Living through the creation of each Air Jordan signature shoe from 2002 through 2013 was a passionate affair for me. In my journey as a material designer at Jordan, I created a tactile environment of color & materials for each designer. We told stories about shoes and, through textures, I tried to design materials through the lens of each designer’s vision. We were a family.

I look back at my favorite projects and remember my first meeting with MJ on a sunny July afternoon. I presented him materials from Italy, and, for 17 minutes, had an out-of-body experience, talking but not really hearing myself. I made him laugh, and he said he appreciated seeing materials in a raw state. He is a global icon and can see or experience anything he wants, however, he chose to be involved in our creative process each season. I came to appreciate that he loved our show & tell sessions.

Suzette Henry with Michael Jordan

Suzette Henry with Michael Jordan

Innovating by using unconventional materials made Jordan product unique and coveted. One of my most challenging projects was introducing Tech Flex braided polymer on the AJ XIX, pushing innovation while still respecting the boundaries of materials and how they are intended to perform. But sometimes it’s the simplest of materials that make the loudest roar. The AJ XXI was pure design, an example of influencing design with materials to drive the direction of the story. I used a full-grain suede used exclusively on Ducati racing bikes, one of MJ’s passions. The back and forth of the suede nap was like touching velvet, and I loved how designer D’Wayne Edwards’ simplified design and the suede danced together.

While I loved working on the high-profile projects, telling stories for kid’s or retro projects was even more challenging. Jordan consumers run the gamut in age. They have expectations, and the materials must deliver. Balancing aesthetics on kid’s products with providing perceived value is one of the hardest parts of material design. Material designers are the lyrics in a designer’s song. We seamlessly influence the process through materials that matter, colors that connect brands to consumers, and products that build brand loyalty.

I believe that cultivating relationships at Jordan supported our Brand success, and our vendors were partners every step of the way. I integrated them in the design process—we innovated materials together and made some history.

Suzette teaching Materials Class at Pensole

Suzette teaching Materials Class at Pensole

Some people go through life working at something they have no passion for. I have been incredibly blessed to have created the role of material designer at Nike and Jordan. I made long-lasting relationships and left on my own terms to create a new chapter in my life. Being a material designer has revealed many opportunities, and when D’Wayne Edwards asked me to join him at Pensole, one of the country’s only footwear design academies, I agreed and created the MLab. I wanted to educate students about basic materials—how they perform and how to use them across industries—color strategies, networking and building relationships, and, finally, how to parlay all that into a creative career.

It always surprises me when footwear brands reach out to me for color designers and have no idea what a material designer’s role is and how valuable that role can be to their product. I believe designing without color & materials is like being in a relationship without intimacy: why would one bother?


Suzette Henry

Suzette Henri is Material Director at MLab, a creative material resource for the only footwear design school in North America, Pensole Footwear Design Academy. With a background in sales, merchandising, and manufacturing, she was Nike’s first ever material designer and founded Jordan Brand’s material library.

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