I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the faintest idea of how brands pick which models of sneaker to retro. For every one that returns for a reason—whether its a significant anniversary or overwhelming consumer demand—there are literally dozens that re-release quietly and disappear much the same way, straight to ever-growing online clearance sections which by now themselves contain virtually all of sneaker history.
Why am I writing about this now? The Nike Air Hawk Flight. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m just talking about retro basketball shoes.) A Gary Payton quasi-signature that originally released in 1997, the Hawk Flight featured a leather or nubuck upper, an abstract, metallic support structure on the lateral sides, and Zoom Air cushioning. It was designed by Eric Avar, who also designed much of the Penny line, and worn not only by Payton, but by Ray Allen in He Got Game. That’s pretty much the only people I recall wearing it, yet here it is, on its way back into production for the first time in 18 years.
When something is desirable just because no one can get it, what happens when everyone can?
The Hawk Flight is not the first sneaker return I’ve been surprised by. Far from it. I never expected adidas to retro the Mutombo 2, or Reebok to re-issue the Rail. These were sneakers that were the equivalent of second-round picks back in the ‘90s, ones that were predictably going to have a tough time resonating with kids who weren’t even alive when they came out the first time. The first Mutombo with the shield and spears, cool. The Dee Brown Pumps, of course. But the Rail? Do kids now even remember Glenn Robinson at all, let alone Glenn Robinson on the Bucks? The stories are there, but when they weren’t told all that well the first time it’s hard to create nostalgia now.
Nike, of all the brands, has been the best-prepared to re-sell the ‘90s. Jordan, Penny, Barkley—the players, the shoes and the commercials were all inexorably linked. That’s all still there to draw from. But as they dig deeper into their back catalog, the connection becomes more tenuous. Sure, certain models can be sold off their rarity alone. But once they’re reproduced, they’re no longer rare or hard to find. When something is desirable just because no one can get it, what happens when everyone can? (Hint: See the Nike Command Force, which is already on sale even in “Holy Grail” original colorways.)
We’re clearly reaching the point where—retro being as big as it is—companies are strip-mining the past as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. What started with a select few signature models has grown to include, well, nearly everything with the exception of department store takedowns. At this point the list of high-end hoops models from the late ‘80s to late ‘90s that haven’t been retroed is shorter than the list of ones that have been. Even the 2000s are fair game now, as Jordan has already re-issued 2005’s Air Jordan XX.
What this really is, in the end, is a plea to leave some of the past in the past. As it happens, my favorite Nike basketball sneaker of all time, 1989’s Air Flight—the high, not the low—has yet to be retroed. Keep it that way. Honestly, as someone who wore it the first time, I’d rather not get a second chance if it means never seeing it in an all-red makeup, or with Safari print, or (God forbid) in acid-wash denim. Let those of us who actually wore it be content with our memories, and let those who missed out be content with stories. Sometimes that’s enough.