Degrees of Air: The Evolution of the Air Max Heel Unit
Degrees of Air: The Evolution of the Air Max Heel Unit
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date March 26, 2018
As far as the Air Max family is concerned, Nike’s emphasis has, for the most part, been on making the Air unit as big as possible. With the notable exception of the Air Max Plus—where Tuned Air made its debut—most new Air Max models have trumpeted their bigger, and thus better, bubbles. While the Air Max 97 introduced a radical new unit with a window that ran the length of the sole, Nike has always had an affinity for placing the unit in the heel. It’s a tradition that harkens back to Tinker Hatfield’s seminal Air Max 1 and the equally-iconic follow up, the Air Max 90.
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In the late ’80s, Nike’s powerful marketing department had expressed reservations about selling a shoe that was missing a portion of the midsole. Hatfield and future CEO Mark Parker were adamant that exposing the Air unit —which had been in use since the ’80s— was the best way to increase the technology’s popularity. With the success of the Air Max 1 and the Air Max 90, Hatfield’s vision of incorporating a visible Air unit was vindicated. Hatfield was charged with leading the Air Max project for the foreseeable future and got to working on increasing the size of the Air unit and its exposure.
Despite not having a visible unit, no shoe featuring Nike’s proprietary Air technology has enjoyed more cultural success than the Air Force 1. As such, it seemed only natural to Hatfield that he bring Bruce Kilgore, the designer behind the chunky basketball shoe, into the fold. Hatfield and Kilgore, arguably the two most important designers in Nike’s history, set out to increase the size of the Air unit and to put it in direct contact with the ground. The two previous versions of the Air Max had complete outsoles, with the unit only exposed over a few inches on the midsole. The idea behind Kilgore and Hatfield’s ambitious innovation was to provide more cushioning and responsiveness upon impact—with a rubber outsole, there was a certain rigidity every time the wearer’s foot hit the ground, but, in theory, by exposing the Air unit to contact, it would allow them to maximize the technology.
Hatfield and Kilgore stripped away as much foam and rubber as possible, until they were left with what was, at the time, Nike’s largest visible Air unit—180 degrees of pure cushioning, from where the shoe draws its name. Despite the success of the Air Max 1 and Air Max 90, the Air Max 180 was decidedly different. It was hard to put one’s finger on what made it unlike the first two iterations, but there was something “off” about it. The silhouette was sleeker than the 90, and, in that respect, was closer to the 1. However, the 180’s lines were relatively straight, especially at the heel, which harkened back to the Air Max 90. It was cut a little bit higher, too, with the collar sitting closer to the ankle than its predecessors. Ultimately, though, the 180 was only the third model from the Air Max family, so Hatfield and Kilgore may have been setting out to create something that would lay the foundation for future designs.
The Air Max 180 never equaled the commercial success or popularity of the 90 or the Air Max 1, but its cultural imprint can’t be overlooked. Much has been written about the fact that Nike is both a creative marketing powerhouse and a technological innovator in the field of performance athletics—the company has, historically, struck a delicate balance between creating product for athletes and creating product for the streets. All of the company’s iconic models have been, above all else, performance-driven; gear created out of athletes’ needs and desires before ultimately being adopted by the street.
The marketing surrounding the 180 was drastically different from what Nike had previously experimented with. 1992 was an Olympic year, and the 180 featured prominently on Nike athletes, particularly those on the now-legendary Dream Team—it was the shoe of choice for Michael Jordan, among others. Maybe the thinking was that, in an Olympic year, the performance marketing takes care of itself and the emphasis should be on touting the lifestyle aspect.
The original run of ads placed more emphasis than ever before on Nike’s creative side. Rather than using its longstanding agency of record, Wieden and Kennedy—with whom Nike has created some of the most iconic ads in the history of apparel marketing—Nike partnered with a handful of creatives and artists for the campaign. The result was a series of advertisements that were more abstract that the typical Nike spots, and while they did tout the shoe’s performance capabilities, the ads stood out as much as the shoe itself. The television ads were directed by the likes of David Cronenburg, Eiko Ishioka and Caleb Deschanel and were all quite different from your traditional sneaker spot. Perhaps the most famous advertisement for the 180 is Ralph Steadman’s print, which draws inspiration from Aesop’s Fables and shows a hare wearing a pair of 180s. The influence of these ads was so pronounced that Nike released a pack commemorating some of the iconic ads from the series.
