What is Foamposite? The Foamposite Sneaker History
What is Foamposite? The Foamposite Sneaker History
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date April 9, 2020
In the mid-’90s, while Nike basketball and its roster of All-Stars were dominating on the court and in sneaker sales, the Swoosh wasn’t content with simply resting on its laurels. The company that created the revolutionary Air unit and continuously pushed the limits of sneaker innovation for one Michael Jordan, was ready to raise the bar once again. Nike’s Advanced Product Engineering group, led by Eric Avar, sought out to create the next breakthrough in sneaker technology. Avar knew exactly what he was looking for–a sneaker that molded perfectly to your foot. “There was this notion of what if you literally just dipped your foot in this liquid bath of material and it just sucked around your foot?” He wondered. “And what if you could go play basketball in that?” After years of research and development, Nike was ready to answer all of Avar’s questions and introduced its breakthrough technology to the world in 1997. The new technology was dubbed “Foamposite”–a polyurethane liquid that is heated and molded to create a glove-like fit on a shoe–and it was unlike anything the sneaker world had ever seen.
The entire process from conception to release took about four years and there was no shortage of roadblocks. Once Avar and the A.P.E. team knew what they were looking for, there was a real fear that what they wanted couldn’t be created. At the time, most sneakers were constructed through some combination of suede, nubuck, leather and rubber compounds. No one had ever molded an entire upper, in one piece, through this process before. The A.P.E. team faced a lot of pushback–everyone from fellow designers at Nike to manufacturers in China thought this goal was nothing more than a pipe dream. They sought out companies from all around the world who might help with this fool’s errand, and found an unlikely ally in Korean car manufacturer Daewoo.
Daewoo Group opened its doors in 1967 and was based in South Korea. The company operated several major corporations under its umbrella, producing cars, electronics, buses and shipping containers, as well as operating telecommunications and building highways. At one point in time it was the second-largest conglomerate in South Korea behind the Hyundai Group, before closing its doors for good in 1999. Believe it or not, they were the ones who solved the puzzle and were able to create the Foamposite mold.
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What is Foamposite?
Foamposite as we know it starts as polyurethane liquid and is first poured into the mold (a mold which reportedly cost $750,000 to purchase). It is then heated between 130 and 175 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the upper was constructed, it had to be attached to a supportive and strong midsole. In order for the molded upper to stay attached and not come apart on the basketball court, it needed to be far stronger (five times more) than traditional glue and stitching. While the sneaker is objectively bulky–especially now in an era when performance basketball sneakers are far sleeker—relying on more aerodynamic, cutting-edge technologies—the Foamposite was actually very advanced for its era, in that the shoe was intended to mold itself to the foot and ultimately fit like a glove.
Once Nike perfected the technology and drew up the designs, the plan was for Foamposite technology to find its way into two basketball sneakers: the Air Foamposite One and the Air Foamposite Pro. The Air Foamposite Pro featured a jeweled Swoosh on the side to set it apart from the Foamposite One, which was a blank canvas of sorts, showcasing the new wavy upper. The Foamposite One was originally designed with Scottie Pippen in mind, until it caught the eye of another Nike star, Penny Hardaway.
It may be hard to fathom now if you weren’t around for it, but there was a time when Penny Hardaway was the hottest Nike athlete not named Michael Jordan. Hardaway was a star guard for the Orlando Magic who helped guide the team, along with a young Shaquille O’Neal, to the 1995 NBA Finals. Hardaway was tall and smooth, a skilled passer and scorer, who found himself starting alongside Jordan in All-Star Games for a stretch in the ’90s. His Air Penny signature sneaker line was a hit, and his commercials featuring “Lil’ Penny” (his hilarious puppet sidekick voiced by Chris Rock) were some of the funniest commercials of the era.
During a seasonal meeting with Hardaway and the product team, where they discussed the next steps in his line, Avar brought a bag full of sample shoes to see if anything caught the All-Star’s eye. Hardaway had passed on everything the team presented to him and Avar was left with one sneaker in his bag, the Air Foamposite One. Pushback against the Foamposite technology was strong and he was reluctant—even embarrassed—to show the new sneaker to Hardaway. He finally relented and Hardaway was immediately spellbound. “I almost hesitated to take it out, but I did and he grabbed it, and just goes, ‘What is this?!’” Avar recalled. “I said it’s this concept we’re working on. He just stopped me right there, and said ‘That’s it. I want that to be my next shoe.’”
