A Cultural Force: The History of the Air Force 1
A Cultural Force: The History of the Air Force 1
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date December 05, 2017
We’ll make a brash claim: the most important shoe of all-time is 35 years old, hasn’t changed much over the last three-plus decades, and is best known for it’s monochromatic white and black colorways. It’s a shoe that spawned a technological revolution in the ‘80s, a cultural one in the ‘90s and the concept of “retros.” It rose to international prominence in the 2000s, and has become a fashion flashpoint in the last few years. After more than 2000 iterations, and standing as one of the best-selling athletic shoe of all time, the Air Force 1 is undeniably an icon. But what makes it so special?
To understand not only the Air Force 1, but its impact on sneakers as we know them, you have to start with the patriarch of the modern sneaker. For all of the praise heaped on designers like Tinker Hatfield and Sergio Lozano, the genealogy of Nike’s footwear design traces its roots to Bruce Kilgore, the man responsible for the Air Force, the iconic Nike Sock Racer, and the much-maligned (but equally-important) Air Jordan II, to name but a few. Like many Nike designers that would come after him, Kilgore was a product designer first and foremost, who plied his trade on whatever needed designing. He moved from household appliances, onto cars—where he would touch Pontiac’s Fiero during the sculpting process, as well as contribute to Chrysler’s K-Car—before accepting a position at Blue Ribbon Sports, Nike’s parent company in the 1980s, over a meal at Pizza Hut. You literally cannot make up a better origin story for someone who would go on to design the most important shoe of all time.
Making Kilgore’s Nike story even better, he was teamed up with the brand’s first ever employee, Jeff Johnson, and tasked with perfecting the track spike. Equipped with Bill Bowerman’s minutious analysis of foot X-rays and track athletes’ performance, Kilgore and Johnson developed the Zoom series of spikes, which helped carry Carl Lewis to four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. After that, Kilgore was moved to basketball, where he was tasked with designing the first-ever basketball shoe to contain an Air unit in the sole. The Nike Tailwind had debuted the Air sole in 1979 and it was an instant hit, but the move towards basketball was stagnating. According to Kilgore, who took over the project from another designer, the prototype “looked like the Michelin Man. [It] was really poochy, and the sidewalls… it wasn’t something that you could play basketball in.”
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Kilgore is a self-described minimalist, so the shoe’s simple construction shouldn’t have come as any surprise. Or maybe it should have, considering Kilgore was advised by Nike’s DCEC Committee, which was made up of biomechanists, trainers, podiatrists and an aerospace engineer and tasked with helping designers get the Air technology into shoes. Regardless, the Air Force 1 was a technological marvel of sorts when it came to basketball sneakers in the ‘80s. Kilgore was inspired by Nike’s Approach hiking boot when he slanted the cut at the top of the Air Force 1 from front to back, providing the same support as traditional hightops, while offering added flexibility. The Air Force 1 was also one of the first basketball sneakers to feature a cupsole, making it one of the most durable shoes to date. Kilgore also developed a circular outsole tread that was designed with basketball in mind. Compared to the omnipresent herringbone pattern found on Chuck Taylors (and pretty much every other sneaker) Kilgore’s new outsole gave players a “Pivot Point” that allowed them greater ease of movement down in the post. It was revolutionary at the time.
When Kilgore received the first Air Force 1 prototypes from Nike’s Innovation Lab in Exeter, he loaded them up into his car and set out to get college basketball players to test them out and give them feedback. One of the lucky wear-testers back at Nike’s headquarters was Tinker Hatfield, and without the Air Force 1, it’s entirely possible he wouldn’t have gone on to become the savant of footwear that he is today. Hatfield had joined Nike in 1981 as an architect, and had been given a pair of Air Force 1s to wear when he played basketball. He was so impressed with the shoe’s performance that he took an interest in footwear design. In fact, one of the features that was dropped after the initial prototype, the inclusion of a steel shank in the footbed, would go on to inspire the iconic carbon fibre plate on Hatfield’s Jordan XI in 1995. It was a precursor to the energy-return technology that is now almost ubiquitous in performance sneakers, but it didn’t quite make the cut on the original Air Force 1 production.
The go-to-market version of the Air Force 1 was introduced in 1982, and, as surprising as it may seem, was not originally offered in the now iconic white-on-white colorway, nor in the low-cut profile that has made the shoe famous. Rather, the Air Force came as a high-top, with a removable proprioceptic belt (the famous ankle strap) and a mesh side panel, in a white and neutral-grey colorway. To promote the new shoe, Nike enlisted six of the NBA’s contemporary stars— Moses Malone, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, Bobby Jones, Mychal Thompson and Calvin Natt—and rolled out a marketing campaign that would come to define the Air Force 1s identity going forward.
