It wasn’t the shot, but the contract heard around the world when adidas announced that they’d be signing James Harden to an unprecedented 13-year, $200 million deal to bring the dynamic Houston Rockets guard to the Three Stripes. A statement was made. Clearly, “The Bearded One” was a player that adidas wanted on their team, and one that they were poised to position as the new face of their entire basketball program. A year and two months later from that August 2015 announcement, adidas and Harden are ready to prove just how serious their relationship is with the unveiling of his first signature shoe, the adidas Harden Vol. 1.
With that massive contract, Harden’s well-known distinct styles on and off the court, and other in-house factors to live up to like the current successes of the style-driven adidas YEEZY and NMD lines, you can imagine the pressure looming over the heads of the designers tasked to create Harden Vol. 1. But as you can see by the finished shoe, they had no problem dealing with the hype and high expectations. We recently sat down with Vice President of Basketball Design Brian Foresta and Basketball Product Manager Corey Allen—the leaders of the project who are both sporting very Harden-esque beards of their own—to discuss how they created the high-performance and high-style sneaker, and what it was like working with James from the first meeting to the impressive final product.
Let’s just start with what it’s been like to sign Harden. What it’s meant for the brand.
Brian Foresta: What we look for are partners that share a common vision with us, and who want to be expressive, and push forward. For me, James has always been an attractive asset in that sense, because he’s always been his own thing. When we talked about resetting basketball, he seemed like a great candidate to work with. When that opportunity came up to sit down, talk about what that could look like, we definitely jumped at it.
You just mentioned “resetting” basketball. What exactly do you mean by that?
BF: About two years ago, we decided that it was time to really shake up what it meant for adidas to participate in the game of basketball. It felt like we had gotten to a point where we might’ve become a little formulaic. I came over from Originals, and we kind of switched the team up, and started to look at it a little bit differently. How do we be super expressive, and move forward, but also always progress the athlete forward? I think the product you’re seeing come to market now—the Crazy Explosive, the new D Rose, Dame’s next shoe—is really just the tip of the iceberg. We started to look at adidas Basketball completely differently. It’s been great to bring all our guys along, and get more of a family atmosphere.
With James signing that massive contract, was that a little bit more pressure than usual to really kill his shoe? To make something that everybody’s going to love?
Corey Allen: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of pressure on the project. The contract’s one part of it. I think the other side of it is when you spend time with him, you’re like, “Oh, shit. There’s really something here.” This is a guy who doesn’t have a stylist. Who wakes up everyday and designs how he wants to approach the world.
It’s been nice to be in a process where you have somebody who will point at details, and go, “Hey, is that on somebody else’s shoe? Did that come from somewhere?” If the answer is yes, he’s like, “I don’t want to do that. I’m not like anyone else.” I think that’s hard. That’s where the pressure comes in. It’s easier to swim with the pack. When you have somebody who wants to separate themselves from everything—in their style of play, the way they dress—to bring that alive in product, I think that’s the part that actually brings a good amount of pressure to it.
That was actually one of my questions that you just kind of answered; With his unique style on and off the court, did you guys feel like it was really important to make a shoe that stood out from everything else?
BF: Yeah. One of the great quotes I had from him is when we were developing his logo, he had this moment where he was like, “You know what? I don’t know if I want my logo on my shoe. I don’t know if I want a logo.” He’s like, “That just seems super formulaic.” Then, he said, “Can we do something that no matter where you see it at a distance, you recognize it’s mine, you recognize the silhouette?”
We always joke that James himself has the most iconic silhouette in the League. You know it’s James when he walks in a room. If he’s halfway across the room, you know it’s him.
CA: To add to that, it’s been interesting to think he wakes up each day, and he’s like, “I dress how I feel that day.” He might wear a crazy hat, and then the rest of his outfit’s simplistic, or top to bottom is simplistic and his shoes are flashy. It’s been interesting getting to know that balance. We want to push, we want to be futuristic with things. To find that balance has been part of the process that’s been really interesting.
