NEW YORK — LeBron James looked like he might have been heading to the locker room before a NBA playoff game. He was wearing one of his Twitter-inflaming Thom Browne shorts suits and sunglasses (indoors, at night), with long socks pulled up high for a sporty finish.
But as James stood on a Lower East Side stage just before the official launch of New York Fashion Week, there was one important addition to the countless resulting photos. As he held his remarkably composed three-year-old daughter Zhuri in his arms, James explained why the new LeBron 16 sneaker for women was so important to make — and why the process by which they were made was so important, too.
“I was thinking about the African American woman, and why I believe they’re the most powerful women in the world,” James began, before speaking about his mother Gloria, his wife Savannah -- both sitting at a table near the front, wearing the new sneaker -- and his daughter.
That sentiment is what led to the HFR x LeBron 16, the first shoe from a male athlete’s line designed for women by women. HFR is Harlem’s Fashion Row, a collective founded by Brandice Daniel to support the work of designers of color.
The initial inspiration was actually an off-the-cuff quote James gave last year when asked about National Girls and Women in Sports Day, where he cited his mother as the strongest athlete and woman he knew.
Nike reps saw the quote and suggested he translate those ideas into a shoe, with help from Harlem’s Fashion Row designers Undra Duncan, Fe Noel, and Kimberly Goldson, as well as Nike’s global basketball footwear designer Meline Khachatourian. This would be an all-woman design team.
SB Nation spoke with Duncan, Noel, and Goldson about the process behind designing the newest shoe for basketball’s biggest star and what it meant to them that it was a tribute to women.
SB Nation: How did you get connected with Nike?
Undra Duncan: Nike initially reached out to Brandice Daniel at Harlem’s Fashion Row, which is a platform she founded to bring exposure and resources to multicultural designers. They reached out to her looking for a pool of African American female designers to potentially work with. She sent over our names.
Originally, it was only supposed to be one of us. But after looking at our past collections, they realized that the project needed to be bigger than what they had originally thought, and decided to work with all three of us.
SBN: What was your initial reaction to learning that LeBron wanted you to help him design a shoe?
Fe Noel: At first, we didn’t know what we were signing onto. Brandice called us and said, “I have this opportunity, I need you guys to sign this, but I can’t tell you why or for what.” Then she called us back and was like, “They want all three of you,” and we were like, “Wait, who’s ‘they’?”
When it ended up being Nike and LeBron, I think we lost our minds. Undra is, like, LeBron’s number one fan. We all found out on the phone together at the same time, and we couldn’t even really fathom what was happening. Also, we’re fashion designers, so we were like, “Oh shit, what’s going to happen?” I still don’t think we’ve soaked it all in.
SBN: Did you ever think you’d be designing a sneaker?
Fe Noel: Never. It was actually a very spiritual journey. I couldn’t see it happening if it had just been one of us. With the meaning behind the collaboration, it had to be all three of us working together to make this happen.
Kimberly Goldson: We couldn’t have dreamed this. At what point can you say to yourself, “I want to be the first African American women to design LeBron’s shoe”? You can’t even put that into words.
But now that we’ve opened this door, there are young women who can come behind us and have a dream like this. We feel honored to be part of this moment.
SBN: Were there any technical considerations about designing a sports shoe that surprised you?
Undra Duncan: I would say every aspect of it was a bit of a surprise. None of the three of us are shoe designers. We all do apparel—specifically, women’s wear. We all kind of work in our own little corners of the world, making what we need to make happen using the resources that we have.
But when you go to Nike’s massive campus and join their design team, everything is on another level. The process of designing a sneaker was a learning curve for us, but I would also say that they people at Nike were just so awesome and so collaborative. Every creative idea that we came up with, they at least tried to figure out how to make happen.
Like when we wanted the strap on the ankle to be a piece of jewelry — at first they were like...
Kimberly Goldson: Fe wanted it to come from Cartier, and they were like, “We’ll see what we can do.” [laughs]
Undra Duncan: Ultimately the strap wound up coming out beautiful. There was no lack of creativity, but where we may have lacked technical skills, the Nike team stepped in.
SBN: What does it mean to you to design something that’s slightly more accessible, both as far as price point and distribution?
Fe Noel: It’s more than a sneaker for us. It’s something that we want every woman to be able to have, because of what it represents. We built the sneaker around women everywhere who are strong, resilient, courageous, and loyal. I wish every woman could own a pair.
I’m happy that they’re going to be on a platform that’s larger than the ones we have on our own right now. We’re really excited about that.
SBN: Did you get a chance to meet up with LeBron to present the prototypes?
Undra Duncan: Yes, we absolutely did. He’s very hands on. Nike had brought the idea to him, and he was on board. So when we had the first prototype, we did meet him and he was really awesome.
Of course you never know. This is his brand, this is his name, so he has to love it. He’s not just doing this to be some kind of marketing thing for Nike. It has to be something that he loves.
His initial reaction was more of an ecstatic facial expression at first, which I don’t even know how to describe. But he said, “This is awesome, this is dope.”
But before we showed him the shoe, Fe, Kimberly, and I talked about our stories and our backgrounds and he was very engaged in that part of the process, in learning how we got here. It’s a testament to how awesome of a person he is, not just as an athlete. Once he saw how everything was coming along, he made it a point that our stories should also be at the forefront, not just him and the shoe. We’re really grateful for that.
SBN: What was the concept behind styling the HFR x Nike show?
Kimberly Goldson: It was a mix of all three of our collections along with Nike apparel. It gave you a look at how you can combine the sneakers in with your everyday look — everything from jeans to ballgowns, not just Nike athletic wear.
I think people are really starting to understand how to mix athletic wear into their daily lives, and remixing their more special pieces. You don’t need to wait to wear sequins to some evening affair. Wear them in the morning with a pair of sneakers. Be fabulous! You don’t have to wait until you think it’s a special occasion. Everyday can be a special occasion.
SBN: Is there anyone in particular who you’d like to see in the shoes?
Kimberly Goldson: To see his mother and his wife [wearing the sneaker] was probably the biggest honor for us, because we know that’s the reason why this entire thing kicked off: his reverence and his respect and his love for them. If they’re in the sneaker, and they love it and feel honored and feel everything that we put into it, I think that’s the biggest compliment of all.