It’s been 30 years since Nike introduced visible Air cushioning to the world, and while it took years to perfect the groundbreaking technology, there is no denying that the Air Max series changed the sneaker world forever.
Throughout the last three decades, Nike has introduced various cushioning technologies in their sneakers, but few of them have had the staying power of the exposed (and constantly re-worked) Air-Sole unit that brought the Air Max line to life. What began as a revolutionary performance mechanism soon became a household name and an iconic symbol of street style. Think about it: While most sneakers tend to excel in one particular area, the versatility and continuous advancements of the Air Max range managed to win over competitive runners, weekend warriors and fickle sneaker enthusiasts.
As Nike gets ready to celebrate the fourth annual Air Max Day on March 26, 2017, the future is looking brighter than ever. But, before we get to that...read on for a brief history of Nike’s beloved Air Max series highlighting some of the sneaker's major milestones.
1987: Air Max 1
On March 26, 1987, Nike launched one of their most groundbreaking designs, the Nike Air Max 1. Known now to some as the Air Max 87 and to others as the Air Max 1, this was the first sneaker to feature a visible Air cushioning unit in the heel of the shoe.
Inspired by the skeletal structure of Renzo Piano’s avant-garde Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, architect-turned-sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield came up with the idea of exposing the Air unit favored by Nike since the 1970s. Initially, the sneaker was a little too much for the marketing department at Nike HQ—after all how could they sell a shoe with a hole in the side of it? But, the revolutionary design was pushed forward and Hatfield, along with Mark Parker, ultimately set the direction for countless future designs
Nike’s TV campaign at the time (which featured the Beatles' song "Revolution," the first time a Beatles song had been used in a television commercial) encouraged wearers to “do something,” while print advertisements hyped the brand’s first-ever visible Air unit. Of course, the ads were also quick to highlight that the Air unit was three times bigger than the units found in previous sneakers, hence the name “Air Max.” This increased Air volume meant a more cushioned landing for runners as they hit the ground, but it didn’t hurt that the sneaker looked pretty damn cool.
1990: Air Max 90
Three years later, a “more air equals higher performance” attitude was taken on by the sneaker design team—once again led by Hatfield—as Nike released the innovative Air Max 90.
The updated silhouette aimed at taking the wearer up and up and away with a larger volume of encapsulated Air than its predecessors.
For runners, this meant increased comfort, but on the streets, new trends were brewing. Head-turning bold colours, including an in-your-face red (which would later become known as "infrared"), ribbed plastic panels and fluid lines drew serious attention to the sneakers.
1991: Air Max 180
The following year Nike’s infamous air bubble found itself incorporated right into the sole of the sneaker.
Hatfield worked alongside Bruce Kilgore, the designer of the Air Force 1, to strip away more foam and make the sneaker’s Air unit bigger than ever. The Air Max 180, which introduced 180 degrees of visible Air cushioning, gave athletes a softer, closer to the ground feel. But, the cushioned sole technology wasn't the only change. The design was noticeably sleeker, ensuring popularity in the streets.
Fun fact: The Air Max 180 was later used on the very first Kanye West sneaker collaboration, although only a handful of samples are said to be floating around.
1993: Air Max 93
First known as the Air Max 270, due to its much-hyped 270-degree Air unit, the Air Max 93 provided more air than ever before with an entirely visible Air unit that extended to the back of the heel.
The inspiration came from the strangest of places: plastic milk jugs. Seriously. The contoured shape of the jugs led the design team—still led by Hatfield—to explore advancements in blow-molding technology which shaped Nike's latest creation. The shoe's molding evolved to create a new standard of cushioning which included Air cushions that adapted to the shape of the foot.
The Air Max 93 never really took off as an iconic style staple in the way some sneakers in the Air Max family have, but the sneaker did prove that Nike was pushing the envelope when it came to technology that offered runners a smoother ride.
1995: Air Max 95
Tinker Hatfield left the Air Max series in 1994 and Sergio Lozano, a relatively new Nike designer, took the reins for the design of the Air Max 95. Lozano drew inspiration from everything from human anatomy and bone structure to rap music and MTV. The result was the first true departure from the original Air Max design, ultimately making the sneaker one of the most memorable in the Air Max family.
Runners immediately embraced the forefoot visible Air cushioning and reflective 3M Scotchlite overlays that were added to the tongue and heel for added visibility at night, while fashion-forward sets embraced the revamped design. The gradient on the wavy side panel was like any of the sneaker's predecessors, and a minimalist approach to branding (which saw a small Swoosh appear back toward the heel) was nearly unheard of at the time.
1997 Air Max 97
Nike celebrated the Air Max’s 10th anniversary in style with the introduction of the Air Max 97 and its visible heel-to-toe Air cushioning.
