Nike’s latest step forward for Air Max looks in some ways like a step backward. The natural progression for Air Max units has generally tended toward bigger and bustier—the long-expanding line of bulbous sneakers began in 1987 with a small, visible pocket on the Air Max 1. As Air Max grew across decades into a staple of Nike’s business so did that Air unit: into a Big Window, a full-length platform, and then into more colossal shapes in the 2000s, with bags ever more extreme. The popular Air Max 270 from 2018 boasted the tallest Air unit to date. Where could Nike go next?
To the Air Max Dn, which feels rather like a departure from the big-bag era thanks to its restrained use of the namesake tech. The Dn has what Nike calls Dynamic Air, which takes the form of one Air unit made of four separately pressurized Air tubes in the heel. This focused, localized unit is considerably smaller than ones found on recent Air Max shoes.
The upper of the Dn is seamless and sleek, anchored by a TPU shank clip for structure and support at the midfoot.
The sneaker was designed to capture the feeling of fluidity under the foot, to unencumber the Air cushioning and in turn give the wearer a bouncy sensation while maintaining a smooth transition for the foot from front to back.
“That's the holy grail,” says Kathy Gomez, Nike’s VP of footwear innovation. “I wanna feel that dream of walking on air. The millimeters matter, and all these little tiny decisions and the nerding out and the engineering is what gets us there.”
The end point of all that input, the Nike Air Max Dn, will be released first in the blackout “All Night” colorway, priced at $160, for Air Max Day on March 26. Nike will also release an “All Day” colorway via the SNKRS app and select retail partners.
No Air Max sneaker stands alone, and it’s hard to look at the Air Max Dn without seeing some precedent in turn-of-the-century Air Max variations. The cylinders read a bit like the Tubular Air of shoes like the Air Max 2001 and 2002. The badge logo on the tongue, insole, and heel riff on those of the Air Max Plus for Tuned Air. (The Dn name alone connects it to the Air Max Plus, also known as the TN.) Presented with these comparisons, Nike responds that the sneaker is not an amalgamation of old styles.
“We're creating something new,” says Gomez, whose work is in creating the future rather than celebrating the past. “And we do have this amazing legacy and history, and all this referential stuff to learn from and understand. But it's not about, ‘Take this and this and this and put these ingredients into the Dn.’”
Nike has much more in store for Air throughout 2024, according to Gomez, especially in the buildup to this year’s Summer Olympics in Paris.
Before the sneaker debuts at Air Max Day in March, Complex talked to Gomez and Nike lifestyle product director Reggie Hunter about the design process of the Air Max Dn, the nerdy technical details that inform its unique system of Air, and Nike’s plans for the new cushioning.
The Air Max Unit in the Sole
The Air Max unit in the Dn is housed in the heel and split across two different chambers and four separate tubes, which allow different levels of pressure in different zones of the shoe.
“The back two tubes, they're where the force and the load impacts first, and so those two tubes with the high pressure are the most responsive in terms of energy return,” explains Hunter. “And then the two front tubes that are low pressure help to kind of smooth out and moderate that transition.”
The back tubes are pressurized at 15 pounds per square inch, while the front two are pressurized at five pounds per square inch. That’s a softer ride than the average Air Max shoe—most of the retros Nike sells right now come in at around 20 psi.
Nike says that it’s able to design Air components on a faster timeline than ever. Before it produces a physical sample, Nike can iterate on an Air unit in a digital 3D environment. It will simulate testing in the same way, projecting in the span of an hour how a year’s worth of wear will affect a real-life shoe.
“What these tools do for us in a nutshell is get to our target faster and in a more precise way,” says Gomez.
Why Is It Shaped Like That?
In working to create an unencumbered Air sole, Nike went through several iterations over a couple years. At one point, the innovation team completely abandoned their approach, redesigning from the ground up what would become Dynamic Air cushioning.
They landed on the cylindrical structure the Dn’s tubes take because of its strength. Gomez says that the cylinder is actually too structurally strong and won’t deflect enough energy. So Nike tweaked the shape slightly, fine-tuning the curves and radii to generate the right amount of deflection. The result is a set of Air chambers that look like miniature hot dogs or giant Jolly Ranchers.
“These aren't actually perfect cylinders,” she says. “They're a little more elliptical.”
The Dn features these tubes only on the back half of the shoe. Even there, the Air is housed in injected Phylon foam, which meets a rubber outsole at the bottom of the shoe. The combo of Air and foam can unlock what Gomez calls the superpowers of each material.
“I often tell the Air team, foam is your friend,” she says. “Use it; it feels so yummy right under your foot. It’s OK. We love Air, but it’s OK to create a system.”
How Does the Air Max Dn Feel On-Foot?
It’s OK to admit it—a lot of retro Air Max sneakers are just not that comfortable. We wear them regardless, because they are classic pieces of Nike design, but the bubbles in the soles sometimes do not feel as welcoming as more modern sneakers. Even Hunter is willing to confront this.
