With its 35th anniversary fast approaching, the Nike Air Force 1 is old enough to have been on the feet of fathers, sons, and grandchildren, but somehow it seems to have retained its relevancy (it's also making a big presence at ComplexCon). Jeans got slimmer, the throwbacks were retired, but Bruce Kilgore’s design isn’t going anywhere. Whether you’re down enough to remember the coveted regional rollouts of the 1980s, a golden era of low key and wild makeups of the 1990s, or the onslaught of the 2000s, you probably have a favorite. Keeping up with the AF1 in the 21st century has been tough, given the thousands of post-millennial colorways (not even including the swathes of Bespokes and NIKEiD editions) that have appeared on shelves worldwide.
This is a tribute to the 21st century incarnations of this icon that started as a list of 35 (which included 112s, Also Known As, Kobe Denims, ACRONYMs, 3M All Star Hyperstrikes, Acorns, Chocolates, Obsidian Cones, Taiwans, Vapors, Mitas, JD Sport Skylines, Blueprints, and Finish Your Breakfasts) and was (after much soul searching) whittled down to the 21 that follow.
21. Nike Air Force 1 "Chamber of Fear"
20. Supreme x Nike Air Force 1 "Camo"
Supreme’s foray into a sneaker that wasn’t necessarily a skate shoe (unless you’re at Gino Iannucci’s skill level) was almost a surprise. Those with a long memory will recall tales of a factory-built Supreme Dunk upper on an AF1 sole, and their early 2000s Mid Town and Down Town tributes were obvious homages. 2012’s set of Air Force 1 Lows went for low-key functionality with gum soles and militaristic NYCO fabric that was rugged and waterproof. Unlike their hi-top successor’s louder branding, only a small red tab denoted their collaborative provenance. In camo or any other neutral palette, it was a pretty perfect creation with longevity for those who didn’t flip them with the quickness.
19. Mister Cartoon x Nike Air Force 1
Year released: 2005
The Air Force 1's appeal isn't confined to the East Coast; Los Angeles appreciates the design to some degree, too, and tattoo legend Mister Cartoon's take on the shoe was something very different. Cartoon’s ultra detailed needle-to-the-skin skills are famed, and laser technology captured his aesthetic on leather perfectly. A nearly impossible to obtain Hyperstrike (50 raffled and 50 given to friends and family) edition was released first celebrating Mexico, his home city of L.A., and the traditions Cartoon is steeped in across the upper and forefoot. A slightly altered version was released shortly afterwards and was, once again, confined to L.A. In 2009, the shoe dropped once again in black and yellow LIVESTRONG colors as part of Nike’s cancer charity initiative.
18. CLOT x Nike Air Force 1
Year released: 2009
Made for the 1World project, this version came courtesy of frequent Nike partners CLOT. The custom patterned silk upper on this Air Force 1 was applied by the Hong Kong-based brand in line with Chinese customs of luck and prosperity. That made for an agreeable culture clash with the transparent sole — unveiled during the silhouette's 25th anniversary year — that revealed the AF1's Nike Air technology. Those who were in the right place at the right time got a candy-style packaging for their pair, too. Half a decade later, the CLOT Air Force 1 is still considered one of the best 1s ever. The 1World collection’s KAWS, Michael Lau, Nitraid and KRINK editions all deserve a shout out, too.
17. Bobbito Garcia x Nike Air Force 1 Hi "Beef and Broc"
Year released: 2007
Music, sport, and footwear renaissance man Bobbito Garcia was the first to write a real article on U.S. sneaker culture back in 1991, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. Bob was there when the AF1 dropped the first time, having actually played in a pair of the things. He was also an early customizer of the sneaker and has been a longtime champion of the design. That means he had a platonic ideal in mind when it came to colorways, which meant he got a one-of-one version back in the 1990s — an incredible gum-soled Low with a burgundy swoosh. He had some other ideas too, and an entire Bobbito pack dropped in 2007, with three perfect Lows and four incredible Highs — this tribute to the “Beef & Broc” Timberland Field Boot is very Brooklyn and very necessary. Letting a real connoisseur of this model work on it pays dividends — Mayor’s Strawberry Nesquik Bespokes and Clark Kent’s 112 versions (which he somehow managed to get price capped at $112) also deserve to be mentioned.
