Peter Moore: The Man Behind Air Jordan and Adidas America

Moore, a creative director at Nike and Adidas, died in April. In the wake of his passing, coworkers reflect on the legacy and character of the late exec.

Peter Moore, creative director of Nike and Adidas, in 2008

Peter Moore was a creative director at Nike and Adidas. Image via Adidas

Peter Moore, creative director of Nike and Adidas, in 2008

Peter Moore was not a man for meetings. He would attend them—his spot near the top of the world’s biggest sneaker brands necessitated his presence—but his energy in that setting was more often focused on sketching logos on the paper in front of him than taking in the agenda. Corporate environments were not a natural habitat for Moore.

He erupted out of a particularly long meeting on one evening at the Nike Design space in the 1980s, venting as he marched the long distance back to his office. Steve Sandstrom remembers being the only other designer still at work at that lonely hour when the meeting expired. Moore was a man from a naval family, and hence wielded an array of curses that could make a sailor blush. He threaded them together in the moment, improvising a screed that was more poetic than violent.

“I was amazed at, for one, how incredibly foul it was,” Sandstrom remembers, “and then two, that it had kind of iambic pentameter to it.”

He watched his boss in awe. “Shit,” Sandstrom thought to himself when the din settled, “that was impressive.”

Moore, who was central to the creation of the Air Jordan line in the 1980s and Adidas’ revival in the 1990s, died on April 29. He was 78. His passing was confirmed by sneaker brand statements last weekend. He is survived by his wife, Christina, and his sons, Hagen, Dylan and Devin. The cause of his death is not yet known by his family, according to an obituary at the New York Times. Moore suffered in recent years from Ménière’s disease, which affected his hearing to the extent that much of his communication was conducted over email.

In his work, Moore codified design at sneaker companies, creating a visual language for what they should look like. He won an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1984 for a Times Square billboard depicting exhausted marathon runners. Moore was an executive at Nike and then Adidas, serving as creative director for the rival companies in different decades. Both issued statements in the wake of his death.

His coworkers have described Moore as a private, philosophical man who could summon dry humor at the right moment. He was calm by default, but could be animated by the battles of the sneaker industry.

Michael Jordan with the black and red Air Jordan 1 from 1985

“He could be loud when he had to defend something,” says Uli Becker, who worked alongside him at Adidas in the ‘90s. “Like, in terms of, ‘We’re not gonna do this. We’re not gonna do this because Foot Locker wants it, we’re gonna do it our way.’”

Though Moore’s contributions to the sneaker industry are sizable, he’s never been as recognizable a figure as some of the others who helped shape the business in the same era. His name is known, but most sneaker collectors cannot conjure his full image. His legacy at Nike was too complicated for him to be deified like the later Air Jordan wizard Tinker Hatfield. He did not have the Scud missile ego of designer journeyman Steven Smith. The recognition was not something he strived for.

“He wasn’t one of these designers that put themselves up on a pedestal and had big ego or anything like that,” says Gary Peck, who worked on Nike apparel beginning in 1982 and later became Adidas’ apparel director. “If anything he was, I think, the opposite.”

There is a book from 1995, Peter Moore: A Portfolio, that captures his work up to that point, explaining his rise through Nike and then Adidas. It offers the most comprehensive account of his career, and the quotes directly from him here are sourced from it. But the portfolio, printed in an edition of 6,000 and not made for the public, was foisted upon him as a means of better introducing him to Adidas, Sandstrom says. His reluctance is evident in its intro, where Moore is almost bashful about presenting his work.

“It is a bit odd, and uncomfortable, to have a book done about yourself and the work you have done,” Moore wrote in the intro. “I think most designers would say the same thing.”

Peter Moore in 1992 during the Adidas Equipment world tour

Sonny Vaccaro, a sneaker industry whisperer who helped brands court powerhouse players and college programs, remembers Moore as a man who had no vanity and was content to be in the background. 

“No one knows Peter Moore, that’s the sad of it,” he says. “Why? Because he was the most congenial, lovable person, and bright person, in the business.” 