What you’re saying about balance, is that inspiration between the high contrast block where there’s basically two different shoes balancing each other out here?
BF: Yeah, I think it can be interpreted that way. A lot of it actually comes down to how he plays the game. For example, the reason why it has this 60/40 split is, he breaks faster than anybody else in the game. He was running into issues with his past shoes where he was bruising his toes a lot. We didn’t realize how extreme the forces were that he was putting on the toe box. We developed this design that can protect his toes, because he was saying, “On the court, people are always stepping on my feet.” He wanted to protect them. The leather’s under more tension around the toe box. Then, as you move back, it actually loosens up, so you don’t have a pinch point. That’s why the toe panel isn’t stitched down.
When it comes to the lacing, we moved the lacing over to the lateral side, that sort of asymmetrical way, so that when it flexes, it keeps that area completely open. Again, you get no tension across the top of the foot.
CA: Using real leather on the toe speaks to style, but then it also comes from performance insight directly from James about getting his toes stepped on repeatedly. It’s a durable material where he needs protection throughout the whole game. His usage rate is at an all time high. The amount of minutes he plays are among the top in the League. Even the cushioning. Boost is our pinnacle technology currently, so it makes sense why he would have it.
As for the design and materials and everything else, what was it like when he first came in? Did he know pretty much exactly what he wanted? Were there any specific things he wanted right away that he called out?
BF: He came in with a really good sense of what he wanted his shoe to do, and a really, really forward thinking of, “I want to push. I don’t want to be conservative in any way.” I don’t think he had a preconceived notion of what it would be. He just knew he wanted it to be completely different from what the market was doing now. From the beginning, we wanted him in as a co-collaborator on everything, so we didn’t have any sketches to show him when we met him.
It started from scratch.
CA: Yeah. There was no, “Hey let’s badge and tag a shoe, and call it the Harden shoe,” which I think for him would never work. With the ideas that he was able to provide, he was super insightful. His team would bring examples, storyboards, things like that. It felt like the amount of preparation that went into this was well thought out from all sides, which was really cool. He wanted a shoe that could transcend conventions both on court and off court.
When did you guys start working on the shoe? Was it right after he signed? There was the big promo thing where they showed up to his house with all the adidas shoes…Was he already working on the shoe at that point, or was it after that?
BF: It was right about that time. Right after he signed, that’s when the conversation started for real. It was kind of, “Let’s go 100 miles an hour,” because the biggest thing for us when we work with any of our athletes is that we want to get to the point where it’s like a personal relationship. Honestly, out of partnerships I’ve done, he’s one of the more vocal, open-minded athletes that I’ve ever worked with.
Should we expect a wide variety of colorways, materials, and different themes with the Harden Vol. I, or is it going to be treated more the way Yeezy sneakers are, where there’s a very select amount of releases and colorways. Will you follow that blueprint a little bit with this shoe, or is it still going to be more like basketball, where there’s going to be an Easter colorway, and Christmas, and all the usual stuff?
CA: The Yeezy model is in a different kind of silo than what we’re doing for basketball. There’s some lifestyle colorways that span across, but we also have to be cognizant of sport performance first. Some of the stories that you mentioned, Easter, Halloween, things like that, it’s an opportunity to create looks for him to wear on court, but I think we’re going to be pretty specific on what we put to retail. I think we’re just kind of scratching the surface.
BF: Yeah. I think we’ve got a couple things coming to shake things up. We follow a certain cadence, but we’re also trying to question what that looks like. As far as, does an Easter shoe have to look like an Easter egg? Or can it be a little bit more forward thinking than that.
CA: I think, even with the naming of his shoe “Harden Volume I”, it lends itself to start storytelling. Volume II, Volume III…thinking of it as chapters, we have a lot of ideas on the table, and I think there’s some really exciting things that can come out of this.
BF: The only issue is we had to grow beards. (laughs)
I was going to ask.
BF: Team Harden!
CA: Team Harden. The beard pre-requisite.