16. Nike Air Force 1 "Black Album"
Year released: 2004
The Air Force 1 and Roc-a-Fella Records defined the early 2000s, and the connection between the era's sound and the shoes worn was made real with a handful of sought-after, never sold collaborations. There were white-on-whites given to friends and family with the Roc-A-Fella logo on them in 2004, a rare Blueprint 2 edition with an icey sole, and 2005’s 40/40 club promos. These special editions to coincide with the release of Jay-Z's retirement LP were particularly desirable. Shawn Carter's retirement would be as short lived as Jordan's exit from the NBA, but the simplicity of the shoe and subtle use of logos summed up an era. It’s worth noting that this use of black and white was, bar some mild changes to the liner and highlighted AIR, a UK JD Sports exclusive a year prior to its promo status. We should also give a shout to Fat Joe’s pink Terror Squad makeups, plus the USDA and Shady editions, too. But not the white Nellyvilles, because they felt like a wasted opportunity.
15. Nike Air Force 1 "Playstation"
Year released: 2006
When pastimes collide. Video games, basketball, and the collector realm met right here. Even without the co-sign from a video game titan, the Sony PlayStation x Nike Air Force 1 would have found its audience — the fade, the patent leather, and the hits of red and yellow on the midsole tapped into exactly what fans wanted a decade ago. Released as 150 numbered pairs around the release of the PlayStation 3, it was an instant classic, with the details and colors matching the branding for the machine. In 2009 Sony celebrated the tenth anniversary of the PlayStation 2 by reissuing this design. The bad news? It was limited to even fewer pairs than its predecessor. Factor in the existence of all kinds of alternate samples with subtle switches, and you’ve got something ostentatious that evokes an era.
14. Nike Air Force 1 "Ueno"
Year released: 2005
This absurdly rare Ueno Air Force 1 was one of the rarest Japanese exclusives to date. Those raised on the Linen AF1 definitely didn't fear a watermelon-colored outsole, while the lasered Sakura flowers on the premium leather upper were elegantly disruptive. Getting a pair was nearly impossible, whether you were in Tokyo or not (that Ueno district embroidery returned for the hard to obtain Air Max 95 Prototype at Mita several years later). Images of a sample pair at Mita did the rounds, then the release came and went with rumors of just 500 pairs made. An equally covetable custom wooden box set the standard for packaging to follow too, while shots of Swooshless, one-piece samples have done the message board rounds. On the Mita topic, their 2004 multi-texture AF1 makeover is another masterpiece.
13. Nike Air Force 1 "HTM"
Year released: 2002
All premium everything. Embodying the defiantly unclassifiable nature of the HTM (Hiroshi Fujiwara, Tinker Hatfield, and Mark Parker) think tank, the HTM Nike Air Force 1 gave the project an accessible start, even if the limited nature of the shoes (only 1,500 were made of each color) made them hard to obtain. Black Air Force 1s were booming in the late 1980s, long before triple whites were big, and that appeal was channeled here. With the Air Force 1 turning 20, this quiet celebration of what makes the shoe great used luxurious leathers and sweated the small stuff to make these an apt tribute to the masterpiece that Bruce Kilgore and the team worked so hard on two decades earlier. When it comes to perfection, there's no need to make major modifications — contrast stitches highlighted those iconic panels, numbers let an owner know that they were part of the chosen few, and the marketing, confined to Japanese magazines we Westerners got too late, was so hushed that they were all gone before you knew it.
12. Nike Air Force 1 "Year of the Rabbit"
Year released: 2012
Using the AF1 as a vessel for celebration has led to some classics — the simplicity of the 2002 Year of the Horse, the madness of the Tier Zero Year of the Dog, Roosters, the first Puerto Rico makeup from 2002, and the original West Indies editions. Even the mesh toebox of the Notting Hill Carnivals deserves a mention, too. But this Chinese New Year makeup knocked it out the park conceptually — using that semi translucent sole unit to evoke some Chinese candy and adding that flocked Swoosh that’s flipped on the medial side was remarkable detail without getting too busy. If you were particularly lucky, you got your hands on the special box set, custom-made like confectionary packaging to make the theme super literal.
