Why the Nike Air Max 1 Is More Important Than the Air Jordan 1

30 years ago, Tinker Hatfield put an Air bubble on a running shoe and it forever changed the way we look at footwear.

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Tinker Hatfield’s most controversial sneaker ended up proving to be his best. When legendary Nike designer Hatfield, who went to school to study architectural design, got inspired by the Centre Pompidou in Paris to create visible Air on Nike running sneakers, the brand wasn’t excited about marketing it. He proved all of them wrong, like he’s constantly done throughout his career, and made the Air Max 1. Today everyone knows how revolutionary the shoes are -- Nike has a month-long celebration of it this year, which is officially celebrated today -- but its impact on the sneaker industry is more than a one-day holiday: The shoe may be the most important design Nike ever created, even more so than the Air Jordan 1, the sneaker that, to many, started it all.

When it first released in 1987, the Air Max 1 was unlike anything else on the running market. At the time, the majority of shoes were tame in their design. Sneakers from the mid-'80s and earlier were exercises in incorporating dull shades of suede and mesh and giving older white guys something that wouldn’t kill their feet during a job. But the Air Max 1, with its white/red (and white/blue) colorways was noticeable from afar, whether the shoe had a glaring, see through portion of its midsole. But what makes the Air Max 1 the shoe it is today, and something that stands the test of time, isn’t just that it broke through a dull, dry market, but it was the genesis of the running sneakers as a lifestyle culture.

Nike had made the Cortez, Pegasus, and Tailwind before the Air Max 1, but the fanaticism that built around that one shoe was enough to launch a full fledged subculture 20 years after its first release. Not to mention, without the Air Max 1, the Air Max line, which is still going strong, wouldn’t be around today. No Air Max 95s, no VaporMax.

nike air max 1

How can the Air Max 1 be more important than the Air Jordan 1, the sneaker that launched the Air Jordan series, which, undoubtedly, is the most revered line of sneakers of all-time? Well, it was all about planting a seed of thought and seeing how it grows.

It’s not controversial to say that lifestyle running sneakers have overtaken that of signature basketball shoes in 2017. Just look at what the Adidas NMD and Yeezy Boost have been able to do in the past year or so. But none of this would have been able to happen if it wasn’t for the people who harped on the Air Max 1, even if it was designed by a different brand.

10 plus years ago, there started to grow a renewed interest in the Air Max 1, thanks to collaborations with the likes of Atmos and Patta, as well as people digging for rarer, older models. But the people who gravitated towards these shoes, who were typically European, would help build a foundation of the athleisure-like movement that’s swept the footwear industry. Brands such as ASICS, New Balance, and even Adidas, wouldn’t be having the resurgence they’re having if the Air Max 1 didn’t make it inherently cool or aspirational to collect and wear running shoes. I know that there were high-end running shoes, coveted by hustlers and hip-hop, before the Air Max 1, but this shoe was the best to do it, and it still is. The same people who helped the runner overtake the high-top were the same people who were freaking out about the shape of their Air Maxes and how they looked on their feet. The Air Max 1 looks better with jeans than the Air Jordan 1, with its slightly puffed tongue and lower cut. Not to forget they’re infinitely more comfortable, without being bulky or sacrificing aesthetics for function.

Atmos x Nike Air Max 1

The Air Jordan 1 -- designed by Peter Moore, who also launched the Adidas EQT line -- started the idea of signature basketball shoes being more than a one-off thing. Without it, there wouldn’t be the basketball footwear or lifestyle industry there is today, even if sneakers like the Air Force predate it. But dig deeper for a second. Look at what the Air Jordan 1 has directly influenced, as far as its design language: the first thing that comes to mind is that it's essentially a Nike Dunk that's inspired high-fashion knockoffs of the shoe; a luxury industry based off of the best basketball sneaker ever. It’s a timeless design, as cliche as that might sound, but the concept of the shoe is stuck in the ‘80s with its simplicity, which will never die. The Air Max 1, on the other hand, helped breathe in Nike and Hatfield’s innovative ethos. A year later he’d follow it up with the Air Jordan III, which some would argue is better than the Air Jordan 1. But the Air Jordan III, with its Air unit and cement print on the toe, borrows more from the looks of the Air Max 1 than its predecessors, as awkward as that is to imagine. It’s the shoe that kept Michael Jordan from bolting to Adidas and, literally, cemented the Jordan legacy in footwear.

Everyone knows the Air Max 1 is a great shoe. We sing its praises every March 26, where a lot of people pretend to revel in the shoe’s genius. But without it, sneaker design may have never truly broken through to the next level, where brands competed to out innovate each other, rather than slightly update last year’s model with minor tweaks. The amazing thing about it is that Tinker had to look outside of the sneaker world to find its inspiration, much like he’s continued to do his whole career. While the world knows him as the man who made Michael Jordan the footwear icon that he’s become, he should best be remembered for putting an Air bubble on a running shoe, and the ripples that it was able to create.