Moore was born in Cleveland on Feb. 21, 1944. He grew up in Chula Vista, California. He bounced between colleges, attending San Diego State in 1962 and then Southwestern College in 1963. Most formative for him in this period was the Chouinard Art Institute, where he studied graphic design from 1965 to 1968. Moore credited that school with instilling in him a mindset of approaching design as problem solving.

“Basically what Chouinard teaches you is how to boil out the problem to its essence, and solve the problem in whatever creative manner that you think works,” Moore said.

He was influenced by artists like Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, who he admired for their ability to shed complicated messaging and present ideas in a straightforward way. He floated around apartments in North Hollywood with Jim Bagley, a roommate who he decided to live with after a 15-minute interaction during his first year at Chouinard.

“Quite frankly, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to be,” Moore said of his college life. “I was pretty sure I didn’t want to starve. That had no particular appeal to me at all. I had no ambition to be a bohemian.”

Peter Moore Print Time to Come Home

He became a designer. Moore worked under Robert Overby, a teacher and mentor who employed him at Robert Overby Design from 1968 to 1969. Later, according to a history of his early years traced in the portfolio book, Moore inherited Overby’s clients when his teacher left the design business to become a painter. Moore’s time in California did not last long after his graduation from Chouinard, though.

Moore married Christina, his childhood sweetheart, at the end of his college years. Bagley recalls that when a series of earthquakes hit Southern California, culminating with the 6.5-scale 1971 San Fernando earthquake, she was so shaken by the events that the couple decided to find a more geographically stable setting where they could start a family.

The Moores landed in Portland, Oregon, where Peter worked first for paper company Georgia-Pacific before starting his own design studio. 

In 1977, he took on Nike as a client. The still-young sneaker brand grew to rely on him in the ensuing years, turning to Moore for design work on anything that it needed to look good: packaging, posters, annual reports. Nike became his main client, its demands overshadowing those of any other.

Peter Moore Design was bought out by Nike, which turned the shop into the first Nike Design group in 1983. Nike Design was then a kind of splinter cell that operated away from the rest of the company. Its first home in Portland, before Nike had a campus in Beaverton and before Moore could open a proper office with the support of the Swoosh, did not gel with the image of a cutting-edge sneaker company.

“It sat next to a swamp,” Moore said. “There was a goat living on the front porch of the house across the street. And it had such shitty insulation we had to wear coats inside in the winter, and in the summer it got so hot the designers had to protect their work from their own sweat. I loved that house.”

Moore created his most impactful work at Nike. He became the company’s first creative director in 1983. He was the gatekeeper and conscience of how Nike looked. When Nike signed Michael Jordan, Moore designed the first Air Jordan sneakers, along with the identity of the whole line. He created its Wings logo on a whim, jotting it onto a cocktail napkin during a flight after seeing a flight attendant hand out a winged trinket to a child.

“He pushed everything through,” says Vaccaro of Moore’s involvement in the beginning of Air Jordan. “He wasn’t naive and so he didn’t let his ego get into the role.”

Air Jordan Wings logo designed by Peter Moore

The Air Jordan line brought in over $100 million for Nike in its first year. It immediately became the subject of fine and myth. The signature shoes were unlike any before them, an explosion of bold colors in an NBA that had strict rules around what players could wear on their feet. Moore’s eye for how a shoe could express a player’s style on court was prescient.

“He saw beyond anything when he made the colors,” says Vaccaro.

Moore poured further color into the Be True to Your School series of Nike Dunks, retro versions of which are now more popular than ever. He flipped Air Jordan’s brand mark just a few years into the line, creating the Jumpman, a distillation of Jordan that’s become one of the world’s most ubiquitous logos. He helped Nike communicate the fiery tennis of John McEnroe. Moore made athletes superhuman with his famous posters—Moses Malone, for example, became a basketball player of biblical proportions, opening up the court like the Red Sea.

At Nike, Moore found a friend and long term partner in Rob Strasser, who was then the brand’s director of marketing. The two became acquainted in 1977 when Moore started freelance work for Nike, according to his portfolio book. Over the next decade they were a powerful duo near the top of Nike’s org chart, to the extent that the company had an org chart in that unfettered era.

“Almost everything we did was done as a team,” Moore said of connection to Strasser, whom he affectionately called Robby. “I mean, it was he and I. Either I’d start the sentence and he’d finish it, or he’d start the sentence and I’d finish it.”

