Nike's Problem Child: A History of the Air Max 98
Nike's Problem Child: A History of the Air Max 98
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date March 01, 2018
When it comes to Nike’s Air Max family, not all shoes are created equal. Some, like the Air Max 1 and Air Max 95, became instantly iconic—spurred by tremendous design and commercial success. Others, like the Air Max 97, became popular in certain circles and were eventually adopted by the masses years later. The Air Max 98, though, broke from the rest of the family not only because it eschewed the sleek designs of its predecessors, but because Nike largely left it untouched in the years following the original release.
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The Air Max 98 was designed by Sergio Lozano, a Nike designer revered in footwear circles for his work on the Air Max 95. Like virtually every Nike designer who has had a lasting impact on the company, Lozano didn’t set out to design sneakers—rather, he studied industrial design at Cal State and applied for a job at Nike because he needed to gain interview experience. After meeting Mark Parker, Tinker Hatfield and Sandy Bodecker, he was a offered a job and, reluctantly, accepted it. Lozano’s early days at Nike were spent working on the brand’s tennis and training silhouettes, before he eventually graduated to the legendary ACG program. By 1994, however, Nike’s running portfolio was lagging behind the rapidly emerging basketball division, and Lozano was approached to develop a new runner. The result was the Air Max 95, a shoe that redefined sneakers for years to come.
The most immediate beneficiary of the 95’s impact was Lozano’s next runner: the Air Max 98. It was a shoe that built on what Lozano saw as the Air Max 95’s strengths and that addressed the supposed shortcomings of the now iconic silhouette. A synthesis of Lozano’s work at Nike (up to that point at least) the 98 also drew on Lozano’s experience within the ACG program—from the shoe’s chunky silhouette, to the complex lacing system, to the outdoor-inspired launch colorways.
The Air Max 98 had the deck stacked against it from the beginning, with expectations at an all-time high following the release of the Air Max 95 and Air Max 97. Maybe that’s why the shoe represented such a divergence from the path tread by its Air Max predecessors—the only way to compete with the 95 and 97 was to offer something that was decidedly unlike either of them. Sure, the Air Max 98 featured some design elements from previous iterations of the Air Max; the full-length visible Air bed first seen on the Air Max 97 made an appearance for the second year in a row (something made possible by bringing visible air to the forefoot on Lozano’s Air Max 95). The outsole used to protect that visible Air bed was also drawn from the 98’s predecessor. The Air Max 98 also featured the layering that made its debut on the Air Max 95, and which reappeared on the Air Max 97. The aesthetic was inspired by erosion that mimicked, in Lozano’s words, “striations very similar to what you see on the walls of the Grand Canyon. Layer after layer after layer that are slowly revealed over time.”
Apart from that, though, the Air Max 98 marked a drastic shift for Nike and for the Air Max family. The shoe was bulky, a titanic shift from the sleek silhouettes that defined the Air Max 97 and Air Max 1—even the Air Max 95, chunky when compared to the 1, 90 and 97, had a streamlined simplicity to it. The front-to-back ribbing from the 95 and 97 were replaced with vertically-ribbed sidewalls, making the shoe seem even bigger, while the mix of materials and colors removed any semblance of grace and discreteness. The shoe’s original colorway—white, varsity red and blue—was popular and was aptly named “Gundam”, a reference to both the anime series of the same name and its signature Mobile Suit—the RX-78-2. The Air Max 98 was a loud shoe and wasn’t trying to fool anybody. To that end, if Lozano initially received pushback at Nike HQ for minimal Swoosh branding on the Air Max 95, he atoned for it with the Air Max 98, a shoe that arguably stands as the greatest feat of tasteful over-branding in sneaker history. Swooshes, “AIR” and Air Max branding abound, it’s all seemingly randomly sewn onto the shoe…but it works.
