The Air Max 97 was a first for Nike. Not only was it the brand’s original sneaker with full-length Air, but it’s also served as a re-introduction to the Air Max line, 20 years after its initial introduction in 1997. The most surprising thing about the shoe now isn’t that it’s survived and made its firm stamp in Nike’s archive, but how it also became one of the brand’s best sneakers of the year -- and no one saw it coming.
2017 is the 20th anniversary of the Air Max 97, so it was expected that Nike was going to do something big with the sneaker. But as everyone knows, things don’t always go as planned. It all started in 2016, actually, with the re-release of the sneaker in its original silver color way for the Italian market to commemorate the country’s obsession with the shoe.
It was such a small gesture by Nike, to re-issue the Air Max 97 in it cultural home with a slight added difference: the sneaker’s heel and pull tabs were replaced with the Italian flag. The shoes went under the radar, mainly because they were only available in Milan and the public has had an iffy relationship with the Air Max 97 in general. But it also started a subtle wave around the sneaker that would grow the public’s interest in the shoe over the next calendar year. Nike would end up releasing the original version of the “Silver” colorway to European shops, then followed up with a wider release of the shoe during the now-annual “Air Max Month.” The “Gold” colorway of the sneaker got its just due, too, while collaborations happened on the model with Skepta and legendary retailer Undefeated. It was the right way to build a buzz around a sneaker that sat on shelves in 2009 when it was retroed.
What made the 97 popular in 2017 wasn’t just limited-edition makeups of the sneaker, though. It’s that people were actually wearing it. It’s a sleek shoe that was spit out into a world where it finally made sense again. Where the public’s fashion sense had caught up to the futuristic shoe that had its colorways were inspired by mountain bikes, claims Nike designer Christian Tresser.
“It’s like when the ‘Black’ Huarache came out a few years ago and Nike made a million pairs of them and everyone wanted them,” says Morgan Weekes, who runs Crepe City, the UK’s biggest sneaker show. “The Air Max 97 became a easily attainable, and it’s a cheap shoe that looks good with a fit. You see everyone wearing a pair, and then you suddenly want them.”
Restock after restock after restock of the “Silver” colorway of the Air Max 97 made it so that everyone who wanted a pair could get them, and you started to see the streets of New York filled with them. It was even more surprising that you’d see people who would have never been into the sneaker a few years ago wearing them. But times change and old sneakers can learn new tricks, or at least be seen through a new lens.
When Nike worked with Skepta on the Air Max 97, it felt like one of the brand’s most important stories of the year, or at least one of its most authentic ones. “When designing the Air Max 97 Sk, we took the color palette of Morocco into consideration, but also the palette of the 1999 Air Tuned Max,” Skepta said in a story put out by Nike. “That was the first shoe I ever saved up money to buy, so I wanted to bring its magic to the 97 — the magic that made me first love Air Max when I saw it as a child.”
The sneaker wasn’t just well received in the UK, where Skepta is from and where the 97 has had more relevance than in the U.S., but in the States, too. The sneaker instantly sold out, and although it’s not fetching huge sums on the resale market (the current value is $241 for the sneaker retailed for $180), it’s proving that Nike can once again tap into the art of storytelling and make shoes that resonate with consumers. And the 97 was the perfect mass-market sneaker to do it on.
“Nike’s good at bringing things back to life,” says Josh Luber, who’s the CEO of StockX, a site to buy and sell sneakers and find out their after-market value. “We’re selling a ton of Air Max 97s. They might not be going for a huge premium, but they’re desirable and at accessible to 16-year-old kids who can spend $250, $300 on a sneaker.”
The Air Max 97 has also become a favorite in the UK’s resale market, too. “When we do shows we have one or two sellers who only sell 97s,” says Weekes. “And they make good profit and there’s always a huge crowd around their tables.”
The reason the Air Max 97 is having a moment right now isn’t just because Nike is putting the right energy into sneaker, although the collaborations with Skepta, Undefeated, which releases globally this week, and an upcoming project with Virgil Abloh will surely help. But because it's finding a place with a new generation who's appreciating the design of a shoe was ahead of its time, but that's something that the designer couldn’t imagine himself.
“I was just going with what I felt in the moment and what excited me and got me inspired. I wasn’t thinking about 20 years down the line, to be honest,” Tresser said in an interview with Nice Kicks. “I weirdly have a vision that I feel I need to pursue and just do it.”