Strasser, a big man and big character, was very much a complement to the reserved Moore. Nicknamed “Rolling Thunder,” he was a volcano of sports marketing. Strasser was the one to galvanize Nike’s troops in the sneaker wars of the 1980s. He helped orchestrate the Air Jordan deal. He once told a reporter that he’d passed on signing Czech tennis player Ivan Lendl to an endorsement contract because “he’s a fucking communist.”

Jordan 11 Space Jam Jumpman

When Strasser left Nike in 1987, Moore followed him, disillusioned by the corporate structure that came with the company’s booming success. The two formed Sports Incorporated, a consultancy that brought on brands like TaylorMade Golf and PF Flyers. They established VanGrack, a new sportswear imprint created in partnership with Washington DC shoe retailer Mark Van Grack that almost bled Sports Incorporated dry. Donald Katz wrote in his 1994 book Just Do It that Moore and Strasser came close to wooing Michael Jordan into joining them in their new venture.

That outcome was no less likely than the eventual fate of Sports Incorporated. In August 1989, Strasser called Moore to tell him that Adidas president Rene Jäggi wanted their help. The German sneaker maker was foundering, and margins were in the tank. Moore and Strasser took on the task of reviving the brand in America, going to work for a company that was a natural enemy to Nike men in the 1980s.

That October, they presented their ideas to Adidas execs, including one for a line called Adidas Equipment. The name signified that Adi Dassler, Adidas’ founder, was the equipment manager of the world. Moore saw a kindred spirit in Dassler despite having never met him. He felt that Dassler too saw his work as an exercise in problem solving.

The sneakers in the Equipment line would offer everything you needed and nothing more, a “no bullshit” approach focused on their utilitarian role rather than a flashy inspiration or color story. It was to be the pinnacle of Adidas footwear. Sports Incorporated launched Adidas Equipment in April 1990. With it came a new brand mark, designed by Moore, that embraced Adidas’ famous three stripes.

As Moore and Strasser became increasingly entrenched in the company, Adidas eventually acquired Sports Incorporated formally in 1993, transforming it into Adidas America. Moore was the creative director of the new entity.

Adidas EQT Support 93 Lateral

He, according to Becker, was one of the first to convince Adidas to sell new versions of old models from its archive, an early model of the retro sneaker business that became massively important in the 21st century. Moore was the guardian of the brand, responsible for how it appeared in the world. He taught his teams to understand the mission, vision, and attitude of the things they made. Moore made sure that they were there in service of the brand, rather than their own art.

“I tell the designers who work [at Adidas] that, look, this isn’t anything about art,” Moore said. “Design and art have nothing to do with each other. And if you think that they do, then you ought to go and be an artist. If you try to make design art—as I know art—you will be frustrated till hell freezes over.”

He was thrust into a bigger role in the company by tragedy. Strasser, who was Adidas America’s chief executive at the time, died of a heart attack in October, 1993 while on a business trip in Germany. He was 46. In his absence, Moore assumed the role of CEO and president at Adidas America while still serving as its creative director and a member of the board.

“A quiet, silent man, who was a great human being,” Vaccaro says, “was then inevitably the president of this company, which wasn’t his domain.”

Moore gave Vaccaro (who’d by then switched allegiances as well) the OK to sign the high school-aged Kobe Bryant to Adidas in 1996, and later gave Adidas the idea to design a shoe for him fashioned after the Audi TT. Moore kept an eye on how young people interacted with sports and the apparel around them, taking trips to Brooklyn to observe street style or to Portland’s Burnside Skatepark to watch skateboarders in motion.

Moore's working area at the Adidas America office in Portland in 1990

He was the first person to the Adidas office, often biking there in Portland’s damp mornings before the sun rose. Many days he was there and working by 5 am. An employee hustling to arrive before him in a display of gumption and bid for respect would find Moore already present, working in the solitude the dawn allowed.

“Peter was a guy that lived a bit in his own world,” Becker says, “in his own creative world.”

Though he could be cloistered, Moore was warm to the people who earned his trust. It took time and effort to know him, but those who did could rely on him for guidance. 

“He didn’t want anybody to say he’s a nice guy,” Becker says. “But when you open the door to talk to him, he was the nicest guy in the world.”

