READING SIGNS – THE BLACK CAT
Tinker Hatfield + the design of the AJ XIII. Art: Mark Ward
For the updated story and video about Tinker’s collaborative design with Michael Jordan of the AJ XIII ‘Black Cat’ click here
If you’re superstitious, crossing paths with a black cat has long been considered a sign of bad luck. Factor in the unlucky number 13, and you’re inviting calamity. But as the shoe worn for the centerpiece of the Chicago Bulls’ second three-peat and the release that sparked the launch of Jordan Brand, the Air Jordan XIII embodies triumph. Unless, of course, you were on the opposing team.
This tribute to the game’s apex player is a classic born through coincidence — a pioneering union of concept and pure performance. Designer Tinker Hatfield recalls the genesis moment vividly:
“I was just watching Michael Jordan play basketball, and it struck me as I was going through the process of trying to figure out the next design as being this sort of predatory cat — the way he played the game, his form, his movements.
There’s a certain economy of energy that cats employ in their daily lives, yet they also have this ability to just spring to life and attack something, especially the big, predatory cats. And he’s kind of loping around the edges of the game looking for opportunities, and he’s so smooth and feline-like in that regard — then boom, he’s got the ball.”
After the epiphany, Tinker’s vision began to take shape. “I started sketching, and I was going to spend a couple of days putting together a presentation board where I had drawn this shoe that was really cat-like and it had a cat’s eye, you know, like they reflect at night with your headlights and they put off kind of this green glow,” he explains. “And yet the shoe was really more about the performance of being more paw-like, in a segmented outsole that was meant to be bent and contoured to the floor a little bit better.”
The true test of the concept would be Jordan’s reaction. Tinker took a short flight to LA, where Jordan was filming the iconic “Frozen Moment” commercial for the AJ XII. “So I had the board covered and I had it in a big container. And I was just waiting for a break in the filming and he knew that I was waiting for him, and so I took him behind this curtain, if you will, on the stage set. I’m in the middle of this arena and I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to show you this idea that I came up with and I just want you to weigh in on it.’”
Tinker pulled back the curtain. “No one had seen this board yet. Nobody. And he’s looking at it and I started to tell him about this experience of me watching him play and the image — imagining him as this predatory cat. On the board was a beautiful, majestic, big black leopard and it was a kind of a close-up,” he explains. “And you could see the eyes, the seriousness of their eyes and their predatory kind of nature. And he’s like that. He will tear your throat out in a game.”
“Michael said, ‘How did you know?’ I said, ‘How did I know what?’ And he goes, ‘Only a very few of my closest friends ever call me “Black Cat.”’ And I told him, ‘I never knew that.’”
Howard White, vice president of Jordan Brand, is one of those close friends. He remembers the nickname emerging a couple of years prior to that presentation. “You know, I think the first time, it was John Lucas who said, ‘Man, he like a black cat.’ Then, when you look at a lot of the poses and the way his eyes … he seemed like a black cat that was ready to pounce, that was ready to strike.”
Jordan’s immediate love of the idea behind the AJ XIII propelled the project forward, resulting in one of the most offbeat basketball silhouettes to date. “The whole thing could have been a tough sell had I not led with the story,” Tinker concedes. “The composition is very, very different from anything before it. I was using some new materials and it was very asymmetrical. Even though the shoe was heavily refined after that original sketch, it still maintained that animalistic kind of approach.”
The resulting shoe, with its whisker-like indentations and holographic “eye,” also took Tinker’s theme to the next level, as that paw-like outsole pattern set a standard for future performance shoe design. “Once the shoe was prototyped and was put on some big, powerful basketball players in our own wear-testing facility, I think it was serendipitous in the way that the paw idea was a bit of a prelude to how we design shoes today, knowing where the flex points are,” Tinker said. For the man behind the shoe, it was simply an homage to natural design: “I was just reacting to the way animals have evolved over a long period of time — they’re very functional and beautiful.”
This year, the AJ XIII builds on its legacy of form and function, returning with a number of coveted on and off-court colorways, extending to a specially dedicated release of the AJ XXXI.