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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