by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)
It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one — with the possible exception of Kanye West, who is likely blissfully unaware of my existence anyway — that I would rather have a pair of “Hot Lava” Nike Air Tech Challenge IIs than the near-mythical “Red October” Air Yeezy II. I can explain why in just one word — significance — but I suppose that wouldn’t make for much of an essay. Allow me to continue.
Back in the early 2000s, I succeeded Chris Hall as the author of Mass Appeal’s monthly “Kickin’ It” sneaker column. One of my first, if not my first, columns addressed the troubling fact that context was being lost amidst an avalanche of retro releases being delivered with no rhyme or reason. A sneaker from 1986 sat on the shelf next to one from 1995 next to a brand-new one, with no explanation. And hybrids diluted things even further, as designers approached new sneakers like hip-hop tracks, sampling from every era. Since then, it’s only gotten worse. Exponentially so.
But occasionally a release can cut through the clutter. The “Hot Lava” Tech Challenge II is one of those. It still doesn’t come with a retro card or anything like that, but for those of us who were alive (and sentient) during its initial release, we remember what it meant. The Tech Challenge II was the sneaker that brought tennis shoes into the ‘90s, the core of Andre Agassi’s “rock and roll tennis” look. The fact that Tinker Hatfield designed it at the peak of his powers shouldn't come as a surprise. But it was also a performance upgrade as, like Agassi himself, the flashy exterior was merely the sizzle. Then again, image is… you know the rest.
The Tech Challenge II was the sneaker that brought tennis shoes into the ‘90s.
It doesn’t really matter that the “Hot Lava” Tech Challenge II returned last just eight years ago, or that back then it wound up on sales racks. There’s a whole new generation buying sneakers now, those who did cop last time are probably looking to re-up, and anyone who put their pairs on ice waiting for that perfect time to break them out — um, what the hell were you thinking? It’s a sneaker whose point of reference is firmly fixed in time, and it carries that “welcome to the ‘90s” vibe whenever it drops. No mullet wigs or acid-wash denim required.
As for the long-awaited Nike Air Yeezy “Red Octobers,” what do they represent really? Built on the literal foundation of the Tech Challenge II — a virtually identical outsole and midsole — the Yeezy II is a chimera of a sneaker designed by, and mostly for, a guy who has since left Nike for adidas. It effectively utilizes elements of sneakers from the ‘80s and ‘90s (the midfoot strap, the faux exotic skins) to elicit emotion. This is something that Kanye West has proven incredibly adept at across all aspects of his career. But traditionally Nikes have earned their reputation through athletic achievement, and no sold-out arena or elaborate stage show will ever equal an ATP World Championship, a Davis Cup win, or French and U.S. Open finals appearances, all of which Agassi achieved in 1990.
To be entirely honest, I don’t own either sneaker. I’m not inner-circle enough (or inner-circle at all) to get Yeezys, and I’m not terribly enamored with the current piranha-fest Twitter RSVP method of acquiring sought-after retros. But if I did, and I had to choose, there’s no question which one I’d pick.