His door was always open. He was a mentor who gave people around him tools to execute his clear vision for the brands he led. Coworkers could turn to Moore to confirm their disdain for bureaucracy or solicit a very specific type of feedback.

“That fucking poster is so tasteful it makes me want to puke,” he once told the designer Sandstrom.

Moore was passionate and driven in his career, but he had a life outside of it, even though it wasn’t totally accessible to his coworkers. He was a scratch golfer. If he was selective in the emotions he betrayed, he was even more so in the golf partners he chose—few were privileged to play with him. His wife was beloved; Moore paid her the highest tribute in the dedication of his 1995 portfolio.

“You never saw Peter’s softer side,” says Ed Lussier, who worked as a director of marketing at Adidas America beginning in 1993, “and he did have a softer side.”

Lussier encountered that by accident one Saturday at Adidas’ office in Portland. Moore by then had a reputation that preceded him, a serious presence that could be intimidating to his reports. Lussier had taken his five-year-old daughter to work that day, letting her ride her bike through the converted warehouse building’s open space. While he worked, she cut a path toward Moore.

“Oh my God, she’s talking to Peter,” he thought as he watched the encounter at a distance. “I gotta go—he’s gonna be so annoyed.”

When Lussier went to intervene, he found Adidas’ creative director enjoying a conversation with his daughter, entertaining her like he was her grandfather. From that point, Lussier says his relationship with Moore changed. Later, his children turned to Moore for input on design projects in their college and professional lives. Other former coworkers from the sportswear industry named Moore as the godfather to their children.

Peter Moore's Christmas card from 1999

Moore stayed connected to people through decades via his yearly Christmas card, a tradition he’d kept for so long that he couldn’t remember when he started. Each December he would design a new card, its imagery channeling the events of the year passed. In 2001, his card reflected on the horror of the September 11 attacks; twenty years later, his message in the card rebuked the siege of the United States Capitol Building. Every one was illustrated with doves as a call for peace. In the beginning, he screenprinted the cards himself.

In the book of his work published in 1995, Moore expressed a desire to produce more prints and start painting again. He would have time for this after his retirement from Adidas in 1998. (He remained a brand consultant for Adidas for the rest of his life.) In 2013, a Portland gallery hosted a show of his art called “Controversy and Conversation.” Despite the outsize cultural influence of the images he created professionally, he was self-effacing about the art he created beyond the sneaker industry.

“I don’t have any great expectations about the success of all this,” Moore said in 1995. “I only want to do it because I think it will make me feel good to get things off my chest and to do so in a way that I will enjoy and that people might find interesting.”

If this outlook owed partly to his natural humility, it was also connected to his belief that art and design were two discrete modes of expression.

“There’s a big difference between graphic design and painting,” Moore said in his portfolio. “As a graphic designer, you solve your client’s problems. As a painter, communication is personal. The problems to solve are your own.”

That Moore, a man of considerable talent and training, pursued a field where he addressed others’ problems rather than his own was a fundamentally unselfish act. It tracks with descriptions, from those who worked with him, of a man somewhat averse to the spotlight. Moore made titans of brands and athletes but never claimed to be a giant himself—the size of his own character wasn’t part of the problem he sought to solve. He was interested most in simply doing the work and teaching others how to do the same, not the attention that came with it.

Peter Moore-designed Nike running poster from 1984

He treated work, reflected through the lens of sport, as a team operation, where one’s successes are subsumed into a mosaic of collective achievement. Even in running, the most individualistic sport that he designed materials around, he made ads as a celebration of not a singular star but of an unidentified anybody who anyone could connect with.

A poster that Moore designed for Nike in 1984 shows a runner caught in a stray beam of sun cracking down a city street. The runner is obscured, silhouetted by a brilliance and not known in full. The copy below the photo, written by Wieden+Kennedy co-founder Dan Wieden, says that “most heroes are anonymous.”

Though Moore submitted his genius to ideas bigger than himself and did not seem keen on collecting any grand accolades, there is no doubt that time will know his name. To those in his orbit, he was a hero.

“I’ve seen many people trying to get a name in history books of sporting goods,” Becker says. “Peter Moore should have a couple of chapters.”