Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s, From E-Z Rock to Sotheby’s

The Virgil Abloh-orchestrated collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Nike on the Air Force 1 has a long, complicated history that spans decades.

The Sotheby's exclusive Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 in damier


The Sotheby's exclusive Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 in damier

Luxury sportswear has reached a new zenith in the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1, a collaboration unveiled via the runway last summer that lives now at Sotheby’s, the outlet that offered the first, exclusive chance to purchase the sneakers.

The shoes are to be handled with white gloves by specialized technicians and art handlers only. As with other Sotheby’s items in auctions and exhibitions, there are 24-hour security protocols in place to ensure their safety. In January, when the Air Force 1s arrived in New York, they drew in team members at the auction house’s headquarters like a magnet, pulling them to huddle around in awe as they cracked open the package.

“The box was quite literally covered in red tape,” says Brahm Wachter, the head of streetwear and modern collectibles at Sotheby’s. “It was impressive, and intimidating.”

The auction house today concluded the sale of 200 pairs of the special edition sneakers, the proceeds from which will benefit the Virgil Abloh™ “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, which provides support to Black students in fashion. (A retail release of a separate group of pairs is planned for later in the year.) In total, the shoes’ sales amounted to over $25.3 million. The Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s are one of the posthumous sneaker projects left behind by the late Abloh, who died of a rare form of cancer in November 2021 at age 41.

They are his grandest sneakers. They draw the first formal line between Louis Vuitton, where he was the artistic director of menswear, and Nike, where his Off-White collaborations helped sustain the sneaker maker’s cool in the 2010s. Linking disparate spheres was a signature touch of Abloh, who saw the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s as an exercise in hip-hop-style sampling.

They are illicit homage made legit, the realization of style dreamed up by independent Black fashion designers in the 1980s. Long before the shoes were made official, people were customizing Nike Air Force 1s with patterns from brands like Louis Vuitton. Fittingly for a shoe so rich in mythology and wrapped in ideas of intellectual property, the Louis Vuitton-inflected Air Force 1s remain elusive and contentious in their roots.

The details around the sales of the Sotheby’s-exclusive charity pairs show that they were unprecedented even for an auction house that’s been around for a few centuries. When the lots went live on Jan. 26, its website buckled under the pressure of being rushed by eager collectors. The Nike collaboration set a new record for Sotheby’s with over 5,000 bids in a single day.

Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 case

It also quickly surpassed estimates Sotheby’s had set for the shoes’ final prices. That the cheapest pair at auction, a size 6.5, sold for $75,600 and the most expensive, a size 5, went for $352,800 makes the originally projected range of $5,000 to $15,000 seem like a bargain.

“Across all of our auctions, estimates are based on a number of factors such as rarity, provenance, market comparables and more,” Wachter says, addressing the prices. “We estimated these conservatively, and given the tremendous anticipation and demand for the sale, we ultimately wanted the market to set the value for these sneakers.” 

The winners of the sneakers will not have access to them immediately. Production for the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s is ongoing, and Sotheby’s says it plans to ship pairs for the winning bidders in the first half of 2022. There’s only been one pair of the style featured in the auction on display in public, but the house wouldn’t confirm if that implies it’s the only finished pair out in the world.

Louis Vuitton Air Force 1 Damier Monogram Sothebys

The Damier and monogram printed Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s sold through Sotheby’s will not be available elsewhere, but there are many more versions of the sneaker. Louis Vuitton says that the Spring/Summer 2022 collection featured 47 pairs, which it will display in an upcoming exhibition. That will precede the proper commercial launch of the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1s, which will be sold only at Louis Vuitton stores. The brand has not announced pricing.

Then there are the pairs that money cannot buy. Separate from the auction-exclusive version and the forthcoming commercially available pairs is another, more colorful set given to friends of Abloh, Nike, and Louis Vuitton. Among this group are Abloh collaborators like Samuel Ross and hip-hop icons like Nelly, who brought the Air Force 1 to a new audience in the early 2000s. Sarah Andelman, founder of the defunct Parisian fashion retailer Colette, was the first to post one of these pairs, showing them off in a dark blue. Rob Base, the rapper best known for his platinum 1988 single “It Takes Two,” posted the same dark blue pair on Instagram last month.

Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock from the It Takes Two Shoot by Janette Beckman

Rob gave credit to DJ Clark Kent, a man who seemingly owns every Air Force 1 that ever existed, for looping him into the friends-and-family group. The rapper is a fitting recipient given his proximity to an earlier, homemade take on the Louis Vuitton and Nike crossover that set the tone for the current, official collaboration decades ago. He and his partner DJ E-Z Rock also released the album It Takes Two in 1988, with E-Z Rock on the cover wearing a pair of Nike Air Force 1s with Louis Vuitton marks on their swooshes and a matching tracksuit.