The industry-leading cushioning was complimented with a super-sleek silver design that was inspired by Japan’s high-speed bullet trains (also known as Shinkansen trains). Nike designer Christian Tresser's speedy Air Max 97 also featured an abundance of glowing 3M Scotchlite, which was added to up the safety factor for runners.
It was a new another new direction for the Air Max series...one that laid the foundation for numerous beloved future models.
1998: Nike Air Max TN (Air Max Plus)
Nike’s entirely new Tuned Air technology debuted the following year with the launch of the Air Max Plus. This cushioning system combined Nike Air with a system of individual Tuned pods that offered runners high-performance impact protection.
Nike designer Sean McDowell was charged with designing the shoe, and he opted for a completely new (dare we say bold) direction. The plastic toe cap up front, the external skeleton that encased the brightly coloured spray-faded upper, the flat tube lacing, and wedged shape were all inspired by McDowell’s recent vacation. Think of the in-your-face sneaker as an ode to Florida’s impressive sunset and the Palm Trees silhouetted against the sky.
2003: Air Max 2003
Following 1998 there were plenty of releases, but the Air Max series’ major innovations and style revamps really picked back up in 2003 with the release of the Air Max 2003.
Gone were the bold colours of past models. A stripped down and minimalist style, Lozano’s Air Max 2003 featured a slick, perforated upper made from a new carbon-based fiber that was developed by the Japanese company Teijin. Said to be inspired by track spikes and automobile parts, the lightweight upper material provided waterproofing without added bulk.
Meanwhile, the full-length Air bag remained unchanged from the Air Max 97, arguably a testament to the performance of the unit.
2006: Air Max 360
The idea behind the next major Air Max release was to create a shoe for athletes that was foamless, yet maintained a totally cushioned sole.
A totally cushioned sole meant that the foam separating the foot from the Air units had to go. Following almost 20 years of research, Nike finally delivered their all-new Caged Air technology on the appropriately named Air Max 360.
Like the Air Max 2003, the Air Max 360 was recognized for its superior performance and futuristic technology. However, on the style front, the sneaker referenced the original Air Max 1 with its bright colour palette.
2013: Flyknit Air Max
In 2013, Nike released a major update to the annual Air Max model. Flyknit technology had debuted in early 2012 and it didn’t take long for the design team to find a way to incorporate the lightweight innovation into an Air Max sneaker.
The original Flyknit Air Max featured a full Flyknit upper, offering runners a sock-like fit and more breathability than any previous model. The model was an instant hit.
To emphasize the gradient pattern used on the Flyknit uppers, the design team opted to extend the colour fade to the full 360-degree Air unit, a technique that would become a staple in future models.
2014: Air Max 2015
Nike finished off 2014 with the release of the Air Max 2015 and runners were back on board.
The revamped model offered runners more comfort with the Flyknit meet Flywire mesh upper. The sneaker maintained the full-length Air unit like its predecessors, but it's still considered a big step forward for Nike thanks to the new tubular construction and deeper flex grooves that ensured the sneaker was more flexible (and bouncy) than ever.
2017: Nike Air VaporMax
Originally unveiled during Nike’s Innovation Summit last March, the VaporMax is Nike’s most advanced Air Max shoe ever. The reason? The VaporMax essentially allows the wearer to stand on nothing but Air.
The unisex VaporMax was eight years in the making and is comprised of over 39,000 parts. The sock-like sneaker also holds the title for the lightest Nike Air cushioning created to date, coming in four ounces lighter than its predecessor, the Air Max 2017.
According to Kathy Gomez, VP Nike Innovation, the idea was to focus on the sneaker from the sole up from the very beginning.
“The VaporMax represents a breakthrough and a dream come true for Nike Air. We’ve built Nike Air and made it more visible and prominent over the years, but what’s been elusive is the sensation of air,” she says. “We had to really reimagine how we built the whole system to unlock the sensation of air. We did that by removing layers and engineering a system where the outsole connect directly to the Air bag, meaning your foot is directly on top of the Air unit.”
“The upper and the Air sole unit have a symbiotic relationship,” adds Andreas Harlow, VP and Creative Director of Footwear Design for Nike Running. “To amplify that sensation of running on Air we had to create an upper that gets out of the way so ultimately there’s very little material separating your foot and that new Air bag.”
That means there’s no glue in between or layers of foam or rubber. The low-top silhouette is truly minimal but surprising strong thanks to its tightly knit structure of Flyknit and Flywire technologies. Runners, athletes and weekend warriors will appreciate the stability and added bounce, while style watchers will appreciate the beautiful, seamless design.
“It’s a huge leap forward in performance and the way you experience Air Max,” Gomez says.
Nike Air’s highly-anticipated VaporMax drops on Air Max Day on March 26, 2017.