GAME CHANGER: The Nike Air Max 1

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Complex Original

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Written by @Gwarizm

By recently celebrating the Air Safari, Air Trainer 1 and Air Force 1's anniversary years, it’s easy to forget that it has been 25 years since the the Air Max 1 made its debut. The Air Max that landed in 1987 is a significant shoe. That's not to say we were running around in grey mesh and suede nothingness before the revolution occurred though — Nike Air was nothing new before the Max's debut, having been out since December 1978, concealed in the clunker sole of the Air Tailwind. By the early 1980s, Air had been tamed into more low profile designs and the full-length and wedge variants of the technology were the cushioned backbone of some classic performance runners like the Epic.

In an effort to appreciate kicks that have contributed to our top performers today, let's take a look back at how the Nike Air Max 1 changed the game.

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Over the Top Technology Wasn’t Just a Nike Thing

Over the top technology wasn't just confined to Nike in the late '80s. adidas had pegs, interchangeable discs (Mizuno had an equally elaborate custom cushioning system too) and a key system to absorb shock. ASICS added their GEL technology to their shoes in 1986. Don't assume that the tech wars between brands started post visible air, but what followed was pretty insane — Avia versus Nike, Nike versus Reebok and in the courts, it seemed to be LA Gear versus everybody.


Nike Changed the Look of Running Shoes Forever

What the Air Max also did is change how the running shoe, and sneakers as a whole, looked. Offering a totally new aesthetic, from the shape to the color blocking, the AM1 started to sell to non-runners like never before. While Air Max was spotted on several marathon runners around the time of its release, the intent, as the name suggests, was to deliver “maximum air”, and with a visible air unit to prove it. True runners of the time opted for the Nike Windrunner, Epic and Air Support models, but the Air Max was like nothing else on the market.

Designer Tinker Hatfield's Pompidou Centre source of inspiration didn't just instigate the transparency — the building's defiant use of color to deliver a middle finger to architectural conservatism was present in the shoe. Rear and forefoot air bags with that bounce back feel and the extra heel support made all the difference. Like the Tailwind, the chunkiness (one of the AM1's most endearing elements) of the sole would ultimately be streamlined and given dual density in the sequels. In fact, the first AM1 iterations were tweaked due to issues with the air bag's size. Because of its use of all synthetic fabrics, the Air Max 1 was even listed as one of the best running shoe choice for vegetarians.


In terms of pop culture spotting, you can catch the Air Max 1 on KRS-One's feet, in "Lean On Me" and forgotten underwater flick "Leviathan" among other sightings.  The Air Max would be accompanied by the following year, when launched alongside the Safari and AT1, such as the Air Ace and Air Revolution and the slightly later Air Jordan III (project name: Air Jordan Revolution) that were equally as striking. The Max never got anything as cinematically dramatic as the “Do the Right Thing” close-ups of Radio Raheem's Revolutions, but they did get the main spotlight in the big budget 1987 Nike ad campaign that used the Beatles' “Revolution.”


The Sneaker That Still Looks Excellent

Existing as it did in a time when retro wasn't a part of the plan, the AM1 was superseded by the Air Max Light's improved version of the Max aesthetic in 1989. The next decade ushered in official sequels that evaded the usual follow-up curse by being pretty much excellent until the Tubular Air killed the winning streak in 2001. Many things from 1987 have aged remarkably poorly - just re-watch the interior design scene from “Wall Street” for proof, yet against all odds, despite it's quest for the maximum and spirit of more, more, more, the Air Max 1 still looks excellent.

Today’s Fashion Staple

In the early 2000s, the Air Max 1 was established as a favorite among connoisseurs for some well-timed colorways in Air Max 1 b mode for the atmos and Storm variations, plus the legendary Curry variations. The Air Max line was to Europe what Air Force 1 was Stateside. Even down to the mini stitched swooshes on certain variations and a polarizing jewel branded period. Still, editions that sat on European shelves like the USA and Greystone variations were taken for granted by the general public, but not by fanboys. By the end of the 2000s, the Air Max 1 had become a key part of the European streetcar uniform to the point of cliché. Who knew the shoe that was created to start a revolution (and make lots of money) would be the shoe that superseded the Vans Era as part of a chino, backpack and 5-panel uniform?


The Air Max 1 Performance Legacy

The shape of the Nike Air Max 1's been changed significantly and it has been re-released more times than the Beatles have been remastered, but the song remains the same. Now that visible air has been sidelined for the flexible powers of Free and Lunarlon foam cushioning, it could be argued that the development of Phylon for shoes like the Terra T/C several years before visible air was even more important to today's breed of runners than the Max, but, as those queues for Jordans III-VI and the hordes bugging out over next year's belated Air Max 1 birthday re-releases and remixes testify, visible air is here for the long run — gimmickry with longevity.

Recent releases of the Air Max 1 Hyperfuse has shown how performance materials have evolved over time but how the integrity of the original release remains a classic today.

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