Interview: Marc Dolce discusses designing the Nike Lunar Force 1 & “remix” culture in sneaker design

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Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

While in Madrid for the Sneakerball, we took some time to sit down with Nike Sportswear Design Director of Basketball, Training & NFL footwear, Marc Dolce to discuss designing the Lunar Force 1, breathing life into the Air Penny line and “remix” culture in sneaker design.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of The Daily Street that we love interviewing designers. More specifically, we love interviewing sneaker designers. It most likely comes from our love of sneakers on a design level and as creative expressions of design, but there’s always something new to learn about a shoe and about design in general from chatting to the person or people behind the creation.

This time, we got the opportunity to geek out with one of Nike’s finest senior designers, Marc Dolce. Responsible for some of Nike’s best work in the realms of sneakers and for pushing Nike’s boundaries when it comes to leveraging their archive, Dolce has a pretty serious portfolio of work under his belt thanks to his 9 years at Nike. Over the years he’s been responsible for developing the lifestyle collections we’re now accustomed to seeing from Kobe, LeBron and KD, as well as managing the innovation and franchise for the Air Force 1, Foamposite family, Dunk and Blazer. He also happened to design the Nike Air 1/2 Cent, Nike Zoom Rookie LWP, and Air Penny V for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. It’s an impressive roster to say the least.

Thankfully, and much like the other designers we’ve had the privilege of meeting over the years, these impressive credentials haven’t gone to his head and Marc was as chilled as you could be, very open and honest about his work, and most importantly still impassioned by it.

We couldn’t talk to Marc about his entire mountain of work or we would have been there all week, but we did get to chat quite extensively about his views on sneaker design, mashups and remixing, how his education as an industrial designer has affected his work, and why the Lunar Force 1 has started to move away from the traditional design language of Lunarlon with it’s reduced number of bevels on the midsole (in the same vein as the Lunar Max 1) …

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So you’ve been at Nike for a little while now. Can you talk us through your journey through the company and how you joined?

Yeah sure. So I’ve been designing for probably close to 19 years now, which is pretty crazy to think about. I started when I was 19 years old in college. Now I’ve been with Nike for 9 years. Just to get to the brand was a little bit of a journey; talking with Nike recruitment and always knowing that this is the brand that I wanted to be at. So it was quite a big deal to finally make that move to come to Portland and find the right role for both me and the brand. Once I found Nike Sportswear I thought that was a great compliment for my skill set, being able to understand the culture side, but also wanting to bring innovation to the brand.

I’ve been in Nike Sportswear for 9 years as the Design Director for basketball and training. We work on a wide portfolio of product, from Air Force 1 and Blazer and Dunk, and then we do all the retros and now we’re focusing on extension versions of the performance game shoes for KD, Kobe and LeBron.

And what is it about designing footwear specifically that you enjoy so much?

When I was in college I was really focused on cars, but knowing that when you got a job you would probably just design a headlight or a component. What I really loved about designing shoes is that you got to vision the whole project all the way through and you got to do the entire shoe. It was something that consumers could interact with very easily and wear. I really loved art, I really was passionate about design, but I also liked fashion and so I felt like designing shoes was an art form and it was actually a part of fashion that consumers can then wear every day. So it was the right balance and mix of my skill set and I really enjoy that.

I find it really interesting that your past and education is rooted in industrial design. How do you bring that experience and knowledge to footwear design? Does it give you a different edge as a designer in footwear?

My thing is I try to find insights and solve problems for consumers and so I focus on developing with innovative problem solvers. Then, when I start to wrap the whole package together, then I’m using all those bits of inspiration to create a form and a shape. Somebody once asked me “What are your cues?” or “What are your things that you like to do?” … I like to be very modern and simple, but I also like to be dramatic in terms of shape and proportion. But ultimately, after you create all that, it has to be a little bit familiar. It has to have something that you can relate to, that brings it together. I think that’s an important blend and balance. Otherwise it looks too modern, too futuristic, and it won’t be accepted because ultimately shoes are made to be worn and they’re not for sitting on a shelf or something.

How do you draw the line between pushing boundaries and making something that people will instantly feel comfortable wearing?

