Before writer, sneaker scholar and storyteller Gary Warnett passed away this September, he appeared on an episode of Highsnobiety’s Conversations podcast in March to discuss the history of the Air Max.

Designed by Tinker Hatfield, the Air Max 1 made its debut on March 26, 1987. Hatfield was inspired by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and showed off the Air bubble in the rear of the shoe’s sole. In the three decades since, the Air Max sneaker model has continued to evolve.

“The Air Max has this ecosystem where everyone has their favorite out of the series,” Warnett said on the podcast, listing the Air Max 95 as his favorite shoe ever alongside the adidas Stan Smith.

In 2014, Nike started its Air Max Day campaign to celebrate the release of the original Air Max. This year—2017—marked the 30th anniversary of the Air Max 1 release. It was a celebration of the past but also an introduction of the next generation of the Air Max sneaker, as Nike debuted the VaporMax model on Air Max Day.

In a year of retro releases and collaborations, the Air Max has been at the center of it all. The atmos x Nike Air Max 1 “Elephant Print” retro release was a highlight in March. The original “Silver Bullet” colorway of the Air Max 97, one of the most memorable colorways of the silhouette, also received a re-release that was received well.

Throughout this year, collaborations of the Air Max 97 with Los Angeles premium sneaker boutique Undefeated, English grime artist Skepta and cultural icon and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo generated plenty of buzz. The Air Max 90 and Air Max 97 were also deconstructed as part of Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten” collection.

Pete Gibaldi, host of The Premium Pete Show and an Air Max enthusiast since forever, was particularly impressed with Sean Wotherspoon’s Air Max 97/1 hybrid, which won the “Vote Forward” contest in which Nike tapped 12 creators from around the globe to work with their design team on reimagining the future of the future of Air Max.

“That shoe is fucking sexy,” Gibaldi told Dry Clean Only. Inspired by vintage Nike hats and 80s sportswear, Wotherspoon—who opened the burgeoning vintage clothing store Round Two with Chris Russow and Luke Fracher in 2013—combined a corduroy Air Max 97 upper with an Air Max 1 sole with removable velour insoles and an exclusive “have a NIKE day” graphic for his shoe design. “The kid knows vintage,” Gibaldi said. “It breathes life into the culture because he’s one of us.”

Collaborations aside, the return of the Nike Air Max 1 OG “Anniversary” in its classic white, red and grey colorway was also an improvement from its previous retro models. On the aforementioned podcast, Warnett pointed out the quality of the upper and the finish of the midsole as noticeable upgrades from past releases. The general shape of the toe box also came close to replicating the original Air Max 1.

Chris Danforth, sneaker editor at Highsnobiety, agrees. “Everyone was talking about the toe box on the Air Max 1,” Danforth told Dry Clean Only. “For a lot of the previous retros, the toe box was widely criticized because the shape wasn’t faithful to the original. Over time, the toe box became bulkier and broader. This year, they actually got it pretty close to the original. The shape is more acute and adds nicely to the overall silhouette.”

This year also signified a move towards the next generation of Air Max models. On Air Max Day, Nike released the VaporMax. By shedding the weight and bulk of a foam layer, the VaporMax’s futuristic design combined a FlyKnit upper with an Air Max unit, creating the lightest and most flexible Air Max model yet.

The VaporMax made its debut at the COMME des GARÇONS Spring/Summer 2017 collection runway show in Paris in late 2016. The laceless model drew plenty of attention, and the rollout strategy impressed Warnett, who spoke about the legacy of the Air Max as a combination of athleticism and avant garde. After all, the history of Air Max advertisements have featured everyone from Michael Johnson to William S. Burroughs.

The translucent VaporMax sole unit paved the way for many innovative colorways. The “University Red” and “Pure Platinum” colorways were an instant hit. The “Be True” VaporMax with its multi-colored outsole featuring the colors of the gay pride flag was progressive in both design and purpose. The VaporMax also paid homage to its predecessors with the release of the “Heritage Pack” in November.

Danforth compares it to the release of the Nike Flyknit Trainer in 2012. “There was this feeling where you knew something new and exciting was coming, and you wanted to have one of the first pairs,” Danforth said.

With the laceless model and various NIKEiD options, the possibilities for the VaporMax appear to be endless. At ComplexCon, Gibaldi named it his favorite sneaker this year. “I like the design,” Gibaldi said. “It’s definitely something that has a lifespan.”

The Air Max models have always been popular in Europe—spawning overseas exclusives in the past including the Air Max BW “Saint Germain” and the Air Max 1 “Patta.” It has also maintained a cultural appeal in North America. Not long ago, Ghostface Killah was referencing hitting the racks for a pair of bright phat yellow Air Max in “Apollo Kids” and Big Pun appeared in an iconic photo wearing the Air Max 95.

In 2017, Nike blended the old with the new. The classic Air Max models remain coveted, while the VaporMax helped spin things forward. 2018 promises to be another strong year combining the past and the future for the Air Max. The Air Max 98 “Gundam” is expected to release early next year. Wotherspoon’s Air Max 97/1 -- after a hiccup this year -- will finally release on Air Max Day 2018. New VaporMax colorways will continue to push the boundaries of the model.

In an era where everyone seems to just want the next hype shoe that will get them the highest return in the resale market, there is still a large part of the sneaker community that appreciates the wondrous concept of walking on air, 30 years after the release of the Air Max 1.

“We used to stick pencils and pens in our air bubbles just to see if there was really air,” Gibaldi said. “There’s something special to be able to walk on air. I think we’re in the day in age where there’s something to be said about being comfortable and looking dope at the same time. I think that’s the key with the VaporMax. It looks dope and feels comfortable.” As long as those values are at the forefront of the Air Max movement, the future looks poised for far more than another 30 years of footwear dominance.

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Tags: air-max-97, air-max, air-max-1, vapormax, sneakers, nike