Tell me if this sounds familiar: The classic Air Jordan XI midsole and outsole paired with a more lifestyle-ready upper, one that would initially be launched in just two colorways but eventually be seen in many more. No, not 2014’s Air Jordan Future, 1996’s Air Jordan XI IE Low.
It’s probably the most wearable Air Jordan XI
Everything old is new again, yes, but more than that, the Air Jordan XI IE Low—which returns again this weekend in the initial white/cobalt/grey colorway—represented something of a change of direction for Air Jordan, one that would be solidified the following year as Jordan broke off from Nike to become its own company. The IE Low proved that an Air Jordan model not primarily known as an on-court shoe (although Jordan did wear it in the ‘96 Playoffs) could still be viable, and that the flagship performance model could serve as a jumping-off point for something else.
I know it did this because I bought a pair as soon as I saw them in ‘96. The regular Air Jordan XI, as stunning and significant as they were, weren’t an easy shoe to pull off casually. They were more art than clothing, better suited for worship than wear. The black/red pair I eventually purchased were only taken out of the box to be admired. Patent leather was not part of my daily wardrobe. (As it turned out, I never wore my IEs either, but only because that first wear was too difficult to get out of the way.)
Here’s something else the IE Low did: It re-introduced elephant print to the Air Jordan canon. This may seem insignificant now that’s it’s been used on seemingly every silhouette Jordan (and Nike) can think of, but back then this was a bold move. Air Jordan had always been about looking ahead, with most design elements, no matter how iconic, used once then shelved for something else. Think of the 3M tongue of the Air Jordan V—progress was linear, ideas weren’t re-used. Elephant print on the IE Low changed all of that. It flipped the entire idea of what a “new” Air Jordan could be on its head.
Significance isn’t enough, though. Not anymore anyway. And the IE Low is more than just a significant shoe. It’s probably the most wearable Air Jordan XI, as well as a near perfect summer shoe, what with its huge cutouts covered by just thin layers of mesh. The leather upper actually breaks in like a sneaker should, and it still has enough playability to survive a summer of pickup hoops. (Some might not want to hear this, but to me it’s the most wearable Air Jordan with elephant print, period.)
There are Air Jordans you buy to flex, there are Air Jordans you buy because you feel like you have to own them, there are Air Jordans you buy purely because of something Michael Jordan did in them. The white/Cobalt Air Jordan XI IE Low fits none of these categories. Which might be the best reason to buy it of all.
Russ Bengtson is a senior editor at Complex. 'The Russ Report' appears every Friday and you can read previous columns here.