What’s amazing, is that, in 1998, the shoe was a flop. Not only did the shoe represent a drastic shift aesthetically from the “Silver Bullet” that was the Air Max 97, but it shot straight to the top of Nike’s price list, coming in at a cool $150. For reference, the Air Max 95 was priced at $110 when it released. A bulky shoe that retailed for $150 ($225 in today’s dollars) didn’t sit well with consumers back then, which led to Air Max 98 underperforming and sitting on shelves across the United States and Europe. Instead of gravitating to the 98, customers picked up new color combinations of the Air Max 95. Further hampering the 98’s growth, Nike rolled out a number of new Air Max silhouettes that that were warmly received across different market segments. In fact, 1998 may have been one of the franchise’s best years in retrospect, despite the namesake 98 being a relative flop. On top of sitting next to the 97 and 95, the 98 also had to contend with the Air Max Plus, the Air Max Tailwind III, and a redesign of the Air Max Triax. The Air Max Plus, Nike’s premier purveyor of “Tuned Air” at that point, stole the most shine from the 98 and became Nike’s most popular streetwear model in the UK and across Europe. With its immediate success, and the adulation it has received over the years, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the Air Max Plus, which debuted in 1998, was Nike’s signature model for the year, instead of Lozano’s chunkier, outdoor-inspired silhouette.
Discouraged, and eyeing a shift towards “Tuned Air”, Nike let the Air Max 98 peter out, relegating the silhouette to the brand’s archives. Outside of the original releases, the Air Max 98 only saw the light of day for retailer-exclusives, like UK-hotspot JD Sports’ release at the turn of the millennium. The 15-year anniversary even crept by without the original “Gundam” reappearing, much to the chagrin of die-hard Air Max fans. Instead of the varsity red, blue and white colorway that punctuated 1998, Air Max Day 2014 was marked with the re-release of another OG colorway, albeit a less popular alternative: white, team orange, black and metallic silver. A handful of other colorways followed suit throughout the year—bought into tepidly by retailers—that failed to make a mark on the global scene. Given the shoe’s poor showing—particularly in North America—the Air Max 98 never really figured in contemporary pop culture, with the exception of one appearance on Ross Geller’s feet in an episode of Friends.
Then, in 2016, rumours began to circulate online that the troubled silhouette would be tapped by Supreme for their upcoming collaboration with Nike. While some were reticent to accept that the 98 would be making a return, it did make perfect sense for Supreme, who have, over the years, used much-maligned Nike silhouettes like the Air Force 2 and the obscure Air Humara as collaborative canvases. In April, 2016, the co-branded Air Max 98 officially appeared—with black, red, navy and cream takes on the chunky shoe, covered in patent leather or snakeskin along the sidewall and toe cap. The execution alone pushed sneakerheads to lust for a shoe they had long forgotten, with the hype warranting an online-exclusive release to minimize lineup headaches. Shortly after the release sold out, sneaker heads began wondering when the Air Max 98 was set for a full-fledge return to the marketplace.
The hype of the Supreme release, coupled with the emerging trend of chunky, awkward dad shoes, made for a confluence of circumstances that set the stage perfectly for the Air Max 98’s comeback. And, with the shoe’s 20th anniversary, 2018, right around the corner, all signs pointed to a heroic return for the long-overlooked silhouette. The aforementioned “Gundam” colorway, considered by most to be the best Air Max 98 to release, is confirmed for a re-release in early 2018—possibly for Air Max Day. More colorways are sure to follow suit, assuming the re-releases of the Air Max 97 and 95 have set the blueprint—as they did in the ‘90s—for the 98.
In many respects, the Air Max 98 was ahead of its time. Its relevance today owes to the nostalgia factor and older sneakerheads wanting vintage Nike, to the popularity of chunky sneakers and to the rise of over-branding and logomania in today’s fashion scene. With fashion powerhouses like Balenciaga and Acne dabbling in the sneaker game and others indirectly drawing heavily from Nike’s archives, it’s not surprising to see an underrated shoe like the Air Max 98 make a triumphant return. It’s a testament to how fickle and ever-changing fashion can be that a shoe that dominated sale shelves in the late ’90s is poised to be one of the most popular of 2018.