11. Nike Air Force 1 "Mark Smith Laser Cashmere"
Year released: 2003
Mark Smith is a Nike design veteran whose work is in Nike Basketball classics like the Air Raid and several Air Jordan models, including the IX. The Laser Project let patterns as well as familiar design details be represented as burnt lines on leather with surgical precision. Tactile as well as visually appealing, it allowed for one-piece uppers that wouldn't lose the key features that make an AF1 so recognizable. Limited to 200 pairs, that abundance of detail was a perfect showcase of what the technology could do. And while some of those shapes are akin to the tribal tattoo your gap year buddy returned with after some time in Goa, the synergy between the lining, light-brown upper, and white midsole cannot be denied. As well as Air Force 1s, the collection included ultra-limited reinterpretations of the Dunk and Cortez.
10. Atmos x Nike Air Force 1
Year released: 2001
What constitutes a collaboration? Were the player editions, team editions, or the Baltimore store editions from the early 1980s, special makeups or a collaboration? In 2001, this Georgetown-looking, grey-and-navy version of the Air Force 1 was closely connected to the store that commissioned it — Tokyo and Harlem's own Atmos. Accompanied by an equally collectible Dunk that flipped the colors around, this was the calm before the storm and a shoe that still holds up as one of the best 1s of all time.
9. Nike Air Force 1 Hi "Sheed"
Year released: 2002
A lot of innovation occurred since 1982, but some players still gravitate towards the classics. Rasheed Wallace brought the Air Force 1 back to the big league, long after the likes of Moses Malone retired their pairs. Philly always appreciated this shoe, so it seemed fitting that Wallace, a City of Brotherly Love native, should keep it on his feet. Playing hard during the 2000-01 season, Sheed's dedication to the Air Force 1 — letting the nylon strap dangle at the rear — got him his own player editions with a unique jumpshot logo. In 2002, the release of this black patent Air Force 1 Hi to the public would set off a series that ran all the way up until his retirement in 2013. By all accounts, bar a few editions with a supportive plate in the sole, Sheed wore this shoe in its pure, unaltered form on the court.
8. Nike Air Force 1 "Hong Kong"
Year released: 2001
There’s a certain masochism in loving regional exclusives. While they’re a pain to obtain without the right connections or location, getting hold of them was far more gratifying than most of today’s releases. Nike’s decision to confine so many masterpieces to Asia-only status was smart, because it created a foundation that few other models can come close to. Taiwans were superb, but the Hong Kongs, in forest green with that stitched Swoosh, were premium simplicity that has barely been bettered. Once again, less was more when it came to this makeover.
7. Nike Air Force 1 "Vibe"
Year released: 2003
What do you remember about the 2003 Vibe Awards? There were really good G-Unit and Outkast performances and R Kelly performed dressed like an R&B Zorro, but it was all about the shoes. Nike created some classic AF1s for the event (incidentally, in a Vibe magazine feature on the event, 2 Chainz, then performing as Tity Boi of Disturbing Tha Peace, was super-excited with his pair). The colorway was inspired by colors used on the Treach and Snoop covers from September 1993’s issue #1, to commemorate a decade of the publication’s run, while that logo embroidery legitimized it. In subsequent years, there were BET Award editions, and Clark Kent designed a special 25th birthday Video Music Box version of the Air Force 1 in 2008. But the Vibe editions set a standard. What’s less documented is a mysterious MTV pair of highs reputedly worn by Yo! MTV Raps’ Doctor Dre (not THAT Dr. Dre) in the 1990s that were made from patent leather, with a pioneering double swoosh and a seemingly Vandal-themed makeup that might have been one of the first ever collaborations on the shoe (unless we just imagined them).