“Thinking about an Air Max 97, the Air Max unit is one pressure. It’s locked up in polyurethane,” says Hunter. “If you think about that shoe, it’s very stiff and it’s almost kind of brick-like in transition. It’s also one of my favorite shoes, but it’s not particularly comfortable.”
The Air Max Dn does not suffer the same fate. This writer wore a pair briefly at one of Nike’s New York offices last week and found the sneaker more squishy and forgiving than the average retro Air Max shoe. The actual Air is more palpable. This is only true for the back half of the sneaker, although steps in the shoe manage to feel smooth enough without Air cushioning running the length of its sole. The upper is snug but not tight, and wearers should go true to size.
But Is It a Performance Shoe?
Not really. While you don’t have to look very hard to find uninformed members of the sneaker-buying public using sportswear shoes like the Air Max 270 for workouts, Nike has moved away from using Air Max in performance sneakers. Nike’s running business, the original home of Air Max, relies more on foams, Zoom Air, and plate systems for cushioning these days.
In being an Air Max sneaker, the Dn pulls from running DNA despite not being designed for running. But Nike did test the Dynamic Air as if it were for an actual running shoe, knowing full well people would interpret it as such.
“In innovation, we want to test it to fail,” says Gomez. “We want to figure out—we know people are going to run on this even though we're saying it's for all day wear around the city. We know people are going to run on this. So we want to know where it's going to fail.”
The Air Max Scorpion
The last notable new Air Max sneaker before the Dn was the Air Max Scorpion, a tall silhouette from 2022 that Nike described as having “the most Air on offer in terms of pounds per square inch.” The Scorpion, with a jumbo unit shaped vaguely like the arachnid, is much more generous with Air cushioning than the Dn but plays an important role in the recent history of Air innovation.
Gomez says that the Scorpion was born out of a challenge prompted by Matt Holmes, Nike’s VP and creative director of footwear innovation. Holmes was watching a YouTube video of kids on a beach launching themselves off a Bosu ball and wondered if a Nike sneaker might be capable of a similar sensation of bounciness.
To answer this, Nike looked back at the waffle, its earliest sneaker innovation, and the piston effect created by that style of tread. The goal for the Scorpion was to translate the driving movement of a piston from above and below a chunky bubble of air. Gomez calls this a dual-point loading system: A plate on top pushes down, while the outsole pushes up, bouncing the wearer in the process.
The cushioning used on the Dn takes Air Max in a different direction, reining it in a bit from the intensity of the Scorpion. Still, Gomez calls the Scorpion design a “huge experience” that served a purpose and even informed the point-loading systems in Nike’s recent AlphaFly shoes.
What About the Upper?
Like any other Air Max sneaker, the star of the Dn is its sole. But also, like any other sneaker out there, the sole is only half the story. Nike sees in the Air Max line a lineage of novel upper treatments that broke new ground for sneaker aesthetics.
“You think of a 95, it was the first time we used black on the midsole of a running shoe,” says Hunter. “Air Max 97, the metallic uppers were very of their time but also ahead of the time when it came back to sneakers. So innovation in the upper, also super important.”
On its upper the Dn has a haptic print of silicon ridges that ripple in disconnected lines from front to back, evoking the wavy lines around the Air Max 97 or the Air Max TL 2.5. The print is the top finish on a stack of layers that form the upper; underneath it are a translucent monofilament and three layers of poly mono mesh.
Will the Air Max Dn Be Hard to Get?
Nike is conscious of the agony built into the pursuit of hyped footwear. Even some of its high-end running sneakers have become flippable commodities—sans any kind of collaboration or co-sign from a major entertainer, models like those from the Alphafly series sell for over retail on secondary markets.
According to Nike, the plan is to make the Air Max Dn widely available.
“We've listened to the frustrations and complaints when Nike's done something great, something new, something exciting, and people haven't been able to actually get hold of the product,” says Hunter. “We want to make sure that access is something that's available for everyone.”
The democratizing approach may not have been needed for this particular silhouette. New Air Max sneakers have not been cause for too much commotion since the original VaporMax, and one does not imagine people will be lining up in droves or frantically refreshing their SNKRS apps when the Air Max Dn arrives in order to try and buy a pair (although the coming Supreme collab may change that).
How Big Will the Air Max Dn Be?
Nike will sometimes squeeze as much as it can out of an Air unit, letting one popular cushioning setup hang around for years, as it did with the Air Max 2009 and VaporMax. Given how much the brand is touting Dynamic Air as a bold new chapter in Air, it would not be surprising if the middle part of this decade were marked with subsequent iterations of the Dn. Nike’s innovation team works in the future, and no doubt is already considering how it might evolve the Dn in seasons to come.
But the true longevity of Dynamic Air cushioning will depend on the reception of the first Air Max Dn. When asked about whether the Dn will be a mainstay in the Air Max line, the Nike leaders involved in its design were conservative.
“Ultimately, we don't decide if an Air Max shoe is a great shoe or not,” says Hunter. “It's really up to the people who wear it to decide where it goes.”