Nike’s futuristic Foamposite technology faced obstacles at every turn, but finally, the Air Foamposite One was set to be the next signature sneaker for one of the brand’s biggest stars. Nike took a royal blue molded Foamposite upper and attached it to a sole, which featured a carbon fiber plate and full-length Zoom Air cushioning that was double-stacked at the heel. The sneaker lacked any outlandish branding, only a small Nike logo on the heel and a mini Swoosh along the side, and Hardaway’s “1 Cent” logo on the tongue capped it off. The “Royal” Foamposite One released in 1997 and retailed for $180, a steep price for a basketball sneaker at the time. But considering the costs associated with the sneaker’s research, development and production, it was clear to see why the sneaker cost more than the average basketball shoe. The Air Foamposite Pro would also release in 1997, in both a white/black (“Pearl”) colorway and an all-black colorway, and retailed for $170.
Perhaps the most memorable piece of marketing associated with the Air Foamposite One during the time of its release was its inclusion in Nike’s iconic series of phone ads. The print ads featured classic Nike sneakers, a small Swoosh and a phone number, which you could call and hear a message. Some of the sneakers featured in the phone ad series during that time were the “Concord” Jordan XIs, Air Max 95s, Air Griffey Max I and the Air Foamposite Ones.
On March 23, 1997, the Air Foamposite One debuted on the hardwood, but it wasn’t on the feet of it’s signature athlete, Penny Hardaway. In fact, Mike Bibby, who was then a star guard at the University of Arizona, was the first to wear them in a game. He would go on to wear them throughout Arizona’s run to the 1997 NCAA Championship. Hardaway, who was still wearing his Air Penny IIs when Bibby broke his pair of Foamposites out, finally debuted his first pair later in the season. He wore the Air Foamposite One during the first round of the 1997 NBA Playoffs, where he averaged 31 points and six rebounds per game in a first round loss to the Miami Heat. (Ironically, it was Tim Duncan–not Hardaway–who became the first player to wear Foamposites in an All-Star Game, as “The Big Fundamental” rocked the “Pearl” Foamposite Pro during the 1998 festivities in New York City.)
In terms of sales, the original Air Foamposite One didn’t exactly set the world on fire. There were a few things working against its success. One key factor was its price. At $180, it was simply too expensive to really find mass market appeal in the mid-’90s. The Jordan XIII (which also released in 1997) retailed for $150, and that came with the Jordan legacy behind it.
The Air Foamposite One’s design was futuristic and not everyone was so quick to embrace it. A lot of people viewed the shoe as ugly, and the shiny blue upper didn’t do a lot to dismiss those concerns. The NBA apparently wasn’t on board with the Air Foamposite One either, as the league did not approve of the shoe, as there wasn’t enough black in it to match the Orlando Magic uniform. To combat this, Hardaway reportedly colored part of the Foamposite upper in with black Sharpie. Penny’s Sharpie colored Foamposite One was merely a part of sneaker lore until Nike actually released an official “Sharpie” colorway in 2015.
Despite the original trepidation surrounding its production and release, Nike pushed ahead and continued to evolve the Foamposite technology. Much like the Air unit a decade earlier, Foamposite would begin to find its technology in new Nike basketball sneakers over the years, with the company tweaking its size, color and design with each new shoe. Hardaway’s next signature sneaker, the Air Penny III (1997) featured Foamposite technology, as did the Total Air Foamposite Max (1998), Air Flightposite (1999), Air Flightposite II (2000) and many more over the ensuing decades. Foamposite technology even found its way into the LeBron line many years later, in both the Zoom LeBron IV and LeBron XI models.
“They know how important Foamposite was to my shoes,” Hardaway once said in an interview with Sole Collector about the inclusion of Foamposite technology in LeBron’s signature line. “It’s a huge compliment and an honor to have those guys want that in their shoes.”
After 1997, Nike held off on releasing Foamposite One and Foamposite Pro colorways and retros. While the Foamposite technology would turn out to be a massive score for Nike, the public’s perception of the original Foamposite sneakers were still very mixed. Nike even went so far as to destroy the original molds, thinking there wouldn’t be any need for more releases.
However, in 2001, the Foamposite Pro retroed for the first time, releasing seven new colorways over the next five years. Finally, in 2007, during the 10-year anniversary of its original release, the Foamposite One retroed in four colorways, including the original “Royal” version worn by Hardaway. Even still, with a lot of time in between releases, many of the shoes saw mediocre sales. The “Royal” pair did well, thanks in large part to an uptick in Hardaway-inspired nostalgia, but others could be found in sales and on clearance racks.
