Tinker Hatfield and the Air Jordan: A Brief History
The visionary behind some of Nike’s most iconic shoes, Tinker Hatfield is a bona fide legend among sneakerheads. For four decades, the designer—who now serves as Nike’s Vice President for Design and Special Projects—has applied his singular genius to creating shoes that combine technical and aesthetic innovation with compelling narratives. From the architecturally-inspired Air Max 1 to the otherworldly Nike MAGs that Marty McFly sports in Back to the Future II, Hatfield’s designs have made an indelible impact on the Nike brand and the evolution of sneaker culture at large.
Among Hatfield’s numerous contributions, the Air Jordan line stands out, both for its enduring popularity and its industry-transforming significance. In an unprecedented collaboration between designer and player, Tinker Hatfield worked closely with Jordan to create some of the most coveted Nike Air Jordan models of all time, beginning with the 1988 release of the Air Jordan 3. In the ensuing decades, Hatfield’s OG Jordan designs have inspired countless retros and collabs. Creative luminaries from Off White’s Virgil Abloh to Fragment’s Hiroshi Fujiwara to the famed street artist KAWS have all put their unique stamp on the classic Tinker Hatfield designs. Read on to discover more fascinating history behind Hatfield’s most iconic Nike Air Jordan designs, along with our five favorite styles to shop now.
Tinker Hatfield Air Jordans that Every Sneakerhead Should Know
1 | Nike Air Jordan 3 (Retro SP Fragment)
Tinker Hatfield’s first Air Jordan design, the Air Jordan 3 is credited with keeping Michael Jordan at Nike after the original Air Jordan designer Peter Moore left the company. Tinker Hatfield designed the Air Jordan 3 in close collaboration with MJ, addressing the player’s request for a more lightweight, modern shoe. The result: a revolutionary sneaker, remarkable for both its innovative design and its historical impact. The first ever mid-cut basketball shoe, the Tinker Hatfield Jordan 3 is also the first Nike Air Jordan to feature ‘Visible Air,’ in the form of an exposed heel unit. The Air Jordan 3 also marks the debut of the iconic Jumpman logo on the tongue, and the model’s distinctive elephant print accents.
For this Air Jordan 3 Retro, the classic silhouette gets a sleek, minimalist treatment thanks to a collab between Jordan Brand and Hiroshi Fujiwara’s design label, Fragment Design. Fujiwara, who is known as the godfather of the Ura-Harajuku fashion scene, riffs on the Hatfield original, accenting these white tumbled leather Air Jordan 3 Retros with black leather overlays embossed with the Fragment lightning bolt logo. Translucent Jumpman logos overlay Fragment branding on the heels, while the colorway, style code and release date are printed on the white midsole.
2 | Nike Air Jordan 4 (Retro x Union Off Noir)
Tinker Hatfield’s second Air Jordan model, the Air Jordan 4 debuted in 1989 in 4 OG colorways. Combining striking aesthetics with unique performance-enhancing features, the Air Jordan 4 stands out for its triangular support wings and breathable over-molded mesh paneling. The eye-catching design rocketed to instant popularity, bolstered by standout moments on and off the court: His Airness famously hit “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo sporting Air Jordan 4s, and the shoe makes a memorable appearance in Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film Do the Right Thing.
Thanks to its perennial popularity, the Air Jordan 4 has inspired many innovative collaborations. For this Air Jordan 4 Retro, Los Angeles-based streetwear boutique Union LA teamed up with Nike to reimagine the iconic Tinker Hatfield design. Uppers are dressed in black suede, with breathable blue mesh on the collar and black mesh on the toe box. Taking cues from an original sketch by Hatfield, the Air Jordan 4 Retros also feature semi-translucent TPU wings for structural support. A yellow Union tab on the lateral quarter panel, black heel tab with red Nike branding and a red woven Air Jordan tag atop the folded-over tongue finish the look.
3 | Nike Air Jordan 5 (Retro SE Oregon)
For the Air Jordan 5, Tinker Hatfield took design cues from the P-51 Mustang fighter jet, an American-made plane used by Allied forces in World War II. The Air Jordan 5’s aggressive Mustang-inspired silhouette embodies Jordan’s dominant on-court style, while signature shark-tooth detailing on the midsole pays homage to “The Shark,” a version of the P-51 embellished with cartoonish shark teeth. Like its predecessors, the Air Jordan 5 also represents a number of design firsts: the first Air Jordan model with a clear outsole, it was also the first to feature reflective 3M material on the tongue and a molded ankle collar.
This special edition University of Oregon Air Jordan 5 Retro brings an added element of Nike history to the classic Tinker Hatfield design: the company was founded by former ‘Oregon Ducks’ track athlete Phil Knight and coach Bill Bowerman, and Tinker Hatfield himself is an alumnus and former track athlete. Like the Air Jordan 5 Oregon PE edition, the Air Jordan 5 Retro SE features Apple Green uppers with contrasting black eyelets, tongues and mesh, with yellow shark tooth detailing on the midsoles.
4 | Nike Air Jordan 11 (Retro Jubilee)
Another groundbreaking Tinker Hatfield shoe, the Air Jordan 11 also has the distinction of being the favorite sneaker of both the Jordan designer and Jordan himself. Released in 1995, the iconic Nike Air Jordan 11 shoes made NBA history during MJ’s legendary 72-10 season with the Bulls. Jordan’s spectacular on-court performance wasn’t the only thing that made the Air Jordan 11 stand out: with a ballistic mesh upper wrapped in a shiny patent leather mudguard, this was a basketball shoe the likes of which had never been seen before. The sneaker—which Jordan also famously wears in the 1996 movie Space Jam—became an instant pop cultural phenomenon, and remains to this day one of the most popular Air Jordan models.
This Air Jordan 11 Retro Jubilee was created to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the AJ11. Black uppers are dressed in sleek patent leather and ballistic mesh, while the back of the heel features a metallic silver Jumpman and Jordan’s number 23. Eyelets are adorned with silver “JORDAN” lettering, and a Jumpman can also be found on the inside of the tongue and sole of the shoe.
5 | Nike Air Jordan 13 (Retro Gym Red Flint Grey)
The Air Jordan 13 was the last Nike Air Jordan MJ wore for a complete season with the Chicago Bulls. While most of Hatfield’s Air Jordan designs were conceived in collaboration with Jordan, the Air Jordan 13 has a unique origin story. Watching MJ on the court, Tinker Hatfield was struck by the player’s panther-like ability to study his opponents and strike at just the right moment. Taking the predator’s stealth and agility as his inspiration, Hatfield designed the Air Jordan 13 with a distinctive paw-like outsole and a circular hologram at the ankle evoking the panther’s piercing green eyes. Jordan connected with the design instantly—in an uncanny coincidence, MJ’s ‘secret’ nickname among teammates and close friends was “Black Cat.”
The Air Jordan 13 was released in late 1997 and throughout 1998. This Air Jordan 13 Red Flint, inspired by the OG 1998 “Flint”, updates the original Carolina Blue colorway with Gym Red reflective mesh uppers, accented with white tumbled leather and Flint Durabuck. The AJ13’s signature holographic eye adorns the lateral ankle, and a black embroidered Jumpman logo on the tongue completes the look of this Air Jordan 13 Retro.