Ex-Nike Footwear Designer Speaks on Nike Copying His Design
We’ve heard plenty of stories about independent designers receiving lawsuits from Nike for making custom Nike’s sneakers that riff on the brand’s iconic designs. But what happens when Nike copies a custom design from an independent designer? That’s what recently happened to Chad Little, a vintage clothing dealer who wanted to add a little more flair to a set of vintage Nike Boating jackets he thrifted.
“Instead of just selling this jacket for $40 on eBay, I decided to add some bigger logos that were already on this jacket,” says Little, who’s been customizing vintage garments to make pieces he’s thrifted over the years more desirable. “I took this tiny boating logo on the back collar that I blew up and put it on the arm. And then I took a bigger version of the Nike logo and put it near the belly.”
Two years after Little sold the one of one pieces, for $350 apiece in less than five minutes, he discovered that Nike released the jacket as a “reissued” piece from the brand’s own archives last month. “It was the exact same jacket down to every detail,” Little told Complex. The brand even tried to replicate the chain stitch chenille patches that Little meticulously worked on. Although the jacket has been pulled from Nike’s online store, it’s still being sold on Slam Jam, End Clothing, and Farfetch
“It doesn’t bother me that they took the design because it’s still Nike logos on a Nike jacket. I’m more flattered that they did that,” says Little, who has helped design apparel for brands like Mitchell & Ness and designers like Don C. “The part that bothers me is that they put a neck label inside the jacket that read it’s a reissue from 1987 directly from the Nike archives. I made it so well that whoever saw my Instagram page thought that it really was Nike’s work and issued it as retro.”
Chad Little’s relationship with Nike runs deep. He was a footwear designer at Nike for six years who designed sneakers like Air Jordans and worked alongside designers like Tinker Hatfield in the storied Innovation Kitchen. But Little’s love for thrifting and vintage always came first. Little describes himself to be a Nike historian, who began building his extensive knowledge of the brand as an early ’90s pre-teen who scavenged thrift stores throughout the Pacific Northwest for anything with that coveted Swoosh. He’s built such an impressive archive of vintage wares that after growing tired of working within the corporate sneaker world, he quit his Nike gig to design apparel and sell vintage clothes through his store which is aptly named Doctor Funk’s Gallery.
We spoke to Little about his custom vintage pieces, his archive of vintage Nike gear, the rarest Nike sneaker samples he’s found, his experiences working for Jordan Brand and Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, and how he plans to re-enter the footwear industry in the future.
You used to design footwear for Nike and the Jordan Brand. But before that, you’ve collected and sold vintage since the ’90s. What sparked your interest in vintage clothing and how did you start flipping it?
From a young age, I started going to thrift stores with my brother because our parents raised us frugally. The first thing I remember as a 12-year-old, was finding a pair of old-school Nikes for $10 and they weren’t my size or my brother’s size. We just bought them because we thought they were cool. This was right around when eBay started, in 1997. We gave eBay a shot, and sold those shoes for $50. I was 12, my brother was 16, and a big lightbulb came on. “Okay, we can go to the thrift store to buy and sell more stuff.” It was fun because we knew what we liked and what was cool by just going to Foot Locker and seeing what was going on. The internet wasn’t as prevalent at the time, we had our own sense of style and taste, and it was more expensive than the things our parents were buying for us. Our business grew quickly when we realized thrifting was widening our wardrobe and when we found items not in our size, we could just resell it for money.
So my own brother went into it full time for 10 years. I wound up going to college after I was done playing basketball and knew I wasn’t going to the NBA. I moved to Santa Fe and got a design degree. I continued that thrifting passion and kept going to garage sales or thrift stores, knowing they’re good out there. Although I maintained my focus throughout school and got into the footwear design world for the next 10-plus years, I was still hitting thrift stores once or twice a week because it’s a fun hobby.
Eventually, I got to that point of not wanting to work in the corporate world anymore. I’ve had kids and I wanted to spend more time with my family. When that happened two-and-a-half years ago, I had accumulated storage units of stuff that I could sell. I convinced my wife that I didn’t have to get a job for the next couple of years. Luckily, she took this leap of faith with me. I still have fun going to thrift stores and finding surprises all the time. Like why would you give this away for free? But I’m happy you did.
