The Air Jordan XI Low I.E.: Past and Present


written by Nick Santora

Over the past twenty years, the Air Jordan XI has remained the most sought after model in the brand’s illustrious history. The perfection in design and athletic achievements connected to this sneaker, embody the quality and excellence the Jumpman logo represents.

In 1996, Michael Jordan was back from retirement and focused on basketball. He led the Chicago Bulls to a 72-10 regular season and another championship, at the expense of the Seattle Supersonics. When the Concord Air Jordan XI dropped, it blew people’s minds. The pristine white canvas upper sat on glowing black patent leather, with just the right amount of purple hits added to the outsole. Once again, Air Jordan shattered the mold of what a basketball sneaker is supposed to look like. The design of the XI carried an air of class and elegance, perfectly suited for the player who they were sculpted for.

During the 1996 NBA Playoffs, Air Jordan’s legend grew with another color of the XI: the black and red high top. There was also an added surprise, as Nike also sprinkled in an (almost) completely new model for a few games. The sneaker was exotic and luxurious. Foreign, but familiar. The Air Jordan XI Low I.E. is an overlooked gem in the history of OG Air Jordans. Maybe it’s because he only wore it for a few games, and they weren’t necessarily designed for a season on the hardwood… These shoes might even be considered an early attempt at creating a Jordan “lifestyle” shoe. The sneaker’s designer, Tinker Hatfield explains:

“We were looking at how we could extend the original performance basketball shoe into something that could further the design, but turn into a low top. I wasn’t interested in an exact replica of a XI in a low top. I was more interested in doing a low top that was partly the Jordan XI, but fresher. I felt like the patent leather was contrary to the summer feel… The shoe didn’t need to feel so stiff and heavy. For the summer, I wanted something that was lighter and easier to wear.”

The Air Jordan XI Low I.E. is built on the same platform as its XI high counterpart, complete with the herringbone traction and carbon-fiber plates. The upper is where things get really interesting. Drawing inspiration from Jordan Brand’s heritage, the XI I.E. features the reemergence of elephant print, for the first time since the iconic Air Jordan III was released in 1988. Let’s just pause for a moment to think about the genius of Tinker Hatfield. Who puts faux elephant skin on a basketball sneaker, created for the greatest player in the galaxy? This was back in 1988, when every other basketball sneaker looked the same. It was groundbreaking. Then he decided to encore with the XI I.E. reprise in 1996! Another similarity to the III, is the 3/4 height on this warm-weather design. Tinker also adds geometric cutouts in the elephant print leather, with lightweight mesh underneath, to provide ventilation throughout the sneaker, while also decreasing overall weight.

When you consider the XI I.E. in today’s cultural, fashion, and design contexts, it looks better now than ever before. It feels like it could have been a collaboration with some high-end European fashion house. Future PRADA designs were inspired by this shoe. Twenty years after the original release, we’re all now just understanding the genius and aesthetics of this sneaker. They embody the current ethos of mixing athletic performance and high- fashion, further solidifying Tinker Hatfield’s place as Nike’s greatest visionary.

The Air Jordan XI Low I.E. ‘Fire Red’ drop Saturday, 9/23 at