6. Nike Air Force 1 "Anaconda Masterpiece"
Year released: 2007
The shoes that were released for the 25th anniversary of the AF1 were a mixed bag, but the Italian-made (not the first time — superb 2001 Lux editions were made there, too) Masterpieces were a pinnacle drop. This was a concept previewed when the likes of Fat Joe were given some mysterious 1 of 48 all-croc-skin brown Uptowns around 2005, but the silhouette’s birthday led to the limited-edition release of a white anaconda skin pair (the stuff of mid 2000s rap boasts) and different take on the croc skins. This is probably the ultimate post millennium white-on-white, and with a price tag of $2000, most of us had to make do with the free promotional DVD in lieu of ownership. Also worthy of mention is the far rarer 2002 Wieden + Kennedy promo pair supposedly made from calf hide. Given stricter rules regarding exotic skins and the potential for social media outcry, it’s unlikely that anything this obnoxiously luxurious will ever happen again.
5. Nike Air Force 1 "Courir"
Year released: 2002
Paris is one of the few European cities to really understand basketball and its associated cultures without descending into cliché. It’s the home to plenty of rabid collectors. And alongside boutiques like Opium, their big sports chain store, Courir, was a goldmine when it came to exclusives with dangling metal hangtags. A few might remember their Tony Parker-affiliated Dunks, a denim women’s Air Max 90, and a patent-leather-accented Zoom Spiridon, but the Courir Air Force 1 was their finest moment — soft black leather, white Swoosh, and a gum sole. No overthinking, no dozy concept at work. If you had a plug in France you were good to go — bearing in mind that these were text message times rather than social media rep building — but if you weren’t, you were doomed to pay a markup. Resell is nothing new. In addition to these, a UK-only brace of JD Sports releases of 2002 to 2005 (Skylines, Portlands, Cowboys, and gum midsoles proving particularly memorable) paid a few enterprising folks’ mortgages, while other Euro bits like Cinders, double-Swooshes, and the superb Campers kept the lights on, too.
4. Stash x Nike Air Force 1 Hi
Year released: 2003
All caps. Collaborations were few and far between on this silhouette in 2003, but this defined the artist project as we know it. NYC's Stash has put in work when it comes to graffiti and played an essential role in steering streetwear into its current form. He knows a lot about shoes, too, and the Stash AF1 Hi could only have come from a connoisseur (the mesh panels are a giveaway.). With its spray can nozzle patterning and New York, London, or Tokyo on the sole, low numbers and quiet marketing created a commotion, while the collector case and CD-ROM made it feel like event footwear. More Stash Air Force 1s would follow in 2004 and 2006 using the mid and low silhouettes respectively, and for the One Night Only event in December 2006, it was voted the greatest AF1 ever and briefly resurrected for a chosen few (albeit in a slightly downgraded form).
3. Nike Air Force 1 "Wheat"
Year released: 2001
Timbs and AF1s share their staple status, so it figured that worlds would collide unofficially. There was a Mid of these that was easier to obtain, but the Mid isn’t for everybody. This Air Force 1 B in wheat was the one, but it might involve a trip to Japan to double up. Gum on the midsole and that iconic shade of brown on the upper made the Wheats a perfect merger of timeless aesthetics. There’s been several other makeups in this vein since, but back in 2001, it was mind-boggling. It’s curious that, despite making some incredible workboot-themed leather highs in the early 1990s, it took so long to go nubuck. And once you go nubuck, you never go back.
2. Nike Air Force 1 "3M Snake"
Year released: 2001
In all honesty, this 21 could have been all early 2000s co.jp (Concept Japan — an incredible rollout of Japan-only makeups of Nike shoes) releases, but that might have become repetitive to read. This shoe is flawless — as was the Cocoa Snakes (which deserve to be here, too). Back in the mid 1990s, a snake Swoosh edition of the AF1 became the stuff of legends and this just took the concept further (though not as far as the actual animal skin versions that followed later). Forums told tales of a hyperstrike Snake 3M with a textured Swoosh that haven’t been fully confirmed, but the reflectivity and reptilian influence made these particularly cold-blooded.