The Nike Air Max 97 has had anniversaries before, but given that its 20th birthday ties in with a revival of late-'90s style, it’s a slightly bigger deal. This is one of those shoes that’s both loved and hated — an object that’s very much of its time, but one with an undeniable identity. Last year was about the Air Max 95, but next year belongs to the 97. From its inception to the strange forms it took throughout the years, Nike designer Christian Tresser’s creation has had an interesting couple of decades so far.
It eclipsed its predecessor.
It was once fused with the Air Force 1.
Bizarrely, Nike made a few attempts to unite the heft of the Air Force 1 and the Air Max 97’s sleekness. Some fusions work and some fusions don’t. The Jordan AF1s were abysmal, but a few effective mashups of Nike runners and their bestselling hoops shoe emerged in 1998. A wear test premium leather 2007 edition of the AF1 with the full-length translucency on the midsole and that familiar AM97 tongue did the blog rounds. Another sample delivered a more overt union of shoes, bringing silver and mesh panels to the Uptown, alongside the 97’s heel and tongue straps — surprisingly, it’s not as trash as it sounds. That said, just because it’s an anniversary year for both shoes, we don’t need an official release for this one.
It was a little more expensive than previous Air Max models.
It was on shelves for less than a year.
The Air Max 97 debuted in fall 1997, but by spring 1998 it was superseded by the first of two Air Max 98s (the most familiar one). Given the boom time of Air Max — particularly in Europe and Japan — it’s safe to assume that Nike were trying to maximize (no pun intended) profits by keeping a quick fire rotation on the shelves. Factor in Triax takedowns and the Air Max Light series, plus the impending debut of the Plus and a shoe really needed to have its own identity to be stick in the minds of consumers spoiled for choice.
Its first collaboration was with True.
Beyond regional special makeups, the Air Max 97 wasn’t part of many partner projects. Most retailers were keen to use a more versatile design and Nike rarely seemed to push the shoe onto collaborators. San Francisco’s True deserve some credit for their masterful 2004 remake of the AM97 that brought it back to earth by jettisoning the metallic stuff and keeping it speckled and neutral. In subsequent years, AM97 collaborations with Sony PlayStation, Shady Records, and, bizarrely, a tribute to Japan’s Kashima Antlers soccer team, complete with Air Jordan III style elephant print, became popular amongst collectors.
The original sketches highlighted the sneaker's air pressure.
Some of Christian Tresser’s 1996 sketches for the Air Max 97 look barely different to the final thing, bar a duo of pod-like applications that, in some illustrations, seem to incorporate the PSI of the dual pressure, full-length air unit on the shoe. Perhaps intentionally or accidentally complimenting the Air Max Uptempo ’97’s pods, the decision was evidently made to keep things a little more streamlined.
It was also fused with the Air Max 90 and Humara.
Bizarrely, the Air Max 97's Max Air unit would find itself onto a union of Air Max 90 and 1996's popular Humara trail silhouette. If you don't remember 2008's Air Max Terra Ninety — which wasn't a bad shoe, despite the collision of classics in its DNA — you're almost certainly not alone. That same year, Nike would also merge the Air Max Plus with the 97, resulting in one of the more appealing sole swaps, but another forgotten experiment.
Gold came second.
The silver editions for men and women were launch makeups of the Air Max 97, but it would be a short while before a gold edition debuted. As early as 1998, the Air Max 97 was part of Nike’s reissued SC (sport classic) line, and while gold seemed like a no-brainer, it didn’t make its appearance until late 1999.
It's the Nike Zoom Spiridon's sibling.
If the lines on the Air Zoom Spiridon evoke elements of the AM97, it’s because lead designer Christian Tresser was the man behind both shoes. The Spiridon was designed just before the Air Max and it debuted a season prior, with the 97 following a visual language he created for its lightweight elder brother. Given that Tresser was behind 1997’s Air GX football boot and worked on the Mercurial that changed boot design the following year, those lines and use of metallic hues loosely parallel both runners, too.
The colorways were inspired by mountain bikes.
While subsequent pushes have told tales of the shoe being based on a Japanese bullet train, Christian Tresser was actually inspired by the metallic finishes on mountain bikes. Titanium metal frames with a silver aluminium finish were key in inspiring the silver mesh on the shoe. Still, “silver bullet” sounds cooler than “silver bicycle.”
