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Nike Dunk - Jesse Leyva Interview!

Date: October 01 2008

By: Sneaker Freaker

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NO STORY OF THE MODERN SNEAKER CRAZE WOULD BE COMPLETE WITHOUT A CHAPTER ON THE DUNK. FROM ITS ROOTS IN BASKETBALL TO THE LATE NINETIES HARAJUKU SCENE AND THE FIRST OF DOZENS OF NIKE SB COLLABS, THE DUNK RULES ALL OTHERS IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM. HOW MANY SHOES MAKE KIDS CAMP OUT FOR DAYS OR BLOW A GRAND ON A PAIR? JUST CHECK OUR PRICE GUIDE IN THIS ISSUE TO SEE HOW MANY! BUT FIRST, LET’S GO BACK TO 1985 WHEN NIKE SEEDS THE DUNK THROUGH EIGHT OF THE PREMIER COLLEGE BALL TEAMS. UP TIL THIS POINT, ALL BASKETBALL SHOES WERE WHITE – NIKE’S CREATIVE FORTUNE WAS TO MATCH THE SHOES TO THE BRIGHT TEAM UNIFORMS AND USHER IN A NEW DAWN FOR COLOUR. WE CAUGHT UP WITH JESSE LEYVA, NIKE DESIGN DIRECTOR OF SPORT CULTURE TO QUIZ HIM ON ALL THINGS DUNK AND ALMOST SOLVE ONE OF THE GAME’S GREAT MYSTERIES... JUST WHO DID DESIGN THIS SHOE? 

Hey Jesse. What does the Dunk mean to you?
That’s a tough one, because it depends what day you ask me. There are a few shoes at Nike that have multiple meanings. From a sports standpoint I definitely remember the shoe because it came in a lot of colours. To me, it was like WOW! Nike really knows what to do with colour!

Can you explain how revolutionary the Dunk program was for College basketball?
A gentleman named Ron Hill who actually just retired from Nike said ‘You know if we’re really going to go after college and the attitude of what a college kid has, we need to come with colour and we need to really explode it out’ and he figured out the top colleges and built product around them. It really did change what college athletics was about because UNLV (University of Nevada Las Vegas) actually changed their uniforms to match up to the Dunk. Now every college has a uniform that hooks into their shoe colour. But back then, a shoe had to be white with a black swoosh and multiple teams wore them...

I gotta confess. I’ve looked at that True School poster so many times and I never think of the Terminator in the corner. they are related, but they’re also the poor cousin...

There’s a really interesting story about that shoe. The NCAA tournament didn’t want John Thompson and Georgetown to wear that shoe. John was in the locker room and told the officials, ‘If we don’t wear this shoe, we don’t go on the court’. This was like

one of the first times the game was nationally televised so he basically called them on it. And you’re not going to call the game when CBS is waiting for the game to be played, crazy story huh?

For folks outside America, it’s hard to understand how big college basketball is. Can you explain why?
I think it’s a number of things. In American culture, it’s the last untouched sport before the professionals. University is a time when kids really grow and they have a lot of loyalty to the school they go to. Unless you’ve been there and gone through it, it’s hard to explain why people love their teams so much. The root of it all is a sport and they’re playing for their school, not playing for money or fame.

Who designed the Dunk? Was it Bruce Kilgore?
Ah. No, it wasn’t...

I’ve also heard it was Peter Moore?
There are three designers that walk around Nike still, that are responsible for a lot of the shoes that you and me love. One of those three doesn’t like to claim any sneaker was designed by him, and he is probably one of the most genius sneaker designers in the game.

OK, sounds intriguing. I wonder who you’re talking about. Which came first – Jordan 1 or the Dunk?
Depends who you talk to but I say the Jordan 1.

How do you see the relationship? They look very similar but they evolved to mean different things.
The design philosophy of the guys who built this place is that you make things better by slow increments, not by change for the sake of change. When the Jordan 1 came out, Ron Hill was the marketing director for basketball at the time, and he was like ‘this shoe’s great, we need to have a version for college!’ And so that’s what happened. You’ve been here, these buildings are filled with stories, and I guess it depends who you talk to, but that’s the story I’m running with.

It’s as good as any I’ve heard. Will we ever see a new Nike that’s equally at home on a ball court and at the skate park? Have those sports evolved too far?

Yeah that’s a tough question. The basketball guys certainly aren’t looking to cross over and it doesn’t matter what you try and design for street culture, the kids are going to make of it what they want. I think there will be something eventually, but from a Nike standpoint, its hard to put your finger on it. Michael Jordan was 6’5 but he weighed 190 pounds, now basketball designers are solving the problem of athletes now who are 6’7 and 240 pounds! I was talking to Rasheed Wallace because I just finished working on a shoe with him, and he immediately said, ‘Which one do you want to talk about first? My work shoe or my play shoe? If it’s my work shoe, then it’s going to be a whole different conversation’. That’s how those guys see it and that’s how the designers see it. They have to protect the players. I’m actually happy that they’re not trying to design a new Dunk because as a sneaker person I don’t want to see it.