What was it like selling vintage clothing back then compared to now?
I saw the value in things that were made with quality or things that resonated with people my age from back then. In the Portland area where we would thrift a lot, its proximity to Nike headquarters meant that a lot of people were buying Nike stuff or getting it for free because they worked there and then just donated it to Goodwill. I would find tons of cheap stuff from a thrift store, like $2.99 Nike T-shirts, and was just buying a lot of it because I appreciated it. And when I looked at the retail value in the ‘90s of a Jordan T-shirt that was only about 10 years old at the time, it wasn’t worth it for me to sell it for $20-$25. I thought that at some point, people will appreciate this stuff more. If they don’t, whatever. I only invested $3 for a T-shirt here and there.
Did you find all those rare Nike sneaker samples from thrifting in the ‘90s? And what was your favorite one that you found during that time?
There’s a lot of good ones. One of my recent Instagram posts was a pair of Foamposite prototypes with different details. I always love finding stuff that came out for retail that everyone loves, but I have the original version that was made slightly differently. So that was a game that was fun to chase in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. There were samples everywhere because people hadn’t caught on to it yet. So I gathered a lot of Nike samples over the years because everybody gave them away. I’ve found shoes like Jordan baseball cleats and prototypes of everything that you can think of.
What impresses you about those prototypes, especially as someone that’s a footwear designer?
It’s cool as a designer to see the growth of design. Because I agree with a lot of people. I’m glad they didn’t release the shoes like that. It shows how all these details came out way more beautifully in the final released version of something like the Jordan VI. That prototype almost looks like an adult youth shoe in a weird way because they cut out so many details.
Speaking of just Nike lines from the past, I’d love to learn more about how this custom Nike Boating jacket came about.
They did a boating line in 1987 and they made some beautiful original garments. They did like, a jacket, a sweatshirt, and probably a T-shirt, and a hat. But it got canceled pretty quickly because Nike didn’t project what the growth was going to be and didn’t know if sailing was really a sport they wanted to get into. So I had two Nike Boating jackets, a red and white version of it, and it just had a contrast stripe on the chest and a tonal Nike logo on the other side of the chest. So really, even from 5 feet away, you couldn’t even tell you were wearing a Nike jacket. To me, that wasn’t how Nike often plays their cards. So I was thinking that maybe this stuff didn’t sell well because they didn’t really think through it well graphically.
Instead of just selling this jacket for $40 on eBay, I decided to add some bigger logos that were already on this jacket. I took this tiny boating logo on the back collar that I blew up and put it on the arm. And then I took a bigger version of the Nike logo and put it near the belly. My thinking of it was: “What if Nike stayed in the whole boating business in the ‘80s and early ‘90s?” They could have potentially competed with Polo Ralph Lauren for that business if they had set that ground. That jacket was actually worn by a sailor skippering a sailboat in the 1987 America’s Cup. So the real history behind the jacket was pretty cool.
How did you feel when you saw Nike copy your work?
So for me, it’s just fun to make logos and put things together. I’ll just make things if I like it and think it’s cool. If other people appreciate it as well, that’s great. So really that’s all it was. I made the logos, put it on the jacket, and sold two of them. I sold both in under five minutes for $350 each. It wasn’t until last week that a buddy of mine, who bought one of the two jackets, sent me a product that Nike just released.
It was the exact same jacket down to every detail. They even tried to replicate the same level of embroidery that I chain stitched onto the jacket, which you can’t really do with an automated machine at a factory. But it doesn’t bother me that they took the design because it’s still Nike logos on a Nike jacket. I’m more flattered that they did that.
The part that bothers me is that they put a label on the neck inside the jacket that said it’s a reissue from 1987 that’s directly from their Nike archives. I made it so well that whoever saw my Instagram page thought that it really was Nike’s work and issued it as retro. It’s funny to see, especially as a Nike head who got to work for Nike and the Jordan Brand alongside designers like Tinker Hatfield. It was a dream come true. But when I got into the footwear industry and saw how it all works, I lost my interest in it. My point is, it’s weird to me that you can hire a designer who is going to design a jacket that they’re “reissuing” from their past but they don’t even know the history of the brand. As a Nike historian who knows all this stuff, it just fascinates me that they don’t even know what’s going on in their own world.
