Nike Air Force 1: The Silhouette That Birthed Sneaker Culture
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Over the course of more than 35 years, Nike’s cornerstone design, the Air Force 1, has grown to become one of the brand’s most iconic silhouettes. Widely considered a standard of global streetwear, the Air Force 1 has become a giant in culture, effortlessly imbuing the wardrobes of millions around the world with unshakable relevance.
Designed by Bruce Kilgore, a product designer who spent his entire career designing machines and appliances before moving to the Swoosh, the Air Force 1 released alongside other memorable silhouettes to be designed by Kilgore. Most notably, he conceived the Jordan 2 and Nike Sock Racer, with the latter growing considerably more popular in recent years.
Following the introduction of Air technology with the 1979 Air Tailwind, Nike wanted to take advantage of such advancements to create the world’s first basketball sneaker. Aligned with the basketball market’s interest spike thanks to the popularity of its star players, Nike, Air technology, and the Air Force 1 were poised to break serious ground.
Legend has it that the Air Force 1 was even the shoe that made Tinker Hatfield decide to work with Nike. After attending a stress test for one its earliest samples, he was given a pair of his own to try out on the basketball court. He was so impressed by the silhouette’s performance and design that he decided to drop a career in architecture for one in sneaker design. Thanks to the Air Force 1, the world was gifted one of its most prolific contributors.
Initially released in 1982 as a high-top design with a neutral gray Swoosh, sole and strap, the sneaker’s resulting media campaign featured six of the time’s most iconic basketball players: Michael Cooper, Moses Malone, Calvin Natt, Jamal Wilkes, Bobby Jones and Mychael Thompson. The advert referred to the players as “The Original Six” and portrayed them walking next to airplanes. Steeped in aeronautical iconography, the silhouette’s name references the plane on which the president of the United States of America travels.
At the beginning, the Air Force 1 was available in six exclusive colors for "The Original Six", all of which were inspired by the colors of their respective teams and tastes. Then, in 1983, the shoe was released in a low-top version to address a wider target audience beyond pure sports performance. However, the new design’s popularity grew slowly, only taking off one year later in 1984.
Nike was almost ready to discontinue the model. At the time, the Portland-based company operated under a policy that saw its creations live on the market for a couple of years before being discontinued to make room for new designs. In the face of this policy, three stores in Baltimore insisted that Nike let them continue selling the model. Not willing to give up their top-selling shoe, some of the stores even went so far as to offer Nike exclusive retailer agreements where they would only continue with two select colors.
Back then, sneaker culture was nowhere near the hysterical level it is today, and the idea of store collaborations was not even a blip on the radar. With the original Air Force 1 sneakers bringing with them a larger than normal margin, the initiative to continue stocking the design soon evolved into the so-called “Color of the Month Club”, which, as the name entails, saw the Swoosh present a new color every month.
The "Color of the Month Club" can undoubtedly be considered as one of the first moments where fans would gather to buy and talk sneakers. Every month, kids from all around America would travel to Baltimore to buy the latest Air Force 1 colorway, serving very much as a precursor to the concept of collaboration and limited-edition drop models: something that is now an integral part of today’s contemporary sneaker market.
Before returning to the shelves of other stores outside of those in Baltimore, later nicknamed “The Three Amigos,” the Air Force 1 had to wait until 1986, when, thanks to growing sales across Maryland and the resulting East Coast sneaker frenzy, Nike decided to put the shoe back into production. As a result, the Air Force 1 is the first shoe from Nike’s catalogue to have ever been retroed, further underpinning the public’s unwavering affection for the Kilgore brainchild.
The general public would then have to wait until the mid-90s before the arrival of the classic Air Force 1 leather in its now-iconic all-white palette. Even if the exact year remains somewhat unknown, the late Gary Warnett dug deep and discovered that a low-top in off-white with gum soles had been available since 1991, with an all-white pair of high-tops made limitedly available on the East Coast in ’92. In addition to this, Nike has been known to claim that the shoe was first released in 1997, despite adverts from Baltimore presenting all-white and all-black pairs as early as 1994.
The all-white Air Force 1 was a resounding success, conquering innumerable demographics and going on to imbue the design with real cultural value. The white-on-white silhouette soon became an icon of the East Coast’s inner-city scene, growing closer to the aesthetic of music and popular culture, completely transcending its initial value as a basketball shoe. Nike responded to the success of the shoe by trying to make it more exclusive and limiting the number of stores that could sell it, together with the quantities they were allowed to sell.
The shoe became a status symbol of the streets, so much so that it was soon given the nickname “Uptowns” for its popularity in Uptown New York, particularly across neighborhoods such as Harlem. The definitive consecration however took place in 2002 when Saint Louis-born rapper Nelly released the song “Air Force Ones”. The single not only showed how successful the shoe had become, but also underscored its resounding influence beyond the East Coast. The song was so repetitive in its references to buying and using the model that MTV did not show the video on their channels because it thought Nike had paid Nelly to advertise it. Nike was quick to capitalize on the silhouette’s importance throughout hip-hop culture, offering up limited-edition collaborations to rappers and record labels. The most popular is undoubtedly Roc-a-Fella's Air Force 1, which returned 13 years later within Nike's "Air Force 100" line in 2017.
In the early-2000s, the design received notable recognition worldwide, with several limited-edition colorways releasing exclusively in Asia and Europe. Countries like Japan were instrumental in driving the popularity of the silhouette and implementing it into their distinct stylistic approach. Most notably, we have the likes of BAPE mastermind Nigo, who is known for interpreting the Air Force 1 across his line of early-2000s patent-leather Bapesta sneakers. Furthermore, Nike enhanced the Japanese market with the introduction of the "Co.Jp." project in 2001, releasing colorways such as the highly sought-after Nike Air Force 1 “Linen”.
In the following years, Nike re-established the Air Force 1 as a blank canvas, allowing only the most remarkable artists and companies to use it as a foundation for their expression. These included the likes of graffiti writer Stash, tattoo artist Mister Cartoon, and PlayStation, contributing now-legendary colorways to the silhouette. By doing so, the brand was able to pursue its strategy of creating scarcity and exclusivity by bringing out unique products.
By the end of the decade, sales began to decrease as customers started to lose interest as a result of the design being overused and overexposed. However, the shoe was able to make up for some lost traction when Supreme released its collaboration in 2012 and later with Riccardo Tisci's 2014 take. The partnership with Givenchy's former creative director did wonders to introduce the Air Force 1 to the high-fashion world and set it on a new trajectory for success.
Nike however continues to exercise caution when offering collaborations, as not to dilute the sanctity of one of its prized designs. From Erolson Hugh's techwear-inspired Lunar Force 1, featuring a zipper along the sneaker’s lateral edge, to Virgil Abloh's “The Ten,” designers were not only being tasked with defining new colorways, but creating new interpretations of the silhouette all together.
Fast forward to today, nearly 40 years after its original release, the Air Force 1 remains one of history’s most prolific sneaker designs. Not only was it the first of the brand’s many silhouettes to be retroed, but it laid the foundation for sneaker culture and its resulting obsession with exclusivity. The Air Force 1 continues to prove its infinite relevance, bringing with it the legitimacy of its cultural heritage, helping millions around the world transcend courts, streets, coasts, and runways.
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