Nike knockoffs have been around for decades, but arguably the first brand to knock off Nike was, in fact, Nike. And they did it to fight a US Customs tariff bill in 1980. While details on the effort are murky, at best, Nike just last month released a special edition Air Force 1 in China celebrating the history of the Nike knockoff, the history of The One Line.
Nike and the United States government went toe-to-toe in 1980 over a $25 million tariff bill. The fight was public at the time, but gained modern-day attention five years ago when Nike founder Phil Knight shed a sliver of light on the incident in his book Shoe Dog, explaining how The One Line was crafted to contest an obscure rule in the US Customs Code.
As Knight recalls in the final pages of Shoe Dog, the American government hit Nike with a $25 million tariff bill, which he claims was brought by his competitors in the shoe and rubber business lobbying the government to bring down Nike. In typical government confusion, the American Selling Price rules of 1922 stipulated the import tariff on a particular good would be calculated not based on the manufacturer’s price of that good but based on the price of a similar American-made product. Duty in three categories of benzidine chemicals, cherry stone clams, and athletic footwear with synthetic uppers could be assessed on not the factory cost of the goods, but the American wholesale selling price of goods that were like American manufactured goods.
“We launched a new shoe, a running shoe with nylon uppers, and called it One Line,” Knight writes in his book. “It was a knockoff, dirt cheap, with a simple logo, and we manufactured it in Saco, at Hayes’s ancient factory. We priced it low, just above cost. Now customs officials would have to use this ‘competitor’ shoe as a new reference point in deciding our import duty.”
If that all sounds a little foggy and slightly complicated, well, it is.
And it doesn’t get all that much clearer with the November release in China of the Air Force 1 “NAI-KE,” touted from Nike as a homage to Nike and a Chinese factory jointly launching The One Line production 40 years ago.
In fact, the 1980 design was basically a one-to-one knockoff of the Nike Oceania runner. It was all things Nike design, minus the branding elements. The only Air Force 1 connection seems to be the modern-day popularity of the sneaker.
“As the first test shoe model jointly developed by Nike and a Chinese factory, it represents the historic cooperation between the two parties,” Nike’s description of the AF1 shoe says. “One step.”
In the modern-day Air Force 1, the biggest tie to The One Line is a single, wide white stripe on the upper. The One Line, since it was truly a knockoff, removed Nike branding and used the white stripe. The Air Force 1 features this white stripe, but overlayed with a Swoosh. The grey suede on the modern-day Air Force 1 does feature some touches of blue, the original color of The One Line design. Nike placed the slogan “Elevating Inner Peace Through Sports” inside the tongue of the AF1 and uses Chinese characters to spell out NAI-KE on the heel.
But what Nike doesn’t tell buyers about the 2021 Air Force 1 is the real backstory of why The One Line even exists. It’s one of the strangest stories in Nike history, and the shoes from it are some of the rarest it’s ever produced—sneaker site The Deffest actually has a pair and broke down their history in this detailed story.
Think of Nike’s move in real estate terms as an inexpensive house in the neighborhood lowers the prices for all the other houses nearby.
But here’s where the details get a bit muddy. While Knight laid out the plan in his book five years ago, he—like he freely admits many times in the book where his memory differs from the official record—was short on details and at times, contradictory. Knight says in the book that Nike decided to make the shoes in the company’s small Exeter, New Hampshire, factory, which makes sense as part of the American Selling Price effort. But collectors who have run across samples of The One Line note the shoes have a “made in China” stamp on them. And this latest Nike Air Force 1 release pays homage to the Chinese involvement in the process.
Multiple requests over the last year by Complex requesting Nike further clarify the situation have gone unanswered.
But what we do know for sure about the 1980 production is that it was real. And it helped. Nike even created a The One Line catalog and these blue nylon shoes with the white stripe were produced, even if it isn’t clear where they were sold.
Knight said in an address at Stanford in 2019 that The One Line sold “a couple thousand pairs” and reduced the duties by two-thirds.
Being that the newly named Nike—it officially changed names from Blue Ribbon Sports in 1971—was preparing to go public in 1980, Knight knew he needed to settle his feud with the US Government before the IPO, so the full onslaught of The One Line was put on hold as the two parties reached a $9 million agreement that put the tariff fight behind them.
It’s quite possible The One Line started with Chinese samples—very few pairs of the shoes have been seen in the wild 40 years later and the ones that have “made in China” on them are a sample size 9—to get everything sorted out before the Exeter runs. This makes sense from a business perspective and could explain both Chinese versions of The One Line and the Knight stories of Exeter production to fit the American Selling Price requirements.
Either way, The One Line is a little-known, yet critical portion of Nike’s history. And now Nike acknowledges the importance of The One Line with a modern-day Air Force 1. Maybe next we’ll get a reborn Oceania.