In celebration of Nike x Foot Locker’s ongoing “Discover Your Air” platform, which pays homage to the Air Max and ’90s hip-hop music, we present a two-part series highlighting the impact of both brands over the years. This is part 1 of 2.
NIKE-AIR IS NOT A SHOE. That’s how Nike introduced Air Max to the world in 1987, via an eight-page insert placed in a variety of national publications, from Sports Illustrated to Rolling Stone. There were new non Air Max shoes featured as well, from the Air Trainer 1 to the Air Safari to the Air Force II. But the hero was the Air Max, an all-new running shoe built around the largest Air unit Nike had ever placed in a sneaker. With a light shining through it, the first Visible Air bag shone as brightly as the new dawn it was heralding.
Nike Air itself wasn’t new. The brainchild of former aerospace engineer Frank Rudy, Air actually debuted in 1979 in the Tailwind running shoe. It was introduced to basketball three years later, in 1982’s Air Force 1. But other than some swept-back AIR lettering added to Nike’s logo, there was nothing new to see. Air was something you needed to feel underfoot to fully understand. And while that was something that no doubt occurred in specialty running stores, Nike needed something more to appeal to the mass market.
What Nike learned from Air Jordan—which helped catapult the brand to a billion-dollar business by 1986—is that a new product had to stand out from the competition. It had to leap off that Foot Locker wall as the shoe you absolutely needed. Two years after Air Jordan’s debut, it wasn’t enough to just have a colorful basketball shoe—the success of Air Jordan ensured that every brand was doing the same. Nike had to go in a completely different direction.
What Nike learned from Air Jordan is that a new product had to stand out from the competition. It had to leap off that Foot Locker wall as the shoe you absolutely needed.
Fortunately they had someone willing to take them there. Tinker Hatfield, originally hired by Nike as a corporate architect, had won an internal shoe design competition and was now tasked with figuring out what to do with the biggest Air bag yet. His idea was as simple as it was radical—why not strip away the midsole foam and make the Air bag the visual center of the design? His design was inspired by Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou, a building effectively built inside-out, with all the structural elements visible on the outside. The Air Max, with that huge six-chambered Air bag in the heel, was equally striking.
While Air took three full years to cross-pollinate categories, Air Max immediately spread through Nike’s lines, from the bootied-and-strapped Air Revolution basketball shoe to the low-cut Air Ace tennis shoe. Even the next Air Jordan—a Hatfield design originally dubbed the Jordan Revolution—got a Visible Air boost. Nike continued to innovate in a wide variety of ways, but Air—that was something everyone could see.
Once Air broke through the barrier of the midsole, there were no more rules. Nike broke through the bottom of the sole with 1991’s 180 Air, through the heel with 1993’s Air Max, and introduced Visible forefoot Air with the Air Max 95. Later that year they introduced the Air Max Uptempo, whose Air bags went nearly the full length of the sole. All of these innovations had their technical reasons, but that wasn’t what was important. Again, Air Max was something you could see. And in those pre-internet days when all that really mattered to potential sneaker buyers was shelf appeal, that was enough.
Throughout the ’90s, kids flocked to stores like Foot Locker to cop their favorite pair of Nikes with Air tech. For the most part, that was either the Air Max Plus, Air Max 97, or Air Max 95, which represent the most iconic silhouettes from that era. Although they’ve been retroed and re-released in different colorways, diehard fans can’t get enough of them. In fact, Foot Locker recently launched the “Discover Your Air” campaign, which includes two new Nike Air collections—the NIKE Air Origins pack and the Nike Air Frequency pack (both available now)—that feature '90s-themed colorways of all three shoes.
Let’s go back to that magazine insert that initially announced the Air Max for a moment. Nike used charts and graphs and speed camera images and whole a lot of words to describe what Air Max did, and why this huge cushioning device provided better performance than their competitor’s products. They probably didn’t need any of that. The look, something completely different than anything else on the market, was enough. This was the shoe you were going to want the guy—or the girl—in the black and white referee-striped shirt to bring out from the back stockroom just so you could try it on. That was the case then and it most certainly is the case now, because Nike Air is not a shoe it’s a way of life.