The campaign was two-fold. The first proclaimed that “Air [would] be sold by the box” starting during the 1982 season, and that the shoe would revolutionize the game of basketball—Nike chose to not show the shoe in the advert. The second featured the aforementioned six players in white Nike tracksuits on a tarmac, with a plane behind them, and Air Force 1s on their feet. It’s a concept that would be dusted off in 2007, the franchise’s 25th anniversary, but featuring LeBron James, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Rasheed Wallace, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and others, scored by Just Blaze and Juelz Santana.
In 1983, Nike introduced Air Force 1 Low, meant to offer a wider appeal than the performance-driven Air Force 1 High. With the Air Force 1 Low came the precursor to the modern PE (player-exclusive) with the Original Six receiving custom Air Force 1 Lows to wear on the court, reflecting their team’s colors, but also their personal taste. A trio of sneaker stores in Baltimore caught on to the trend and flew out to Nike’s Portland headquarters in 1983 to pitch a radical idea. Charley Rudo, Cinderella Shoes, and, later, Downtown Locker Room, wanted Nike to produce Air Force 1s exclusively for their shops.
Harold Rudo, the buyer at the time for Charley Rudo, explained to Scoop Jackson that the cartel of shops “started what [they] called the ‘Color of the Month Club’. Everywhere [he] went kids would stop [him], ‘What’s the next color you got coming?’ It was crazy.” Baltimore became the heart of sneaker culture on the East Coast. I-95 connected New York and Philadelphia to Baltimore, and the “Color of the Month” made it a monthly destination for sneakerheads.
Having the latest Air Force 1 became a badge of honour for hustlers and drug dealers on the East Coast—as Rudo explained years later, “if you had Air Force 1s, you were the s-h-i-t.” The Three Amigos, as the Baltimore stores would become affectionately known, helped birth the concept of the collaborative sneaker, but also of the limited edition drop. Without the Air Force 1 and the “Color of the Month Club”, sneaker culture wouldn’t be what it is today. The Air Force 1 would also become the first Nike shoe to be “retro’d”, a driving force in today’s sneaker economics.
In mid-to-late 1984, Nike pulled the Air Force 1 off the market. Most shoe models at the time would operate on a simple “run schedule; the shoe would hit the market, stay on shelves for a year or so, and then be phased out of production and rarely made again. The shoe’s fans along the East Coast were desperate for new Forces. They began customizing old pairs, inspired by the “Color of the Month” concept and the original six players’ PEs, hounding Nike to bring the silhouette back. Nike caved in 1986 and brought the shoe back through a select network of retailers on the East Coast, along with the regional exclusive concept perfected in Baltimore in ’84. In doing so, Nike, for the first time ever, retro’d a sneaker. It’s an interesting concept, really—bringing an old shoe back, when there are newer, more advanced alternatives on the market. It speaks to the popularity of the Air Force 1, and to the power of the people. In the late ‘80s and the early 90s, the shoe wasn’t offered in Nike’s catalogue. Buying into the Air Force 1 was reserved for hand-picked stores—“strictly inner city” confided one Washington-area retailer to The Washington Post in 1991.
In the early ‘90s, Nike ditched the mesh side panel. In its place, customers found the same leather that was used on the rest of the Air Force 1, making for a sleek, uniform silhouette. The most important development in the history of the Air Force 1 came at some point later in the ‘90s, with the introduction of the white-on-white leather Air Force 1 Low. The exact year that the shoe debuted is shrouded in mystery. That siad, Gary Warnett (RIP) did an excellent job digging into the annals of ‘90s hip-hop album liners, magazine adverts and mail-in order forms to try and unearth the precise moment the Air Force 1 Low made its debut in white-on-white leather. Off-white Lows with gum soles were available in ’91, while white-on-white highs were a limited release in ’92 along the East Coast. According to Warnett, Nike insiders claimed that the present-day icon debuted in ’97, but a 1994 ad from Baltimore’s Holabird Sports offers up “all-white and all-black lows.” We’ll settle on the mid-’90s as best “day zero” for the white-on-white leather Air Force 1 Low.
What makes the white-on-white leather Air Force 1 Low such an important shoe is the influence it has had on culture and the social history intricately woven into the shoe’s existence. The white-on-white Low became an instant hit among the Air Force 1’s existing fan-base on the East Coast—it was an easy-to-wear, everyday alternative to the limited-edition, colorful Forces being released by Nike’s top-tier inner-city retailers. When the shoe became too popular, Nike started limiting supply—stores were limited in the numbers of pairs they could order per month, and certain stores were cut off from carrying the white leather sneaker. It’s a strategy that still exists to this day: Nike’s best-selling athletic shoe can’t be ordered on a whim by retailers, they have to be selected and the quantity they carry is monitored closely.
