Third Time's the Charm: A History of the Air Max 90
Third Time's the Charm: A History of the Air Max 90
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date October 8, 2019
In 1987, Nike—along with one of its up-and-coming designers, Tinker Hatfield—made a huge breakthrough in both sneaker technology and design with the creation of the Air Max 1. Inspired by the Centre Georges Pompidou, a multicultural complex in Paris which featured the inner-workings of the building—plumbing, electric, etc—on the outside in a variety of colors, Hatfield took those design cues back with him to Oregon. The result was the first sneaker to ever have an exposed Air bubble, and with it began a revolution in running sneakers and footwear design.
With a certified hit on Hatfield’s hands, the Air Max line was born, and with that came the pressure and consistency to build on and improve upon its look, tweaking the Air technology for enhanced performance and evolving the design for renewed excitement year after year. Hatfield was once again the man for the job.
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Nike had experimented with a walking shoe in 1988 (Nike Air Walker Max) and re-mixed the Air Max 1 into the Air Max Light in 1989. The Air Max Light shed some of that Air Max 1 fat by replacing polyurethane with Phylon technology. An improved mesh on the toe box helped runner’s breathability and thermoplastic straps kept the sneaker stable. However, the Air Max 1’s true spiritual follow-up came the following year with the Air Max 90, then-named the Air Max III, which became one of the most successful Air Max sneakers in Nike history.
At this point in the Air Max line, Hatfield was essentially tasked with duplicating what he had done with the Air Jordan line when he took over as head designer on the Jordan III: Take a successful yet nascent sneaker line and evolve it in terms of function and style. Every Air Jordan release with Hatfield at the helm would introduce exotic new materials, increased performance and design tweaks never before seen on a performance basketball shoe. Looking back now at a fully realized Air Jordan line, you can clearly see that the Jordan I obviously laid the groundwork, but the line truly hit its stride as a yearly mainstay with the Jordan III. The same thing happened with the Air Max line.
Where the Air Max 1 exposed the air unit and provided a chance for you to peak inside the inner-workings of a sneaker, the Air Max 90 highlighted an enhanced Air bag with a bold infrared window, effectively making them impossible to miss. While the Air Max 1 stuck with primary red and blue colorways for its original drops, the Air Max 90 played to the sensibilities of the time with its original “Infrared” colorway. The very ’90s neon red/pink concoction—better known as, you guessed it, “Infrared”—was as bold as the new Air approach and was offset by black, white and grey throughout the shoe.
The 90 featured a Duromesh upper and an improved take on the thermoplastic straps originally introduced on the Air Max Light. The bold design lines give off the impression of speed and motion. All these design improvements helped make the Air Max 90 one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous sneakers of the ’90s.
At a basic level, you can trace the evolution of the Air Max line by the size of the Air unit. From the Air Max 1 to 2019’s Air Max 720, the Air unit expands, all in an effort to make life easier for a runner. But that design tweak is only one part—albeit an important one—of what makes the Air Max line so special. From the design breakthroughs of futuristic sneakers like the Air Max 95 and 97 to the technological advances in models like the Air Max 93 or the Vapormax, the Air Max line has become one of the most important and forward-thinking sneaker lines of all time. And while it started with the Air Max 1, it took the necessary next step with the Air Max 90.
President George H.W. Bush had his own pair of Air Max 90s that he would wear on regular runs after the Gulf War. The sneaker featured a blue, white and grey design with “Air Pres” emblazoned on the sides and on the tongue.
As other colorways released and the Air Max line continued to evolve over the ensuing decade, the original Air Max 90 colorway laid dormant. It wasn’t until 2005 during Nike’s History of Air release that the OG Air Max 90 received a proper retro release, 15 years removed from its debut. A pair released in Australia in 2002, and 2003 saw exclusive Asia and Europe releases of the original 90, but it wasn’t until 2005 that it made its way to the States. The 2005 release did its best to stay true to the original design, however the Air unit is slightly smaller.
In 2006, Nike re-mixed the Air Max 90 with a new Air Max 360 sole for its “One Time Only” Pack. The “One Time Only” Pack took original Air Max 90 designs and paired them with the Air Max 360 air unit that took up the entire length of the shoe. While it was a courageous attempt at merging the old school design with its most modern technology, the shoe was almost universally viewed as a miss.
The Air Max 90 made its return to original form in 2008, 2010 and 2015 with successful retro releases. The retro releases were identical to the original with the exception of a slightly more pink infrared color and the smaller Air unit from the 2005 retro. In 2012, Nike debuted the Air Max 90 Hyperfuse, which received a somewhat surprisingly positive response. While the design remained relatively the same, the infusion of the Hyperfuse technology dramatically altered the material of the shoe, in both its form and its weight. The Hyperfuse technology was originally installed in Nike basketball shoes in 2010 to better deal with standard wear and tear. Nike created a technology that proved to be lighter, more breathable and more resilient for the athlete. The Hyperfuse Air Max 90 was a hit, and Nike later released other colorways of the Air Max 90 Hyperfuse, including the sought-after Independence Day pack.
Hybrid sneakers are generally a terrible idea and amount to nothing more than a money play by a sneaker company trying to fuse together two classic kicks for a few extra dollars. However, when Nike introduced the Air Max 90/1—you guessed it, a fusion of the Air Max 1 and 90—it wasn’t that bad! It ended up being a more luxurious Air Max 1 with an Air Max 90 sole, all in leather and with updated Air Max 90 tooling. It was released in the original red colorway and is said to be one of the most comfortable Air Maxes released in recent memory. With the $140 retail price point (the same as a standard Air Max 1 release) Nike did right by its customers with this hyped hybrid release.
When Virgil Abloh tapped 10 classic Nike silhouettes for his iconic “The Ten” drop, the Air Max 90 was one of them. His original take featured a white and sail look with an icy sole. It featured Abloh’s signature quotation marks motif on the side and deconstructed design, revealing the inner-workings of the Air Max 90 on the outside of the shoe itself. Like every other design from that original drop, it sold out immediately and fetches insane prices on the resale market. He would go on to release two more Air Max 90s, one in a simple black and white colorway, and another in a “desert ore” colorway that is beige all over with a bright orange swoosh.
While the original Air Max 90 might be the most successful and recognizable of all the colorways, Nike has released a ton of colorways over the years, some of which are super-rare grails. There has been the KAWS black and volt colorway (as well as a white and volt colorway), and the “Warhawk” and “Bacon” colorways. There have been collaborations with atmos and Patta. Not to mention the hundreds of generic colorway releases over the years that are extremely popular among Nike heads. You can expect that in 2020, during the 30th anniversary celebration of the Air Max 90, that Nike will have some surprises up its sleeve.
If the long, glowing 32 year history of Nike’s legendary Air Max line ever needed to be abbreviated, with only its most significant moments highlighted, which sneakers would be featured? Obviously, there’s the original, the Air Max 1, the first sneaker to ever feature the visible Air unit. There’s the revolutionary Air Max 95 with its wavy gradient design and double air bags. And without a doubt, sandwiched right in between those two seminal moments of sneaker history, is the Air Max 90, one of the most commercially successful Air Maxes of all time and, without a doubt, one of the most important shoes of the 1990s.