Did they ever reach out to you afterward?
I got nothing and I know a lot of people that still work there, too. Not that I was expecting to hear back from somebody, but if people wanted to get a hold of me, it’s pretty easy because of my connections with people who work there and social media. But just reading the comments on that post, 99.9 percent of them are just bashing Nike saying, “Screw those guys. Why would they do that? Why are they stealing from the small guys?”
Yeah, it’s interesting especially with the actions they’ve taken against Warren Lotas or MSCHF for the Lil Nas X “Satan” Air Maxes. In light of that, what do you think of Nike’s actions against small independent designers who riff on the brand’s work?
I have to understand that as a big corporation, you’re trying to protect yourself because there’s history. But do you know how many people ripped off the Nike Dunk or Nike Air Force 1? They’re not the only people doing this, so it’s weird that they targeted them because a lot of people do it. But then, they support the Shoe Surgeon who is ripping Air Jordan 1s and also making his own business out of it. It’s weird that they support certain people who are making money off of them. Personally, I’m rooting more for designers like Lotas, just from the scraps that I got from sitting within the corporate world. I’m always rooting for the underdog in the situation. I understand both sides, but I can tell you who I’m rooting for.
How did you start making custom vintage garments?
I found that over the last couple years hitting thrift stores, I just don’t find the goods that I used to find. There’s a lot more people who thrift now and it’s just harder to find good options. That’s fine, because I will still end up finding blank pieces often overlooked by another thrifter or reseller. Like a really nice Letterman jacket with no logos or patches on it for $20 which doesn’t have a lot of resale value. So I’ve brought a lot of nice quality blanks over the last four or five years and I didn’t even have the equipment to make stuff yet. I just had the mentality that if I buy this really nice jacket for cheap now, later down the road I can sew on Jordan logos or whatever patches I want to tell a story. I appreciated that side of Nike a lot, which is the storytelling to get a consumer to really understand the emotion that a designer is trying to put out there. So for me, making a patch on a vintage piece that helps tell a larger story or giving you a piece no one else has, I find the value in that. I want to make the piece that you value the most in your closet.
So I surround myself in the basement with just racks of blank pieces, along with other pieces that are from the store. So I keep myself constantly surrounded with wool, thread, blank jackets, and folders of inspirational images. Whether it’s someone wearing a cool jacket at a concert or a sports moment that I can re-create. It’s just kind of cool just bringing those pieces to life.
And I just do it for fun, really. It mixes in with all the thrifted pieces that I’m putting out there too. I have a platform, so I don’t think I would like to make a website to sell custom pieces yet, because obviously it’s slow work. It’s fun, but I’m not going to be making a custom jacket every day. My neck would be hurting from looking down all the time.
Your chain stitch work is awesome. I love that Nike P-Wing Polo flip you did and that hoodie you made. I noticed you’re selling some rare Ralph Lauren Motor pieces and Cartoon Stadium button-ups. What was the rarest Polo item you ever acquired?
I’ve got tons of it, but I never really found that customer yet. Like, I made that Polo hoodie and priced it at $350 and it’s still available. I think most of my following lies within the vintage Nike and sneakerhead world, which is cool. Regarding rare Polo, it’s probably just some Snow Beach pieces as far as value. I don’t know the rarity of things back then. I don’t know what kind of numbers they were producing to make something more rare or not. But oddly enough, I would always find old, early ‘90s pieces in the small town I live in in Washington. I’m like, “Who is buying this at a department store in the ‘80s and getting rid of it in a thrift?” It’s odd to me. Like in New York and LA, I expect to find those pieces around, but not around here.
Do you have any celebrity clients when it comes to this vintage stuff?
I’m making a custom jacket right now for Damian Lillard. I made this Nike cardigan in a mustard yellow color with a P-Wing logo flip of a Nike Blazer shoe with the wings behind it. Eric Bellinger ended up wearing that to some awards show which was cool to see some pictures of. I’ve had people come over to shop for players like LeBron and Devin Booker who are into the vintage Nike world, too. So I find those guys want to wear that stuff because most of the apparel that Nike Sportswear gives to them is nice and modern, but a lot of those guys just want to wear vintage pieces every now and then, which is kind of cool. I’m sure there’s more but those are the ones that came to my head at first.
