Some sneaker designs are cult slow-burners, appreciated by the devoted few and loved a lot more down the line. Others, however, were bestsellers that—thanks primarily to a reissue program that won’t let a design die—retain a generational legacy and embody multiple eras instead of a moment in time. Currently the subject of 20th anniversary celebrations, Nike’s Air Max 97 has a convoluted cultural heritage.

A decade after the original Air Max had released, debuting visible air for the first time (and popularising the Nike Air technology that had been around since late 1978), expectations for a running shoe release had been upped considerably. Consumers were used to regular increases in that sole window that matched escalating price points and the Air Max system was accompanied by lower-priced sibling lines like the Air Max Light, Triax and Tailwind, as well as a move into two Air Max flagships a year. Original Air Max lead designer Tinker Hatfield had left the series to focus on other flagship franchises by 1994, leaving new creatives to take the helm. Sergio Lozano’s Air Max 95—the first visible forefoot air shoe—had become a full-fledged phenomenon.

While the final colorways of the 95 arrived in early 1996, the shoe had been air responsible for the biggest sneaker boom in Japan since 1990 and style magazines like The Face had feted the shoe for its pioneering use of lines and neon hits. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the Air Max 96 simply never altered the industry like its predecessor. As the 96’s ads ran, that more conventional Air Max design language was drowned out by insatiable demand and rocketing prices for the previous edition.

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