How Nike Made the Air 180 One of Its Best Retros This Year

The 1991 Air Max shoe just came back in true-to-original form.

Nike Air 180 2024 Retro Big Bubble
This year’s retro of the ‘Ultramarine’ Nike Air 180. Via Packer Shoes
Nike Air 180 2024 Retro Big Bubble

One of the most revered Air Maxes amongst collectors isn’t exactly an Air Max. The Nike Air 180 first released in 1991 and was the brainchild of two of Nike’s most important designers ever, Bruce Kilgore and Tinker Hatfield. The shoe was a first for Nike, marking the first 180-degree Air Max unit. But the shoe wasn't technically labeled an Air Max when it came out—the official name was just the Air 180.

The honking bubble was exposed through the outsole with reinforced translucent rubber to protect the bundle of cushioning. It’s a shoe that’s gone through ebbs and flows since its inception over 30 years ago, and it’s about to be thrust back into relevance with its remastered retro release this weekend.

The latest Nike Air 180 retro arrived on Friday in the original “Ultramarine” colorway (style code FJ9259-100) at a retail price of $150. 

The shoe’s been brought back partly through the efforts of Nike senior footwear designer and all-around footwear obsessive Leon Witherow. Witherow’s known in the sneaker community for running the Instagram account Prestology, where he documents everything Nike Air Presto. But the 180 is actually where his love of sneakers started.

Nike Air 180 1991 Ultramarine

“Truth be told, I don't think I would be at Nike if it weren't for the 180,” he says. “It was the first sneaker that I recognized and that stuck with me. And I was only six years old at that age. I was more interested in riding my bike and playing with Matchbox cars, but when I first saw the 180, it etched itself into my brain firmly.”

The 180 has been re-released a handful of times in the last 20 years. There was a retro in 2005 for Nike’s History of Air pack that saw the brand revisit all of its flagship Air Max models to set up the launch of the Air Max 360. There were also 180 retros in 2013 and 2018. The sneaker was received OK, but the new retro seems to have the most anticipation the model has ever seen, and that’s because Witherow and team went all out to bring the silhouette back as close to its original form as possible.

“We really started from scratch. We immediately went over to the Nike DNA archives and pulled out as many resources as we could, ranging from original prototypes, blueprints, technical drawings, even some of Tinker's original sketches,” he says. “And then really it was a methodical process of just trial and error, really just sampling as much as we could, and then doing small refinements throughout the process just to make sure that we were getting all the details captured.”

Nike Air 180 Ultamarine 2018 Retro 615287-100

Witherow says what was so difficult about making the 180 true to its original form is that sneakers were built so differently in 1991 than they are today. So they had to almost decipher the blueprints and re-engineer them for today’s manufacturing process.

“Every time we got a new sample in, we’d go back to DNA and look at one of those original pairs in our hand in person and say, ‘OK, let's put these side by side and see how they're looking,’” he says. “Because from one 180 head to another, the shape is what's so iconic about that shoe. It just looks so fast and so sleek, and I wouldn't be happy until we got that shape right.”

One of the things that helps the new version of the 180 look so good is the usage of the big bubble style that was used on the Air Max 1 ‘86 in 2023. The 180, remember, is named after the Air unit in the shoe, so it’s important that the bubble is the centerpiece of the shoe’s design.

“It wouldn't be the 180 without that enormous bag in the heel,” Witherow says. “It's like, if we can get this bag as big as it was in 1991 and looking just as good, then we know we're onto a winner here, even down to the angle of the midsole around the bag, just making sure we got everything around that looking perfect.”

If the bubble is what the shoe is named after, then the second most notable feature on the Air 180 is its original colorway, which is dubbed the “Ultramarine.” It’s a combination of white, infrared, and a purplish blue. The color combination is just a chef’s kiss when it comes to footwear and has been referenced throughout Nike’s history.

“People still talk about it every time a picture of that colorway pops up online, they immediately notice just how compelling it is,” Witherow says. 

Michael Jordan wearing Nike Air 180 Concord

Juliana Sagat, a Nike designer who also works on Air Max shoes, seconds that notion and says that you want to wear something bold, something that can catch eyeballs when you put on a pair of Air Maxes in a bright colorway.

While many know the Ultramarine colorway of the 180, the original women’s colorway of the shoe, in white, blue, and green, is just as bright a representation of Nike’s color palettes in the ‘90s as its male counterpart.

“It is lesser known. But the 180 purists, myself included, dearly love that colorway,” Witherow says. “It's harder to find a pair these days. But yeah, it's again one of those colorways that I think sums up a particular era. It just oozes early ‘90s Nike nostalgia.”

The 180 has had its fair share of moments in pop culture, too. Its ad campaign debuted for the Super Bowl in 1991. Michael Jordan wore a white, black, and purple colorway in a Sports Illustrated shoot for the Dream Team. Ralph Steadman, the artist known for his work with Hunter S. Thompson, did an early 180 campaign, which was later referenced on a pair of 180s in 2018. George Lucas’ production company made one of the original commercials. Nike’s chief design officer, Martin Lotti, cites it as a shoe that resonated with him at a young age. Kanye West and Dizzee Rascal did promo-only collaborations on the 180 that have become some of the most sought-after pairs on the secondary market. And there was a 2005 collaboration with French boutique Opium that’s ingrained in 2000s streetwear lore.

Opium Nike Air 180

“I remember seeing that shoe everywhere,” says Sagat, who grew up in Paris.

The Ultramarine is also informing an upcoming version of the 180 called the “Full 180.” It’s a black-based shoe that’s meant to be a 180-degree turn from the Ultramarine, a total color inversion of the original.

“Looking at how the 180 was marketed originally, there was a component of fun and something different about it, and so we were quite literal and we turned the 180 on its head,” Witherow says. “We did a full 180 and flipped the colors and we weren't sure how it would turn out. And you end up with something that I think is unexpected, but then when you hear the narrative behind it, you're like, ‘Wow, that makes complete sense.’”

But even with the remaking of the 180, and Nike’s employees digging deep into the brand’s archives, they still weren’t able to unearth exactly why it’s the Air 180 and not the Air Max 180.

“My best theory is that going back to 1991, you could say the visible Air was in its infancy. It was still really a kind of an experimental thing back then,” says Witherow. “Back in 1991, I think they were still just trying to figure out and explore and experiment and play with all these different new expressions of Air. I'd love to find out why, because it's one of those little pieces of 180 trivia that everyone always brings up.”

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