One of the biggest shoes of 2020 is one that no one liked at all at first. The Union x Air Jordan IV, the follow up to the brand's much-talked-about collaboration on the Air Jordan 1 from 2018, was destined to be a "sneaker of the year" since rumors started to swirl about its existence last year. People didn't need to know what it looked like to want it. It was an Air Jordan by Union. It was going to be great. It was going to resell for $1,000. And everyone who mattered was going to wear them and make you want them even more.
To talk about the Union x Air Jordan IV, we need to go back in time a bit first. Union was started by James Jebbia in New York City in 1989, before he founded Supreme in 1994. The store became one of the first outlets for a burgeoning streetwear culture that would help overlap skateboarding, hip-hop, sneakers, and surf into a style and aesthetic unlike anything before it. Chris Gibbs bought Union in 2008. The NYC store closed in 2009. And now only a Los Angeles store represents the business.
Union became known as a taste-leader in the streetwear world. It wasn't a typical sneaker boutique, although some of its past collaborations include its era-defining take on the Nike Air 180. It was a shop that sold the brands and products that it liked, whether they were the biggest labels at the time or not. (Union was one of the first shops in the U.S. that sold Visvim.) Its Air Jordan 1 collaboration came out not long after the retailer worked with Gary Aspden on an Adidas SPZL collection.
The Air Jordan 1 project was debuted in a unique way. It was placed at a booth at the Rose Bowl Flea Market without any promotion online and organically, at least to our knowledge, discovered by influencers such as Sean Wotherspoon and Emily Oberg, who didn't think the shoes were real.
The sneakers, with their mismatched uppers combining Air Jordan 1 colorways that first released in 1985, took some time to grow on people. Not everyone was sold on them at first. black/red combined with white/blue was a jarring mix. But the hype on the sneakers spiraled out of control, with pairs eventually selling for nearly $2,000.
This wasn't the first time that hype was seen on a Union x Air Jordan 1. A year earlier at ComplexCon, riots nearly broke out as the retailer attempted to release a mismatch pair of black and gold Jordan 1s.
"I underestimated the demand and fervor of the Jordan customer. 2,000 kids lined up yesterday. We were just caught off guard and it messed things up," said Gibbs about the release then. "We love to have the Jordans, but we have other good product and a regular non-Jordan hooligan that's trying to see some of our other shit. Obviously, there's other normal Jordan fans, but there are rough guys fucking it up for everything. They almost pushed over our wall."
Whether by coincidence or design, hype tends to follow Union Air Jordan 1s. Since the release and critical acclaim of the 2018 Air Jordan 1s, the brand's Twitter account tweeted on a regular basis about the shoes, making the sneakers part of the company's identity.
Another collaboration with Jordan Brand has been teased for quite some time. Rumors started to circulate that it would be an Air Jordan IV, unarguably a top-five Air Jordan of all time—maybe even the greatest, depending on who you ask.
"We're definitely circling the wagons around the Jordan IVs," Gibbs told Complex in a July 2019 interview. "It's not 100 percent confirmed yet, but that's kind of where it's at."
One of the few ways that Union could have upped the hype ante on their previous collaborations was with this Air Jordan IV. This time, though, unlike the previous two sneakers (the black/gold pair was released without anyone's prior knowledge at ComplexCon) everyone saw it coming. It was going to be big from the start.
But then there was a lull—a letdown when the sneakers were unofficially unveiled. And some could have predicted that outcome. The last sneakers weren't exactly what you'd expect from one of the biggest collaborations of that year, but they became it over time. The sneakers grew on people.
The Air Jordan IVs were different. They had a flapped over tongue, a mesh toebox, and a shape unlike any previous Air Jordan IVs. They didn't appeal to purists of the brand or those simply in it for the hype. But once people were able to see high-definition photos of the shoes, see them styled the right way, and notice that they look more traditional than they thought, the tide on the internet started to turn.
Today, Aug. 6, Union finally gave an official look at the Air Jordans, as well as two pairs of non-retro sneakers that will be included in the collection. And the shoes look much different from the earlier leaked photos. For starters, the tongue can come to full length with the removal of a few stitches.
In a short blog post, Gibbs said: "First time around we took a crack at the AJ I, which was my all time favorite. For our sophomore album... we pivot to my 2nd favorite; the AJ IV. Back in the day, I had always liked to wear my IV's with a short tongue, so I would fold them over themselves and tie them down."
Gibbs used to the sneakers’ rollout to explain the design of the shoe. "The other major thing we did was that we edited the paneling of the shoes to create a slightly different shape to the shoe. You might not catch this at first, but when you compare our design to the OG AJ IVs. you can tell we added an extra panel,” he says. “We did this for 2 reasons; first off, it created a dope toe vamp view when you look down... my favorite view is when you look right down at kicks; the 'birds-eye view.' Secondly, It allows for a more balanced ratio of mesh to suede, which is something I was trying to achieve as well."
The sneakers make a lot more sense now, and it's started to change people's minds. Seeing the shoes with a full-length tongue makes the difference to some. Seeing better quality pictures of the shoes also helps. For others, they've simply warmed up to the design or appreciated the story behind them. Needless to say, the hype is afoot on the Union x Air Jordan IVs.
As for me? I'm undecided on my critical analysis of the sneakers (which have been shown in Noir and Guava colorways). I'm not going for Air Jordan IVs anyway, but can still hold a favorable view of the sneaker through a removed lens.
No matter how people feel about these sneakers, this hype was bound to happen. They will be limited. They will resell for a ton of money. The high-profile celebrities and cool internet folks will wear them and kids across America will view them as their grails. Guests on Sneaker Shopping will buy them. The prices will shoot up and people will forget that they hated the shoe to begin with.
It's a sneaker collaboration that's too big to fail. It's weird to lump a Union x Air Jordan IV in with Nike's string of Travis Scott sneakers, Dior x Air Jordan 1s, Ben & Jerry's x Nike SB Dunks, but that's the expectation at this point—even if Union is the consistently-low-resting heart-rate of a shop that's cool on all accounts, but still beats to its own drum.
Those sneakers take zero convincing to like before consumers even see them. A Union x Air Jordan IV, in theory, should be the same thing. But there’s something challenging about the design. It’s not a shoe you need to “understand” to like, but it’s something you need to consider a few times before you make up your mind. Even with all that said, there’s always going to be people who like the shoes anyway, even if they don’t know why. As I’ve said before, it’s a Union Air Jordan. It’s going to resell for a lot and be worn by famous people.
It's what Gibbs alluded to earlier, their Air Jordans bring in a different consumer from their everyday shopper. It's someone who's going to have different expectations. When the stakes are higher, that's harder to communicate, but that's the case here. It's not a bad thing, either. It's growth and recognition for a small shop that's been the pulse of the streetwear scene since its inception. It just comes with new levels of stress and people to satisfy—ones that will like the product once someone they deem as cool wears it. Just wait for it to happen with the Union x Air Jordan IVs, they're one Instagram photo away from sneaker of the year.