I noticed Don C comments on your posts and Jerry Lorenzo seems to be a fan of yours, too. Have you worked with those designers or anything, or are they just like, your homies?
So while I was at Jordan Brand, I knew that Don C was coming in for a meeting with one of the designers to collaborate on a Jordan II. I knew that this guy was into vintage sportswear stuff so I went to strike up a conversation with this guy and wore an old-school game-worn piece. So we talked for a while and we made a relationship just as friends. But when I left Jordan Brand, I found out that a guy I knew brought Mitchell & Ness from Adidas about three years ago. I had worked for him a couple years ago and I said: “Hey, I know the vintage sportswear world pretty good, maybe I could come in and design?” So he hired me to be a designer for the brand when I first started designing vintage sportswear pieces. So Don C comes in the door. I didn’t know, he had a meeting with somebody about doing vintage NBA shorts. We started talking more and I found out he had an office in LA. So he invited me to a spot in LA and we’ve just kept in touch just on a love for vintage. His love for vintage sportswear has a bigger wallet than I do, so his selection is just fun to look through and see. And vice versa, I invited him over to my house when I lived down there and he would shop through my stuff. And in the past, he’s had me work on some design work on some of the apparel stuff he released, so I just kind of help him out on the side.
With Jerry, it’s a similar thing. One of my bosses at Jordan Brand was friends with Jerry, Jason Mayden, is actually the VP of Fear of God Athletics with Adidas. This was about three or four years ago, and he said, “Hey, my friend Jerry is looking to shop some vintage. Are you available to show him some stuff?” So I invited him over to my place and just built a relationship with him as well. He just came over with Jason to my place right when they started their Adidas thing. I went with them to a spot that we know as a glorious vintage warehouse that’s underground. Yeah, it’s fun when you can just vibe with people who have the same appreciation for this stuff.
Regarding just working with brands, have any brands like Polo Ralph Lauren ever hit you up for any of the stuff that you post on your ’gram or anything like that?
Never. I’m pretty low-key and underground. I don’t really have that big of a following. I just do it out of fun. No one’s ever hit me up.
How did your experience at Nike inform your work as a clothing designer today?
My approach has always been through the lens of shoes. So when I did it for other companies, I brought this sense of, “OK, I can bring all that thinking to Nike,” better than anyone else. That’s what I thought when I got there. When I got to see the amount of tools at hand in the Innovation Kitchen, and just being able to control the process of making a shoe, that grew the inner child in me. I was a part of this process more, versus what I was really tasked to do in the previous 10 years was to sit behind a computer, stylize something, then tell a factory how to do it, and argue with them until it’s halfway good. It was never quite satisfying when I saw the process of how it really worked. But when you’re in control of the machine and how it’s processing, you can add a little more shape where you want it. You’re not just waiting for someone else to take a request and then you hope they do it. And that was always the world I lived in.
So when I got out of shoes, I jumped into the apparel world, the reason wasn’t just because I couldn’t work at shoe companies because of the non-compete contract that I had. I really just didn’t want to do it anymore. But when I got into the apparel world, it almost seemed like a simpler formula to crack. In shoes, you have hard goods and you have soft goods. You have uppers with the mixed materials, you have a bottom half to hold your foot in. It has to be comfortable and it can’t be too stiff. But with a clothing garment, it’s how does it fit, how does it feel, and what does it look like graphically? To me, those are easier things to tackle, but now I can kind of put my spin on thinking about it. How is this really going to be and move with the body? I’m always trying to think how I can make it function better.
And it’s a balance of it too, like the Nike Boating jacket. The tiny little tonal logo, I don’t think that worked very well. But slap on two logos in the right way and it can drive someone to open their wallet and buy that piece. Seeing how it’s easier to control and add value in apparel was a good start to transition me back into the shoemaking world, now that I have a little more skill set and my own machinery. It’s given me the confidence to actually steer back into the shoes because I’m figuring things out more now.
What was your favorite project to work on while you were at Nike?
