Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella Records are inextricably tied to the "White/White" Air Force 1. His love for the sneaker resulted in a 1999 promo sneaker limited to 100 pairs with his record label's logo on the heel. But it almost didn't happen that way.
Drew Greer, a former Nike employee, recalls that he first pitched the idea of the Roc-A-Fella Air Force 1 as something completely different than we know it today. "The first one I spun in color," he says. "Jay came back and said, 'We only do white/whites. That’s all I really want.'"
The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Nike re-launched the sneaker. But the shoe itself wasn't the glamorous proposition that would go on to influence the industry—at least not internally at Nike. Greer remembers that creating the sneaker was a risky idea and it nearly cost him his job. To understand the "Roc" Air Force 1, you need to look at its predecessor, the "Wu-Tang" Nike Dunk, which was a play on the Black/Yellow Nike Dunk High for the University of Iowa, which was first released in 1986.
"I did the 'Wu-Tang' Dunk. We re-launched the Dunk. Foot Locker overbought the product. It was oversaturated," Greer recalls. "We had the 'Iowa' coming. I knew it was a challenging colorway, but we were trying to find a way to build energy around the product in a creative way. It was a promo product."
But, as he recalls, this wasn't something that went over well at Nike, especially with the people whose job it was to work directly with entertainers. "Our entertainment marketing department didn’t want to take on responsibility doing specific product for artists," he continues. "I stepped outside of my bounds and got a warning, but I was trying to build my business."
To get the "Roc" Air Force 1 made, Greer had to get support from outside, which came in the form of Udi Avshalom, who owned Training Camp, a sneaker boutique in New York City that had a relationship with Jay Z. "A year or so later, I was working with Udi at Training Camp and just did the Roc-a-Fella Air Force 1," says Greer.
When it came to working with Jay Z on the product, it was more of him just approving the final design, rather than Jay sitting down and working with Greer on it step by step. "He just OK’d it. It was a situation where we put the logo [on the shoe]. Simple execution. It wasn’t an athlete sitting down with them. We just knew it was an opportunity with where Jay was and to get after him," Greer says. "It was a risky territory, because we had a department that handled that. There’s no way I was supposed to deal with him directly. We couldn’t sell the shoe [as retail]. They just signed a waiver for it to be a promo piece. Later on, it became a business model for collaborations."
"I got written up for it though," he adds. "So it’s funny how things have changed."
At the time, Greer remembers that no one on campus at Nike was wearing retro product, they were all focused on athletic footwear and creating something new every 90 days. But that wasn't the reason why he got written up, it actually had to do with a bit of jealously between Def Jam President Lyor Cohen and Jay Z. As Greer previously revealed in an article on his role in the sneaker industry, he says, "Once we nailed his request and Jay received his pair, he bolted to the office of Def Jam President Lyor Cohen and put his foot on his desk and boasted, 'You don't have any of these,' profiling his crispy white on white Nike Air Force 1 Lows with the official Roc-A-Fella Logo embroidered on the heel. This would lead to Lyor contacting Nike Entertainment heated and me being written up formally by leadership."
The Roc-A-Fella Air Force 1 is going to be available at a whole host of retailers today and is one of Nike's biggest energy plays of the year. It's not the first sneaker collaboration, but its impact sent ripples throughout the sneaker industry, even if it took years for them to surface. It's amazing to see, however, how far the footwear industry, especially Nike, has come since then.