A Dunk is a Dunk. Try and capture my interest with something new. I fell in love with the Dunk because I remember Pearl Washington wearing it. I remember watching Georgetown when I was a kid. Obviously I’m not a D1 basketball player but I used to wait each week for Sports Illustrated to come out to see what basketball players were wearing. I still think there are kids that do that but it’s completely different to today.

Let’s kick it into modern times... did the Dunk disappear from the market in the early 90s?
Oh yeah, and I think that is why the Dunk is what it is. When it fell out, it fell out, and that’s when the culture of the Dunk started again. The real hardcore sneakerheads in the States were finding dead stock for $15.99. And they were wearing them because they looked good, and also for the cheap price. It wasn’t like the Air Force story.

The dates are pretty hazy, but around 10 years ago the Dunk goes back into Japan. You must be schooled on this time and the people involved?
The Japanese crew was full of sneakerheads who everybody remembers, but I was on the west coast in San Diego and Foot Action was actually running some hot Dunks – white with black, blue, red and grey patent leather and those are the shoes that

I remember going into Union and Eddie Cruz was selling. The Dunk has always been hot. I remember going to ASR (Action Sports Retailer Expo) way before the blogs, and kids were rocking hot sneakers. That’s where I met Alyasha from Alphanumeric and Kevin Imamura (Nike SB). Kevin actually broke the sneakerhead story when he did the Stance magazine piece featuring Mike Caroll, Eric Kostan and a bunch of guys crazy into their sneakers, but who also were skaters.

Did skate stores have Dunks at that time?
So Cal Skate stores had some hot Nikes. ACG reps in southern California were selling them Humara and Pocket Knifes and every once in a while they would sneak a Dunk into their assortment, which is pretty funny. So a couple of skate shops had them but for the most part, Foot Action was it.

You’re responsible for one of the first of the ultimate collector Dunks, which is the Alphanumeric edition. In hindsight, do you feel like a genius? (LAUGHS)
It’s a funny question because somebody asked yesterday why we chose Alpha.

Well their shit was hot at the time.
They were hot because they had the urban kid, the hip hop kid, skaters and snowboarders as well. Alyasha was from New York and that was what intrigued us about him. Brian 852 from Hong Kong (distributor at the time for Alphanumeric) would always send me pictures of his collection of Air Max 95s and then he’d send me a picture of all his Prestos. And Aly was the same, he had an insane Dunk collection. It was a different era. We would just sample stuff and meet with Aly and show him shoes. I had no budget then so the only place I could go was San Francisco and Los Angeles and so that’s where I met up with the Haight St and La Brea crew like Mike Brown and True, Josh from 10 Deep, Dennis from Crooks, HUE from Greedy Genius, James and Karen from K-BOND (ex-LA Sneaker store), and of course Paul and Eddie from the UNION/STUSSY crew. That’s when South West airline had $49.99 flights from Portland to So Cal and No Cal.

The Dunk story is also intertwined with the beginning of Nike SB... Those first years of SB releases were relentless and exciting – Heineken, Jedi, Homer, Bison – there’s dozens of them that are now classics.
The first three years of SB for me were the best years. There was Kevin and Marcus Tayui, who no one talks about, who was doing the co.jp (Nike Japan) stuff and me. I was doing the stuff for the US, and Marcus was just killing it. With those guys and Darla Vaughn working as well, it was pretty cool because nobody was looking at us to make money and all we wanted to do was give hot shoes to our friends. I remember back in 98, the Haight St crew would have ‘Shoe of the Month Mondays’ where everyone would break out their holy grails on Mondays – this was ten years ago, it was really funny. The first three years were what defined that category.

The market has evolved so far. Is it harder to create product with that raw and exciting edge to it?
Yeah, those days are over. With blogs and the internet, it’s almost impossible to shock somebody. But that was never why we were doing it in the first place. It was never ‘I’m gonna create this Dunk for everyone to go nuts over!’ I remember we would take bags, we don’t do it anymore, we’d take bags of shoes and show Mike Brown, Eddie and James Bond (Undefeated) sitting in the back store room of K-Bond with James and Karen, looking at sneakers and it was crazy. Not like it is now...

You’re obviously a fair way into next year’s product. How do you see the direction over the next year?
I think certain people are gonna love it and certain people are going to be like ‘What are they doing?’ The whole direction for next year is BEING TRUE to that original palette. It’s interesting if you talk to people like yourself or Joerg in Germany or Mittleman, if you ask them what their favourite Dunk is, it’d be like ‘The Goldenrod or the Michigan.’ My favourite would be one of the originals for sure. I don’t think anyone or anything has changed the game more than the original ‘Be True to your School’ colours.

OK, point taken. Gimme your favourite collab DUNK?
Probably the Wu-Tang would be my all-time favourite, just because it wasn’t planned to be what it was and it never went to retail, which is pretty cool. And the other one would be the first one with Alphanumeric. Then the first Stussy, the ostrich one. That was really good as well. And then from an SB standpoint, the original Team Series hands down.

Thanks Jesse.

This article appeared in Issue 11 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here


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