Unbeknownst to anybody at Nike’s Portland headquarters, the future of Air was being dreamt up by a young designer on a beach in Florida in 1997. Today, Sean McDowell is considered a legendary designer at Nike; he served as creative director for Nike’s 2008 Olympic products, oversaw the brand’s running division during the Free Run and Lunar era and has recently been tasked with reviving Converse, a Nike subsidiary. McDowell’s greatest contribution though, may be his first, which he was perfecting before he was even a Nike employee. The shoe in question, the Air Max Plus, revolutionized Nike’s ethos vis-a-vis the Air Max family and spawned a veritable cultural icon.

McDowell was hired by Nike in 1997 and was almost immediately assigned to work on a project with the brand’s most important retailer, Foot Locker. The task at hand wasn’t small: McDowell was to create a new running shoe that harnessed Tuned Air, a breakthrough in Nike’s air cushioning technology. For McDowell, it was baptism by fire… Foot Locker had rejected more than a dozen proposals from established Nike designers by the time he was brought on.

But McDowell had something the designers before him didn’t: A sketch book filled with Floridian sunsets and wind-bent palm trees. Before starting at Nike, McDowell had spent time in Florida, where he “hung out on the beaches and just thought and sketched,” he recalled, adding that “it was one of [his] most creative times.” The young designer looked at the palm trees bending in the wind and, like any footwear designer, thought they would provide great stability for one’s foot and, “make a [great] quarter panel, like you could hold your foot down with those palm trees.”

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