The Air 180 came to represent creativity and became one of Nike’s niche shoes. Perhaps that’s why the 180 became Portland’s canvas of choice for unique, small-run collaborations with non-athletes. Before Nike and Kanye were official partners, the Chicago rapper/producer was gifted a limited number of pairs to celebrate the release of Graduation. The Graduation 180s are veritable grails; there is no definite answer to the number of pairs in the world, and they have been seen sparingly on foot. Eminem, too, was given the chance to create a limited edition 180, and, with only 8 pairs produced, they now resell for thousands of dollars. In the UK, grime legend Dizzee Rascal was blessed with a 45-pair Air Max 180 Hyperstrike in the ’00s that now fetches a few grand.
While appreciated by collectors and diehard fans of the silhouette, none of the aforementioned collaborations allowed the Air 180 to penetrate the mainstream market. Really, until recently, the 180’s main contribution to Nike’s mainstream cultural capital was the OG colorway: white, pink and blue (better known as “Ultramarine”). That colorway became synonymous with retro Nikes and has applied to different silhouettes and apparel over the years.
Despite the 180’s limited commercial success, Tinker Hatfield was still tasked with developing the Air Max’s lineage. Building on the technological breakthrough of the 180, the goal was to make the unit as big —and as visible— as possible. The follow-up to the Air 180 was originally slated to be called the Air Max 270, because of the 270 degrees of visible air at the heel, but quickly came to be known as the Air Max 93. If the 180 came to be adopted by more lifestyle-conscious customers, the 93 set out to prove that Nike was capable of offering runners the very best in terms of technology and comfort.
Hatfield, along with the rest of the Air Max design team, were inspired by the blown out contour of plastic milk jugs when designing the 93. It seems like an odd place to start when designing a running shoe, but it led the team to consider the possibilities of blow moulding technology used to create the Air units. Thanks to engineer Parry Auger and David Forland, Nike’s Director of Cushioning Innovation, the Air Max 93 boasted a bubble that was 35 percent bigger than ever before. The curved bubble was placed at the heel and the resulting aesthetic was drastically different than the Air Max 93’s predecessors; the shoe was chunky to begin with, but the blown out Air bag exacerbated the look and broke the straight lines that had appeared on the Air 180 and Air Max 90’s heel.
Instead, the 93’s design language was drawn from one of Nike’s newest, but best performing silhouettes: the Huarache cross-trainer. The inspiration is so profound that European sneaker purveyor Size? released an Air Max 93/Huarache pack in 2013. The Huarache had debuted in 1991, and almost immediately became one of the best selling models Nike offered. The Air Max 93 was built around two of the Huarache’s most distinct features: The layered pattern on the toe box and upper and the nylon sock liner. To that end, if the 180 was considered to be cut higher than the Air Max 90 and Air Max 1, the Air Max 93 was a true mid-cut running shoe that aimed to offer added support at the ankle.
Much of the marketing surrounding the launch of the 93 focused on the support and cushioning that the model provided. It was framed as the lifelong runner’s shoe—a shoe that would protect your body from the wear and tear of pounding pavement for decades. Whether intentional or not, the 93 came to represent the amateur jogger; it was a shoe that was perhaps too clunky and heavy for professionals, but was comfortable enough for weekend warriors and boasted state of the art technology. It was also a quintessentially ’90s shoe, from the cut to the launch colorways. The “Dusty Cactus” colorway, featuring menthol hits on a crisp white upper with black accents, is arguably one of the best of the decade.
While hugely influential from a cushioning standpoint—the blow moulding breakthroughs achieved by the 93 eventually paved the way for Air cushioning that moulded to the foot— the Air Max 93 lacked the cultural clout of the Air Max 1, 90, or even the 180. Any crossover appeal was limited to the influence of the blown-out Air unit, reinforcing just how revolutionary the 93 was in terms of technology. Land Rover even used the Air Max 93 in a print advertisement for the Range Rover, juxtaposing the massive SUV against a lonely pair of kicks, with the phrase “Now there’s an air suspension system for every size budget.”