Endorsed by drug dealers and hustlers in the early to mid-’90s, and with more available white and black colorways on the market, the Air Force 1 became the de facto shoe of choice in Harlem. Thus, Nike's “Uptowns” were born. In the late-’90s, though, the Air Force 1 began to explode outside of traditional hotbeds like Harlem, Baltimore and Philadelphia. The hustlers that loved the shoe so much—both as a status symbol and because it was easy to wear—graduated from pushing drugs to trying to sell albums and brought the sneaker with them. Legendary sneaker head Bobbito Garcia explained to The New York Times in 2007 that, “a lot of the artists from the Eastern Seaboard who were really killing them—particularly Jay-Z with all the influence he had globally and him wearing Air Force 1 on stage—really, really pushed the shoe.”
Speaking to the shoe’s place in the space between hip-hop culture and drug culture, Jay-Z named-dropped the shoe on “Can I Live II”, rapping “for all my n****s with the all-white Air Force 1s and black guns.” In all likelihood, this wasn’t how Nike wanted to advertise the shoe, but it worked for them and the didn’t want to cut off the rappers that were repping the sneaker. Harlem’s own rap crew, The Diplomats, were often spotted in crispy white Air Force 1s, with Cam’ron name-dropping the shoe on Diplomatic Immunity's “What’s Really Good”. Fellow Dipset member Juelz Santana would later go on to provide the soundtrack for Nike’s aforementioned “Second Coming” ad, commemorating the shoe’s 25th anniversary.
Around the same time, Nelly dropped “Air Force Ones” with the St. Lunatics. Not only was it an ode to Air Forces of all cuts and colors, solidifying the shoe’s status in “the culture,” it was also a testament to the fact that the shoe was travelling beyond the East Coast. Nelly also verbalized one of the growing trends among Force heads when he rapped: “Now don't nothing get the hype on first sight like, white-on-whites / Them three quarters them lows they all tight / The only problem they only good for one night / Cause once you scuff ‘em you fucked up your whole night.” Nelly and the St. Lunatics took turns bragging about buying their Forces in multiples of two. It was a sentiment echoed by Jay-Z’s partner in Roc-A-Fella, Dame Dash, who promoted the “wear ‘em once” mentality. By the mid-aughts, having a pair Air Force 1s wasn’t a status symbol anymore—but having fresh-out-the-box Forces on hand at all times, was.
Nike came around in the mid-’00s to the idea of having rappers as the shoe’s de facto ambassadors, offering up limited edition collaborations to rappers and record labels. Through New York’s Training Camp chain of sneaker stores, Nike released Roc-A-Fella branded Air Force 1s in 2004—crispy white like Jay-Z, Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke liked them, but with a black embroidered Roc-A-Fella logo on the heel. The Black Album got an Air Force 1 in 2004, while the likes of Fat Joe—and his Terror Squad—and Young Jeezy came next, with Nike banking heavily on hip-hop’s cosign to keep a 20-year old sneaker relevant.
While hip-hop and the Air Force 1 were growing into their symbiotic relationship in the United States, the shoe was gaining traction in other milieus, sometimes on the other side of the globe. Tapping into its regional-exclusive strategy that helped grow the silhouette in Baltimore in the ‘80s, Nike rolled out an ambitious array of Asian and European exclusives in the early-to-mid ‘00s. The goal was not only to grow the shoe’s following in foreign markets, but also to create an certain mystique around the shoe stateside—increasing demand by limiting supply.
The endeavour produced some of the most legendary Forces of all-time. Japan was a particular hotbed, with the iconic “Linen”, “3M Snake”, and Atmos-designed Air Force 1 Lows all releasing in 2001 alone. Building off this, the 2002 HTM Air Force 1, and ode to the shoe’s 20th anniversary, was advertised almost exclusively in Japanese magazines that took weeks, if not months, to make their way to the United States. In Europe, Nike was tapping bigger chains, like Paris’ Courir and London’s JD Sports, to create their own takes on the Air Force 1 through a selective program that was sustained by Paris’ basketball-versed youth and the UK’s grime scene. Needless to say, Air Force 1 fanatics accrued quite a few frequent flyer points in the 2000s.
Back stateside, Nike was branching out from hip-hop and partnering with artists and lifestyle brands to create limited-edition Forces. Graffiti legend Stash, West Coast tattoo artist Mister Cartoon and many others got their shot at treating the shoe like a canvas, while Nike partenered with brands like Sony to commemorate the release of the PlayStation 3 with an ultra-limited Air Force 1 Low. By the time the Air Force 1’s 25th anniversary rolled around in 2007, Nike had established the shoe as one of its premier canvases for collaborations; if you got to design an Air Force 1, you had made it. Ironically, it was just like Harold Rudo had explained (albeit in a different context): if you had the connect to get your hands on a limited pair (or the clout to make your own), you were the “s-h-i-t.”