Rain drops inspired the sneaker's design.
The human body might have informed the AM95, but nature played a role in Christian Tresser’s Air Max 97 design. Part of the inspiration for the shoe’s look was the wave lines caused by a drop of rain on a puddle. For such a defiantly futuristic look, its muse was a surprisingly everyday occurrence.
Its lace system was an innovation.
Taken for granted now, but a new technology at the time, the hidden lacing system on the Air Max 97 was a first. Compared to the Scotchlite dazzle of that 360-degrees of reflectivity and the silver shine on those synthetic panels, this concealed element of Christian Tresser’s design is easy to ignore, but it was an important detail.
There was a slip-on version of the sneaker, too.
Just as there were zip-up Air Max 95 and slip-on Air Max Plus — all terrible — around 2001, there were slip-on Air Max 97s. All the nuances of the pioneering lace system were shed for the lack of traditional fastening. The only saving grace was the oversized swoosh visible beneath the outsoles of most of that edition’s colorways.
Italy really loves the sneaker.
Yeah, you probably did know this, because Nike have been using Italy as a focal feature for the shoe’s anniversary. But it’s easy to understate how much that country adored the Air Max 97 from the late 1990s, well into the 2000s. A love of futuristic design and ostentatious aesthetics made the shoe into a nationwide bestseller that united old and new, coining the nickname “La Silver” for this silhouette. For its 20th anniversary, Nike has pushed things globally, but for its 10th anniversary, a set of makeups were created that were sold in Italy and NikeTown locations with heavy Italian tourist foot fall.
There was a Made in Italy version.
Long after the brilliance of 2001’s Lux collection, which included an Italian-made Air Max 95, Nike dropped a made in Italy Air Max 97 Lux in 2010. Limited to 1,695 numbered pairs, its all-leather build pre-empted the wave of Hyperfuse and seamless Vac Tech constructions that would streamline the look of an already sleek shoe. Italy’s favorite in a homemade form made a lot of sense, even if there weren’t a lot made.
Celebrities loved the sneaker.
The sole just wouldn't go away.
The breakthrough air unit on the Air Max 97 was a tough act to follow. It would recur in flagship Air Max 98 models the following year, but be joined by Tuned Air as a more innovative offering. As Nike attempted to create a more environmentally friendly offering that leaked less damaging gases, switching from sulfur hexafluoride to nitrogen, it became apparent that a changeover was going to take longer than expected. As a result — despite new visible air technologies like the unit on 1999’s Air Tuned Max — post-millennium, the Air Max line became a little stale in terms of progression.
2000’s Air Max Deluxe housed the same unit, as did several more, all the way up to the Air Max 2004. To Nike’s credit the development of Tube Air, which debuted in 2001, was meant to supersede that 1997 cushioning, but it was poorly received. In late 2005, the Air Max 360 premiered — a true creative successor to the Air Max 97, and the answer to those larger concerns. The gas issue may (or may not — it’s tough to get the answer confirmed) be the reason for some slightly smaller bubbles in subsequent retros post-2006
It had a couple of different names.
On its launch this shoe was just plain old Air Max until 1998 when it became Air Max ’97 SC. But internally there were pre-release debates on its name — Christian Tresser’s sketchpad tentatively named it Air Total Max, while ales confirmation samples had Air Total Max 3 printed on the label.
The kids' version had the Air Max 95 sole.
The whole point of the Air Max 97 was that new Total Air unit, but youngsters were left from the party on the shoe's introduction. They could get a version that applied the Air Max 95 sole to that 97 upper. It wasn't the first time that had happened — when the AM95 was launched, they had to have a version with an Air Max 93 style unit. Scaling down a new innovation is definitely easier than it sounds.
The sneaker was endorsed by Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis.
After Michael Johnson picked a carefully engineered, bespoke gold spike for the 200 meters in Atlanta during the summer of 1996, he was a logical frontman for metallic Nike design. He might have turned down a silver spike offered by that model’s design lead Tobie Hatfield at the time, but he was a good fit for the 97’s launch as well as the face of the Spiridon campaign. Another long-time Nike endorsement and Olympic star, Carl Lewis, would appear in ads too, wearing the shoe for engagements and events around his 1997 retirement from track and field.