The biggest sneaker release this weekend is one that many people won’t be able to get their hands on. That’s not just because it’s going to be super-limited, but because the white version of the Off-White x Air Jordan 1 from Virgil Abloh is only releasing in Europe. It’s a strange play for Jordan Brand, who’s obviously trying to build more exclusivity around a product that traditionally isn’t as popular, but it’s a move that the brand desperately needs right now.
I’ve been one of the toughest critics of Jordan Brand in the past and for good reason: Last year, aside from a handful of shoes, was awful for Jordan Brand. Adidas literally jumped over the Jumpman and became the second biggest sneaker brand in North America. But things have changed in 2018. Jordan followed up last year’s wildly successful Off-White x Air Jordan 1 collaboration—Footwear News named it the Sneaker of the Year—with having Justin Timberlake debut the “Tinker” Air Jordan IIIs at the Super Bowl Halftime Show and having the biggest release of this year with “Black/Cement” Air Jordan III at All-Star Weekend. There was also the Levi’s x Air Jordan IV thrown in the mix.
But among all of this, there was even bigger news: Drake, the celebrity face of Jordan Brand, is allegedly moving to Adidas. Nothing’s set in stone yet, but it’s been reported that he’s unhappy with his current situation with Jordan (let’s be honest, the sneakers have been nothing special). That’s why this Virgil Abloh collaboration is so important at the moment.
Michael Jordan just turned 55 years old last month. This generation of kids never saw him play basketball. The brand is digging deep into its archives to pull out necessary, surefire hits. It’s not fucking around. But how long will it last?
Few people care what the brand’s premier athlete, Russell Westbrook, is wearing on court. It needs to make a splash in lifestyle, even though Jordan initially positioned itself as a performance brand that was guided by its back catalogue. No one expects Abloh to become the face of Jordan Brand—he’s still designing more sneakers with Nike—but he’s the most impactful person that the brand has right now aside from Michael Jordan himself.
People go crazier over a sneaker Abloh’s designed than any PE that has Kawhi Leonard’s logo slapped on it. This is why the move of Jordan Brand only releasing the white version of the Off-White x Air Jordan 1 in Europe is so damn confusing. I get it: It builds the hype on the shoe up to a mythical level and makes it a white whale—or more correctly, white shark, as Abloh has alluded to—for Jordan collectors or the people who want to look cool on Instagram by wearing the most-hyped sneakers of the moment.
Attaching that sort of cachet to any sneaker is huge for a brand. It’s the same reason why Adidas made its collaboration with Pharrell and Chanel near impossible to get. The value isn’t in the dollars being brought in, but in how much it affects the overall market coolness of the company.
But if Drake does in fact leave Jordan Brand, which seems like something that could possibly happen, does that mean that the company will need to lean on Virgil Abloh even heavier in the future? And is that something that he’ll even be into?
The first collaboration between Abloh and Jordan was groundbreaking. Not just because his name was attached to the product, but because they gave him freedom to deconstruct its most heralded sneaker. It’s the exact opposite of Drake’s OVO Jordans, which looked like merch that would be sold at one of his concerts. Now this version of the Off-White x Jordan 1 that releases tomorrow isn’t as special as the first one. Why? Because it’s rehashing the original design, stripping it of its original Jordan colorway, and running the risk of devaluing the original design by tossing another one out there (even if it’s super-hard to get).
What would be interesting, though, is if Jordan let Virgil have more free reign with the brand. I can already hear the traditionalists cringing, but it would be a move to give new energy and life to a brand that’s searching for answers and direction. Let him rework an Air Jordan III, IV, or XI and see what happens. At this point, it’s a win-win proposition.
Not only does Virgil bring his own celebrity status to the brand, but he also brings all of his friends not named Kanye West, who he gifts custom pairs of the sneakers, too.
There’s only so many more shoes that Jordan can pull out from the archives before the well runs dry. Might as well try and switch things up for once. And Virgil Abloh is the answer. Well, if anyone can actually get their hands on his shoes, anyway,