Foamposites began to see a resurgence as the 2000s wound down and Nike released new colorways of the shoe. After the One’s initial retro run in 2007 (and another in 2008), Nike designed a lot of fresh original colorways in the following years, some of which served as a needed breath of fresh air for the line. The “Eggplant” Foamposite One released in 2009 to great fanfare. 2010 was another banner year for Foamposites, as we saw the release of the “Copper” Foamposite One and “Cough Drop” Foamposite One, as well as re-releases of the “Eggplant” and “Pearl” Foamposite Pros models once again.
As the new decade turned over, Nike began to truly think outside the box in terms of designs and colors, which would ultimately take the Foamposite One to the next level. The ensuing decade brought us the “Pewter” Foamposite One (2011), “Shooting Stars” Foamposite One (2012), “Stealth” Foamposite One (2012), “Weatherman” Foamposite One (2013), “Safari” Foamposite One (2013), “Spider-Man” Foamposite Pro (2014), “Yeezy” Foamposite Pro (2014), “Tianjin” Foamposite One (2015) and the aforementioned “Sharpie” Foamposite Ones, along with dozens of others, to varying degrees of success. The most important release of that era was unequivocally the “Galaxy” Foamposite One, which dropped in 2012. The sneaker featured a starry deep space graphic wrapped around the Foam upper and its release caused chaos. Someone even went so far as to offer their car in a trade just to get their hands on a pair.
Around this time is really when the Foamposite One began to gain some traction in the streetwear community and among sneaker collectors. Soon, collaborations began to pop up featuring the Foamposite One as hype hit a fever pitch. A limited edition “Sole Collector” Foamposite One dropped in 2011 as a part of a Penny Hardaway signature pack. The next year, Nike released a limited run of “ParaNorman” Foamposites, in conjunction with the animated film of the same name. Featuring a smoky graphic and Electric Green accents, it was released as part of a fun social media giveaway that encouraged fans to submit their “weirdest” childhood photo. “Weird Wins” was embroidered on the heel tabs, as was a silhouette of the movie’s main character. It remains one of the most sought after Foamposites of all time.
Two years later, streetwear giant Supreme took on the Foamposite for arguably its most audacious Nike collaboration to date. Two colorways of the Supreme Foamposites released (in a red and a black colorway, respectively) each featuring golden baroque designs, like something out of the Versace mansion or the cover of Watch The Throne. The Supreme Foamposites were released as a celebration of Supreme’s 20th Anniversary alongside matching basketball shorts and jerseys. The excitement surrounding its release was so insane that the NYPD forced Supreme to only sell the shoes on its website and cancel the in-store release.
Despite now being 23 years removed from its initial release, and its place within fashion and sports history secure, a familiar debate among sneakerheads rages on: are the Air Foamposite Ones ugly? It depends on who you ask. Method Man hates them and won’t go near them. Whoopi Goldberg loves her pair. Rapper Jim Jones loves them too, but understands why some people haven’t jumped on the bandwagon.
“Foams is not the easiest to style,” he said in a 2017 interview with GQ. “You can’t just put Foams on with any pair of jeans. They don’t look good with those slim jeans. You gotta have them a little baggy. Foams is a funny shoe. You gotta know how to finesse that.”
One place where Foamposites have been passionately embraced is in the Maryland and Washington D.C. area, as “the DMV” (aka: D.C., Maryland and Virginia) has long been the unofficial home of Foams. The shoe’s rugged construction and bold exterior remain a fan favorite today.
Superstar rapper and sneaker connoisseur Wale is an outspoken fan of the Foamposites. “It feels like it’s indestructible,” he once said in an interview with Sneaker Watch. A D.C. native (which he declared “Foamposite Land”), Wale has been photographed in Foamposites more times than you can count.
He has also shouted out the shoes on a number of occasions throughout the years, including songs like “The Power” from his acclaimed More About Nothing mixtape. “Foamposite Max like I’m out of Wake Forest,” he rapped, a nod to noted Foamposite Pro and Max wearer, Tim Duncan. But his best Foamposite-inspired line is still from his track “Double M Genius”, off his album Ambition: “Foamposites, if you ain’t got ‘em then you penny loafin’!”
To this day, the Air Foamposite One and its revolutionary technology remains an integral piece of sneaker history, even if it isn’t for everyone.
“It was a crazy shoe,” Hardaway once reflected in an interview with sportswear outfitter Eastbay. “And I had never seen anything like it in my life.”