I think that ties back to the whole conversation around emotional connectivity. Shoes are a purchasing decision that you want to make, so I feel like being able to tie it back, connecting in that familiarity, but that modernism, and really kind of moving it to just that bit where it makes consumers feel a little bit uncomfortable. I think that’s when you know you have a good design, when it borders love or hate. You want to be able to move the product and I think that when you can create those kinds of emotions with people, that’s when you know you have something good and you can build upon that. Story, colour, graphics and materials really play a big part of why people want to purchase something. Like the Galaxy, it was made for a specific event, a moment, and we were able to connect that to location, being in Florida, in Cape Canaveral, and there’s that connection and consumers can relate to that. It’s an easy, digestible story. That’s when we win.

And is that the same approach you take for each shoe? Or does everything you do differ in regards to the order in which you approach it or where you seek inspiration from?

I think every project is different. I can’t use the same formula for any 2 shoes. I believe that every shoe has a story and without sport there’s really no story to it. So we need to ground the shoe in sport, we need to focus on building out a narrative, and it really is easy when you’re focusing on a performance athlete or a past athlete because then you can do a deep dive on where they’re from and what schools they played at, what were the things they liked when growing up, and you can leverage that to become a product later on.

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I’ve read that you’ve been described as both a designer and a remixer at Nike. “Remixer” is quite an interesting term for someone in your profession. Where does your passion for mashups, hybrids and the clashing of cultures through design come from?

I think it’s the ability to curate a story and a project, so we can kind of educate the next generation. And I think that when we do that, I’m pulling from the past and I’m blending it with something from the future, and that’s where that whole idea of remix comes into play. In Nike Sportswear, our goal is to leverage the archive. We have such a deep archive and history, so why wouldn’t you use it? So as you create something new, you take some of those older models and give them a fresh take and that’s where the whole idea of hybrid and remix comes in to play. It’s evolving classics and making those classic shoes better.

And in regards to the design process involved in that, how much of it is about modernising these old silhouettes for the brand and how much of it is simply just fun and experimentation for you?

I think we’re starting to really do both. The work that you’ll see come out in the very near future will take us into new space. I think shoes that have come out of Nike Sportswear that have been successful in creating new space have been shoes like the Free Orbit II. It has a whole one-piece seamless upper with a zipper on the medial side, moulded geometry on there. I think shoes like that are helping us evolve to create what new is new. Either completely new from the ground up or in the way we’ve just talked about with some other projects.

While we’re on the topic of modernising old silhouettes, let’s talk about the Lunar Force 1. Where did that idea come from originally?

So the normal cycle for a shoe is 2 years. This was probably an extra year and a half on top of that. Knowing that the shoe is such an icon, we really wanted to maintain it’s original DNA, but what we knew we had was the technology from the performance side to make the shoe lighter, more flexible, and so we wanted to be really careful of how we brought that technology over. We went through a series of iterations and we ended up with the one with the 5 bevels that kind of faded out. And then over time we thought we could even refine that a step further and so we have the Lunar Force for 2014, which has more of a 2 bevel approach. More of a bigger, bolder kind of approach as opposed to the multi-bevel.

And what’s the reasoning behind that reduction of bevels? For me, that was a step away from the visual language of Lunar and one of it’s best and most iconic aesthetics – the multiple bevels in the midsole.

The way I would explain this one [picks up the Lunar Force 1 2014] was that we wanted to exaggerate the innovation. So I think that in Nike Sportswear you have that ability to really play up form or silhouette and that whole idea of proportion, so what we did here is we felt like we wanted to exaggerate it. I feel like from far away you still see the first read of that being an Air Force 1, and then I believe this is more dramatic [points to the 2 bevels on the Lunar Force 1 2014 midsole]. I feel like it captures the light in a more interesting way than the multi-bevel.

It’s interesting that you keep referencing drama in design. Why is that so important to you?

When you take a proper Instagram photo or you see it in different lighting, I like that the shoe can kind of change in it’s appearance. Shoes like Foamposites, with the moulded surfaces, really take light. And with that armour material, especially when it pearlised, it has a highly reflective surface and you can see every contour. I just think it looks really beautiful in different ways. I’m proud of the way the Lunar Force 1 2014 turned out because we were able to evolve a classic to the next level and we haven’t really done that before – we iterated twice on the same idea.