The Doernbecher was probably the best one by far because we went to a local hospital in Portland and worked with a kid to design his own thing. I got to do the Air Jordan 8 and I had a kid who was struggling. And just not having a boss or another manager later tell you how to do something, I really got to work with the kid and see his vision come to life. When you see someone who’s sick and had bad days, and you give them a sample for the first time, you see them glow. That’s way more rewarding than any other project because really, the projects that I enjoy working on besides that, had more meaning than just being another lifestyle shoe that I didn’t care about. It would be like working on Carmelo’s signature shoe or doing some of the prototype work for the Olympics at the time. Those were the fun projects in theory, but they weren’t because it ended up driving me to not want to work anymore because there’s so many people at Nike and such a thick layer of pleasing people. It just wasn’t fun anymore.
I thought one of the most interesting ideas you had was this prototype for the Air Jordan Decon. Could you speak more about that and what are your thoughts on the end results?
I was wearing my retro Jordans to work and it’s a hot, clunky basketball shoe. So I just took my shoes off, to leave my socks on while I was at my computer. I would get all these comments from people to put my shoes back on. All right, why do I have to wear these hot shoes all day when I’m just sitting here? So I started wearing Chuck Taylors to work because they are a lot more breathable and less clunky. And Nike owned Converse, so we could get Chuck Taylors for like, $15. And then I would get comments like “Why are you wearing Chuck Taylors to work? This is Jordan Brand.” I’m like, “OK, if we made a shoe that was a lot lighter that still had style, I would do that.”
So now it gets to the point when I’m working in the Innovation Kitchen a little bit more and I have access to machine-made prototypes. So I took an old army duffel bag that I had thrifted that had a really cool vintage wash, heavy canvas to it. If we could make an Air Jordan 1 with just this sturdy material. It’s like 70-year-old material, and if it’s still sturdy today, I think it’s going to last another 20 years as a pair of shoes. So I had them to just sew the pattern line to make it look like the Air Jordan 1. But the idea was that it’s pretty much like a Chuck Taylor. It’s just a piece of canvas on your foot. I had them made in the Kitchen and wore them into the office. It garnered enough attention for people to say, “Hey, I think we could make a whole new program for the Air Jordan 1 where we deconstruct it. We’re going to take the foam out, the interior layers, and just make a lightweight Air Jordan 1.”
So I’m at the position where I’m helping steer the route, like don’t make a stiffer toe. Don’t make it stiff in the heel. Make it collapsible and comfy. At the time, which was six years ago, I said: “Why don’t you shelf the Air Jordan 1 for one year and make people want it even more?” Don’t release every colorway and saturate the market. Put it on the shelf for one year and make a canvas version for $70. Because the canvas upper, the labor and the cost of that is so cheap that they really could have sold that shoe for $60 or $70 and still made a ton of profit on it.
This part really burned me and just signatures everything I hate about the corporate world. I had already left Nike by then because these projects are designed 18 months ahead of time. So by the time I was done doing my part, they had to go to the factory in China, make 100,000 pairs, then get them to all the shoe stores. So by the time all that happens, I’m not working there anymore. I saw these shoes finally hit the retail market and they marked them up for $125. I reached out to the guy who’s responsible for some of that work and asked why they didn’t release a more affordable version of the Air Jordan 1. They just said they could make more money if they put it at that price point. So that’s why I just shrugged my shoulders and I said, “I get it. It’s a business. Everybody is trying to make the most money because that’s how you win.” But that’s not the strategy I would have taken. So I’m only one opinion in the big brand, but I can see how that works and things like that made me want to do my own thing, really.
So was that the very reason why you ended up just leaving Nike after six years? Just because of the corporate structures and all of that?
I had like, six different managers at Jordan Brand, or five different managers in the six years I was there. So you’re constantly trying to please a different person. And that person doesn’t even determine the end game result. Even if I pleased my boss with whatever my work is, he’s got to please his boss, and if that boss doesn’t like the work, he’s going to tell him to change it, he’s going to tell me to change it. It’s just such a weird situation. Even if I do the most amazing prototype drawing of a shoe and everybody is in agreement like, “Yes, let’s make that. Let’s go forward.” It doesn’t ever work that way because a lot of times you get a prototype back and you get 14 different angles of judgment. What ends up usually happening is just you get watered down products. It’s never really a wholesome and complete story.