To say that Nike went all out to celebrate 25 years of Force would be an understatement. The Portland-based giant commissioned “Classic”, a song featuring Rakim, Nas, KRS-One, Rick Rubin, DJ Premier and (then-Nike-affiliated) Kanye West, which would go on to be nominated for a Grammy. The aforementioned “Second Coming” television spot featured Just Blaze and Juelz Santana, as well as the countless NBA stars named at the outset. Bobbito Garcia designed the “Beef & Broccoli”](https://stockx.com/air-force-1-high-bobbito-beef-n-broccoli) Air Force 1 Highs, as well as a Low to celebrate the anniversary. Perhaps most importantly, 2007 saw the release of the Lux Masterpiece Pack, featuring white-on-white anaconda skin and brown croc-leather Lows. Seeded in 2005 and 2006 to rappers with slight variations, they were the first Nike shoes to retail over the $1000 threshold. They represented, not only the culmination of the luxury Air Force 1s had been for hustlers and rappers on the East Coast, but also what Nike would become in the decade that followed: a brand playing in the high-end realm while keeping its sportswear roots.
Fast forward 10 years, and little has changed with the Air Force 1—in fact, the last decade has mimicked the previous two and a half. Following all of the exposure in 2007, Nike over-extended the Air Force 1 in the late-aughts, leading to customer fatigue around the turn of the decade. Sure, the shoe kept selling, but the hype surrounding the shoe faded and collectors began looking elsewhere (incidentally, one could argue this led to the explosion of Jordan Brand retros circa 2009-2012). The Air Force 1 went into relative hibernation, but maintained its popularity in its traditional markets along the East Coast. Much like Bobbito Garcia had mused to The New York Times in 2007: “There are new generations coming into it that have no idea that it was a basketball shoe when it came out. No idea. So in another 10 or 20 years, they won’t even know that Jay-Z wore them. They won’t have any idea. They’ll just keep wearing them because it’s a cool shoe.”
In the last five years however, major players in the fashion realm began to take interest in the silhouette, now that it was somewhat of a nostalgic throwback to the street culture of yore. Supreme released three Air Force 1 Lows in 2012, with “World Famous” Air Force 1 Highs following suit in 2014. Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci would co-sign the silhouette’s rebirth in 2014, with three different color-driven variations across four Air Force 1 silhouettes, appearing at Nike’s Tier Zero retailers. It’s a partnership that’s continued on even today. More recently, the likes of Comme des Garçons have touched the silhouette, in collaboration with Supreme, but also as part of their Fall/Winter 2017 offering.
Virgil Abloh alone has released three versions of the Air Force 1 as part of his ongoing work with Nike. These include: a “Friends & Family” version in black worn by Off-White booth staff at Design Miami, a ComplexCon-exclusive and one as part of his already-legendary “The Ten”. The Air Force 1 has also been an incubator of sorts for Nike’s next-generation of forward-thinking collaborators, starting with Errolson Hugh’s Nike x ACRONYM Lunar Force 1 in 2015, which marked a drastic shift in the evolution of the silhouette for many sneakerheads. Samuel Ross’ A-COLD-WALL* has taken a similar direction when playing with the Air Force 1 in recent collections, offering up techno-dystopian takes on the silhouette that feature details which typify the Air Force (the ankle strap, lace jewels, monochromatic colorways) all while using on-brand styling to create something entirely new to the history of the shoe.
Looking back now, Ross and Hugh are outliers, though. That brands were practically falling over themselves to have a shot at designing an all-white Air Force 1 as part of the brand’s 35th anniversary celebration speaks to what has made the shoe so popular: it offers the perfect canvas for creativity and has a flawless silhouette that requires few, if any, alterations. There is no shoe that has transcended generations or socio-economic backgrounds quite like the Air Force 1 has. From the basketball courts of New York’s parks to the streets of Baltimore, and from the NBA hardwood to the runway, the Air Force 1 has been adopted by everyone and anyone. The Air Force 1 birthed collaborations and retros, and pushed many to start collecting sneakers instead of just wearing them (just ask Nelly). The Air Force 1 became a status symbol, for teenagers, athletes and entertainment moguls alike. Nike let the shoe speak for itself in the ‘80s, and when it was removed from the market, customers spoke up. 35 years later, the shoe requires no introduction. It is, at least in the eyes of this writer, the greatest sneaker of all-time.