Leo Chang’s parents gave him $30 to buy shoes as a teenager in Philadelphia, a budget that didn’t get him anywhere close to a pair of Nikes. But he was always obsessed with designing shoes, even creating a Nike shoe line for a school project in middle school.
Now, 20 years later, Chang is the basketball footwear design director and lead designer for each of Kevin Durant’s shoes, including the new KD V, which will hit stores on Saturday (black and blue) and Dec. 15 (bright crimson).
Chang met with ESPN Playbook in New York City to talk about the design process of creating Durant’s signature shoe, from brainstorming ideas in Oklahoma City to Durant wearing the shoe Tuesday night against the Brooklyn Nets.
In Chang's own words:
It always starts with meeting with KD first. I’ll go out and see him in OKC, and this time around, the process started right around the lockout. I went out to OKC for a game and met up with him at his house. I had an initial design that I wanted him to see. He was like, "That’s OK. It’s still early." And I knew what that meant. He wanted something different.
I fully expect that he may not like it. I prepare myself for that. I really enjoy if he doesn’t like it, because then you know what not to do. I would prefer that over someone saying, "Yeah, I like that," all day long. It helps me know that he’s thinking about how to make it better and not just accepting what I create.
He came to Portland a few weeks later for LaMarcus Aldridge’s charity game. And after the game we met in the back and he had all these ideas. He wanted a mid-top instead of a low-top, an air bubble in the back, and he wanted it light. He was throwing all this stuff at me. And he sent me some images, too, of some designs he likes. He sent a picture of his car, some watches, stuff like that. It’s kind of a back and forth thing, where I’ll spark an idea for him, and he’ll come to me with stuff.
When he sends me an image, I’ll ask what about the image he likes. With the picture of the car, he said, "It’s fast," or, "It’s smooth." There's usually something specific that he likes. I’ll take that and find ways to get design inspiration. It’s a very loose interpretation but that’s the way some of his design style gets in there.
I touch base with him maybe eight times per year. We stay connected on the phone. I always watch what he’s doing on Instagram and Twitter, the things he likes, just anything to spark ideas. And then I will jot some sketches and things like that down on my iPad or sketch book.
I’ve probably drawn 20-something designs for this shoe. Because it is so simple, I wanted the details to really matter, to bring some character and uniqueness to it. Even down to the way the lace-webbing is fused into the skin, the shape of the webbing, I drew four or five variations on that alone. I probably drew ten different designs on the molding and the mesh. We go through a lot of rounds of sampling to get things right.
LEARNING THE BUSINESS
The first time I met him, in 2008 or 2007, I flew to Vegas where USA Basketball was practicing, and he was just super shy. I was new, he was new, and our sports marketing guy was new, so it was a whole brand new team. But we’ve kind of grown together. Each year, each shoe, he’s learned the business better.
A couple of years ago we actually took a tour of China, and KD and I went to the factory that actually makes the shoes. He was just blown away by how many people actually touch the shoes and work on his shoes. He said, "Oh, man, I thought you just push a button and a bunch of shoes come out." That was an eye opener for him. Each year, he knows more and more.
He has respect for everyone who works on his product. He’s said before that he doesn’t want to tell people what to do. But ultimately, when it comes down to it, there are specific things that he does want, so we have to incorporate all that.
PERSONALIZING THE DESIGN
He’s always said to me, "I want to be able to see this shoe from the third level of the arena." For me, that means the shoe has to be bold and iconic, the way we block it with color.
And as you look closer, there are some really fine details you have to discover. It’s kind of like his personality.
I asked him why he wore No. 5 in Turkey and the Olympics, and he said it’s because it all starts with five guys on the court together. I thought, "Wow, he’s such a team player." That’s awesome. And then from a design side, a five-sided shape is a pentagon, and a five-pointed shape is a star, and you see the pentagon in the heart of the star. KD is from Washington, D.C., so with the pentagon, it all started coming together a little bit.
One of his people came up to me and said, "Were you inspired by the D.C. map on the outsole?" And I said, "What are you talking about?" And I started looking it up, and sure enough, there are stars and symbols within the D.C. map, so it kind of came full circle. I’ll just say it was all thought out.
If you look at the numbers on the bottom of the shoe inside the pentagon shapes, we have the area codes of where he’s been. It starts with Maryland, then Texas, then Seattle, and then OKC. It’s kind of a map of where he’s been. You have the scoring titles, how many points he’s averaged. His family, you have Wanda Pratt and Wayne Pratt, his brother Tony, his grandmother Barbara, all on the sole, something that’s been on every shoe. And you have “Seat Pleasant’s finest,” which is the area he grew up in, and Big Chucky, Durant’s childhood coach who passed away.
That’s what makes a shoe signature, instead of just a regular shoe. You have the ability to tell an athlete’s story.
FUNCTIONING ON THE COURT
I like hearing the bad things that are wrong with the shoe. That’s the only way you can get better. In getting feedback from our testers and consumers who bought it, people talked about the stiffness in the material. So we decided to make it softer and easier to move. With this hyper-fuse construction, we’ve softened the materials without sacrificing the support element. It allows the shoe to hug the foot and support the foot better.
Kevin has a really narrow foot, so the previous shoe fit him just fine straight out of the box. In years past, he would wear maybe three or four pairs of shoes throughout the entire season. Luckily, all those shoes have held up. But he puts a beating on them. In the KD IV, he felt comfortable to switch them out a little bit more often than before.
When he first wore the KD V, in a practice in OKC, he came back to us and said it was the most comfortable shoe he’s worn yet.
One of the design testers said the bottom is almost like a gecko’s foot. We have no other shoe with this sort of traction.
A lot of people might ask why we have the max air bag in the KD now. And that’s something we noticed that evolved in his game. Before, when he ran, his heel hardly ever touched the floor. He was always on his toes. But I noticed this year and the end of last year that he was driving to the basket a lot more, with these long galloping strides, and really planting hard on his heel. So that’s a new feature in his shoe and potentially gets more players into the shoe.
We like the KD to be our most versatile shoe. You look at his game, and he has range, so we wanted positions one through five to be able to wear the shoe comfortably.