They were also never really celebrating the wins. We were so far out on deadlines that by the time a shoe ever made it into Foot Locker and went to sale, even if it sold well or didn’t sell well, we never even realized that because we were working on all the other stuff. So to me, sometimes you have to celebrate the wins. You put three to six months into a project and you don’t even realize that it went to a store and sold out. I think we should celebrate that stuff, and it kind of inspires me to do more. And if it didn’t sell well, you should learn from that. Why didn’t it sell well? Take that as you go forward. But there’s no looking at it like that. Everything you do is like, “The past is the past. We’re moving forward. We’re trying to make more money. We’ve got to do this, got to do more of this.”
What do you want to achieve as a designer moving forward? Would you ever want to work for a large company like Nike again?
I can’t say I would never work with them because it’s an attitude of how you work with people. I’d say on a designer level, I find the apparel side fun and I think I’ll always continue to make custom pieces and get better at it. I don’t know how much more I’m going to grow in the apparel side over the next few years because while I can continue to maintain that skill set and do that work when it comes, my focus will shift back into the shoe world.
I’m going to be launching something soon. There’s going to be a lot of testing first before it gets to the launch. We’re in the prototype stage with a business partner of mine and we’re making an approach on footwear that’s not being addressed in this world. We buy shoes that are mass produced, and the problem with that is that shoes never really fit you. Rather, your foot fits into a predetermined shape. There’s all these little things that the shoe companies push now that they call “tech.” And for the most part, it’s all unnecessary. Because really good foot health means you can go walk outside barefoot on gravel and it wouldn’t hurt your feet.
Why is tech unnecessary?
Think about a big giant air bag or a bit of boost technology underneath your foot. Shoe companies have to make that for an average person. So let’s just say the average male is 175 pounds. Well that shoe works really well for the person that’s 175 pounds. It works, it flexes, it gives them the balance that they want. But let’s say you’re in fifth grade and you wear a size 9. You’ve got to buy the same shoe as a 175-pound guy and you might only be 95 pounds. So you’re wearing a shoe that should be worn by someone twice your weight, and your feet aren’t even bending where it’s supposed to flex. The shoe is moving your body for you and that stuff adds up over the years. But you don’t think about how shoes can give you a bad knee, a bad hip, and more.
How did you come up with this idea to make foot-focused footwear?
I saw this opportunity and I worked with podiatrists for a while to really understand the foot, ankles, and biomechanics of our bodies. When I envisioned making it to Nike one day, this was my mental approach before I even got there. I wanted to understand what’s going on so that when I design a shoe it’s going to help somebody run faster and jump higher. It’s not just going to be a style exercise. I think that’s one of the reasons why they reached out to me because I applied to work there for 10 years and never heard a word back from them. But when I started sharing some of my work online about being foot-focused and athlete-oriented, I think it got a little bit more of their attention. They brought me in for an interview, and that’s when I unexpectedly got a call from Jordan Brand. I thought I was going to come in and help make new approaches to athletic footwear that would cater to everybody’s different style, affected by their height, their weight, and whatever.
That wasn’t the case when I got to Jordan Brand. It was more of a styling exercise. You can solve problems but at the end of the day the shoes are all made the same and you don’t really get to vary that. My boss at the time, Jason Mayden, suggested I show the Innovation Kitchen what I was thinking about.
I showed my work down there in front of engineers and biomechanists and got grilled for an hour but I passed the test. They cleared off a desk for me right next to Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar, and Aaron Cooper—three footwear designers I revered growing up as a kid because these were guys who created Air Jordans, Air Maxes, and all the signature Nike basketball shoes that I loved in the ‘90s. These are the guys that sit at the front of the Innovation Kitchen and get tasked with coming up with cool new ideas that people build toward.
The approach I’m taking with my business partner is we’re trying to be able to make shoes, whatever your body type is, whatever your foot width is, whatever your weight is, and whatever your sport is, we’re trying to engineer a way to make a shoe fit to who you are. It’s going to be the best performing shoe in the world because it’s going to be made for you. It just won’t be able to be mass produced at 100,000 pairs at a time like today’s world works. So I know that we’re going to be small for a while. But people are going to take notice when we find an elite level athlete who tries on our shoes and plays in a game and says: “This works better than my other shoe.”