. And, of course, the bold NIKE AIR embroidery on the heels, a carryover from the molded plastic heel counters of the III and IV. It was a lot, but it worked. And it was certainly an Air Jordan, there was no doubt about that.
Next month, 26 years after its original introduction, and 17 years after it was last seen with “NIKE AIR” heel branding, the “Black/Metallic” Air Jordan V returns in all its original glory, Hatfield’s design presented exactly as it was intended. It’s about time.
The "Black/Metallic" Air Jordan V will release on July 23 for $220.