That shoe became a quiet piece of footwear lore. When Louis Vuitton introduced its Nike Air Force 1 project last summer, it mentioned by name the late E-Z Rock, who died in 2014 at age 46. His wear on the album cover is not generally recounted among the most significant hip-hop sneaker moments, but it’s a document of the culture’s understanding of a kind of crossover that wouldn’t be embraced by establishment fashion until 30 years later.

Rob in those days had a preference for Bally footwear—he had a red pair on for the same album cover photo shoot—but still found himself envious of E-Z Rock’s customs.

“Oh, wow, I wish I could have got me something done like that,” he thought when he first saw the Air Force 1s decorated with the Louis Vuitton monogram.

It’s long been presumed that the sneakers were made by Daniel Day, the Harlem garmento known as Dapper Dan who outfitted street stars and hip-hop artists of the era with unauthorized, custom-made gear that borrowed the prints of European fashion houses. As recently as last year the atelier claimed the design—in August, Louis Vuitton revised its notes for the Spring/Summer 2022 men’s show that introduced the sneakers to also mention Dapper Dan. Rob Base, who was a regular customer of Day’s, even believed he’d made the sneakers.

“Everybody thought it was Dapper Dan, including myself,” he says.

He recalls it differently now, the recent arrival of the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 shaking the dust off some old memories. Rob ascribes the sneakers that E-Z Rock wore to a friend named Sabrina Lewis. She’d once aspired to make clothes alongside Dapper Dan before deciding to make them herself.

“I had went to him years before that and asked for a job—he wasn’t really very friendly,” Lewis says.

Sabrina Lewis Biz Markie

Rather than work for him she started her own small operation, dressing her friends in homemade garments with emblems lifted from high fashion. (She remembers that New York at the time was rife with Dapper Dan imitators—everyone who had access to materials and a sewing machine was trying to put their own clothes together.) The photos of her from this era show her clad in flashy gear, posing next to rap stars like Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie. Lewis used a formula similar to Dapper Dan’s—bringing Louis logos to places where the brand never intended them to be—and essentially bootlegged the bootlegger.

“At that time we couldn’t afford Dapper Dan or high-priced things, so whatever they would get I would cover it,” Lewis says. “I would cut up old pocket books and suitcases and bags that I had.”

She remembers E-Z Rock approaching her asking for custom work, requesting a special ensemble for when it came time for him and Rob to shoot the album cover. She started with the sweatsuit, a brown velour number with chunky Louis Vuitton-monogram sections running down the side and a star planted on the chest. The culmination of the outfit was the sneakers, to which she applied scraps of LV bags, affixing their Swooshes with logos of European affluence.

“I used to sew everything like that by hand,” Lewis says. “I did have a sewing machine but you can’t put the sneakers on a sewing machine, so I did them by hand.”

E-Z Rock’s outfit bore the marks of the French maison, but it was assembled in the Lincoln Houses on the east side of Harlem. Lewis says she charged him around $100 for the whole set and the sneakers.

Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock from the It Takes Two Shoot by Janette Beckman

Before it was commonplace for fashion brands to collaborate with outside entities and sneaker brands to engage in couture, these kinds of creations were illegal business. Dapper Dan was a martyr for this cause; his original store shuttered in 1992 after Fendi’s copyright lawyers pursued him.

Lewis, who operated on a much smaller scale, says she never attracted litigation. Hers was a word-of-mouth business—you had to know her if you wanted to place an order.

Although she’d studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and eventually did open her own shop, Sugar Love Fashions, in the 1990s, Lewis has since left the business of fashion. She was not aware of the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1, the authorized expression of that cross-pollination, when it emerged last summer. But, having engineered a similar style so long ago, she’s surprised that it didn’t happen sooner.

“I’m actually shocked that it took so long,” Lewis says. “I thought it would have caught on or somebody would have picked it up and ran with the idea from the ‘80s or the ‘90s.”

If the original pair of Air Force 1s that E-Z Rock donned for the album cover is still around, Rob Base doesn’t know where they are. He only recalls his DJ wearing them for the photo shoot and then a few shows after that.

“I don’t even know what happened to half of the jewelry I had,” Rob says now. “I still have a few Dapper Dan suits, but that’s pretty much it.”

The sneaker was the genesis of Nike’s project with Louis Vuitton, one of the first steps toward a future where athletic footwear would democratize fashion. If the physical relic is lost on history, its impact is not.