But then you look at the Tisci Air Force 1 and I believe we did the opposite. Inside it has the comfort drop-in, so we focused on innovation, but with that one it was craft first and then innovation, but really together. If you pull out the drop-in, it’s fully lined leather all the way down. It’s details like that – no one would ever think to take it out to see it, but as designers we geek out on shoes and we enjoy that. We enjoy putting things in to products that maybe consumers don’t see on first read. It’s like a little bit of an easter egg.

Is there a part of the process where you have to either have a word with yourself and reign that in or someone else says “OK, that’s enough of the geeing out. No one’s going to notice and it’s expensive”?

Umm yeah. I work in a great team. There’s 5 designers and there’s 4 product people in the development team and I think there’s balance which makes us really work well together. They’re the ones that will come in and say throughout the process and look at what’s working.

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Aside from design, you also curate the vaults at Nike. What does this entail?

So part of that is just being able to go to the archive probably once a month or once a season and kind of just check in and find something that maybe I hadn’t seen before. They keep on display basically every Air Force 1 that’s been made and so as we go into some of the future seasons we’re looking back at the past and how some of those were done. There’s a lot of great detailing from shoes with the metal deubré on the lace or without, some different Nike Air reads on the back, or little Swoosh hits on the vamp. So just being able to go back, find out which ones we can pull and which are relevant for today, stuff that feels fresh, and kind of bring them back out for the next generation. Really communicate what the story and the intent is.

And are there a lot of your own designs that are in the vault now?

Yeah, I’m actually sending a bunch of work that I’ve done over there. It would be nice for me, after I leave the brand, for the next generation of designers to go back and look through the development process. The development process is a very special process because some things maybe are a little bit too ahead of it’s time or maybe somebody else can find an idea or insight from that and be able to leverage that for their project. Putting it there, it gives it another life.

Let’s talk Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. You designed the Penny V that debuted in 2012, 14 years since the Penny IV of 1998. Although Penny’s involvement in Nike footwear has been pretty active both before, during and after his signature line, why did you (or Nike) decide to re-open his signature line in 2012?

When you look at Penny and his career, he had 4 signature models, he had the Foamposite which would be his 5th, he had a bunch of shoes that he wore pre-signature like Air Up, Air WP, all those models, he wore quite a bit of shoes in his rookie year, and then after he had the 4th shoe there was another series of Foamposites that were PE’s and special limited makeups for him. When we first started looking at that in 2008 we did a shoe called the Nike Half Cent and that was kind of paying homage to some of his early shoes. Half Cent was a little nickname from Little Penny. It was like a nice little nod. After that, we did the Zoom Rookie, so kind of inspired by all the shoes that I was mentioning from his pre-signature time, and then we did the Penny V. And then we did the Little Penny. So he had 4 signature shoes and then 5 being the Foamposite and since he’s now been retired he’s had 4 new shoes, so…

And when you think of past athletes, Michael Jordan being probably the greatest of all time, I think Penny is the 2nd best that Nike’s ever had. Not counting current players. That’s what I think has made Foamposite so successful for the last few years, his connection to that.

One last question… Over your career at Nike so far, what’s been your favourite project to work on?

Umm I think the stuff that’s coming, but we can’t talk about that [laughs]. I enjoyed working on the Barkley ‘posite. When you think of ‘posite, you think of strength, attitude, personality. If ‘posite came out at the height of Barkley’s career, I believe that could have been a signature trim and detail for him. It’s always “What if?”. I love to come to work and think about possibilities and that was one of the things that we put up on the board and said “What if Barkley had a Foamposite shoe?”. And so when we launched it we launched it in Houston and we had an Area 72 version of that. Really proud with the initial launch strategy and how we went to market with it. We had a lot of fun with it. I think we [Nike] don’t always have to be so serious – we can have fun, we can be bold, and we can tell narratives that make consumers dream a little bit. That’s what I want to do; don’t stop dreaming and just envision what the possibilities can be.