Unlike the 180, which at least carried niche cultural relevance, the 93 quickly faded into obscurity, making way for the next shoe from the Air Max family. The silhouette’s lone moment of relevance in popular sneaker culture came in 2005, with its inclusion in Nike’s History of Air program, that saw the slept-on silhouette release in some seriously limited colorways.
The Air Max 93 would be the last Air Max that Tinker Hatfield would be heavily involved on (he considers the 94 to be “mailed in”) giving way to young designers like Sergio Lozano (Air Max 95 and Air Max 98) and Sean McDowell (Air Max Plus) who would start working on the line. Funnily enough, despite being overlooked by the masses, Hatfield told the late Gary Warnett that the Air Max 93 was one of his personal favorites and “the best actual running shoe” from the Air Max family. It was a shoe only shoe geniuses could love, apparently.
But, there’s something about maximizing the heel Air unit that inspired a certain awe. Despite the advent of Tuned Air in 1998 (seen in the Air Max Plus) and full-length visible Air (seen in the Air Max 360) Nike found itself revisiting the technological legacy of the 180 and the 93 two and a half decades later. 2018’s addition to the Air Max legacy, the Air Max 270, is a synthesis of the two runners from the early ’90s.
The project’s working name was actually the 273—180 plus 93—but you’ll recall that the Air Max 93 was internally referred to as the 270 in its early days, so Nike felt it appropriate to opt for the round number. Like the name suggests, the 270 features a 270-degree bubble at the heel, inspired by the Air Max 93. The legacy of innovation-through-expansion pioneered by the 180 and 93 led Nike to create the tallest Air unit to date for the 270, which stands at 32mm. The bubble itself is also a hybrid of the two early ’90s runners, protruding at the heel while coming in direct contact with the ground, drawing on the 93 and 180 respectively.
Even the launch colorways have their roots in the early ’90s, with the 180’s iconic pink heel carrying over to pink bubble on a handful of the first 270s, while a true “Ultramarine” take is in store for Air Max Day. The 93’s iconic “Dusty Cactus” colorway will also be gracing the 270 on March 26th. It’s all part of Nike celebrating shoes that never got the attention they deserved.
But, what’s really interesting about the Air Max 270 is that, unlike the 180 and 93, it was conceived as a lifestyle shoe rather than a performance runner. In fact, the 270 is the first with a lifestyle Air unit, designed for everyday wear and tear, rather than running. Nike had previously released lifestyle Air shoes —starting with 1987’s Air Safari—but they were always built on cushioning units designed to run with.
Drawing lessons from the success of 2017’s Vapormax —which, despite being designed as a running shoe, was quickly embraced in the fashion world—Nike sent the 270 parading down Astrid Andersen’s Fall/Winter 2018 runway show in London. It’s a move that sits alongside Comme des Garçons’ decision to send its own iteration of the Air Max 180 down its Spring/Summer 2018 runway. So far it’s hard to tell whether the 270 will mimic the Vapormax’s success, or whether its fate will be similar to the two models from which it draws its lineage; if its the latter, perhaps the 270 will also fade into relative obscurity once the initial hype surrounding the shoe passes.
Ultimately, though, the fact that the Air Max 270 even exists is a testament to the importance of the Air 180 and Air Max 93 within Nike. We place so much emphasis on the impact that sneakers have on the cultural landscape that we can sometimes forget that they can be hugely influential without massive sales numbers or typifying a generation. Both the Air 180 and Air Max 93 were a testament to what was possible in terms of Air cushioning and inspired Nike designers to go bigger each year. That eventually led to the creation of full-length visible Air and the Vapormax unit. The 180 and 93 may not have had an indelible impact on popular culture like some other Air Maxes, but they had an impact on Nike’s culture—expanding the heel unit came to symbolize Nike’s ethos to “evolve Air.” While it’s still forging its own path today, the new 270 has already earned its spot as a tribute to the legacy of the early-’90s runners that never got their due.