Seduced by "Le Silver": A History of the Air Max 97
Seduced by "Le Silver": A History of the Air Max 97
- Words Gary Warnett
- Date September 7, 2017
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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When a young designer and former footballer called Christian Tresser joined Nike around 1996 after a stint at Reebok—where he defined the company’s soccer boot offerings—was put to work, it resulted in several sketches and concepts for the running category. Tresser would lead the Air Max project just after being handed the Zoom Spiridon assignment and both would retain a certain stylistic similarity despite their different performance purposes.
In an interview for Lodovico Pignatti Morano’s definitive Air Max 97 history Le Silver, Tresser reflects on that high-pressure mission, “When the 97 arrived on my desk, it had already been through two designers before me; the message I was given was, ‘This shoe is going to make your career. Don’t blow it.’”
With that warning in mind, he worked hard on the shoe—having to work around a brand new ‘Total Air’ iteration of the visible air unit (samples called it the ‘Air Total Max III’ with the 95 and 96 being chapters I and II respectively) that spanned the length of the entire midsole, that upper would need to match the bold tooling it would sit on. As an ardent mountain biker, hi-tech performance bikes, progressive materials and even ripples of water in puddles all informed the sleek, metallic silhouette he sketched. Silver bullet trains? That was some Nike storytelling that appeared a lot later. While some early ‘Air Total Max’ sketches from 1996 show some unusual pods akin to those on some fast-paced Jason Kidd Flight hoops shoes and PSI air pressure callouts, they were excised. After all, the shoe was already ostentatious without the extra embellishments. After being pitched to now Nike, Inc. CEO Mark Parker (then between his roles as VP of consumer product marketing and GM of global footwear) and the team, this shiny vision of performance running was green lit.
Looking at the burgeoning club culture of the time, excessive spending and raps about big living from around the release of the shoe in fall 1997 (the deeply dadcore shoe recently reissued as the Air Max 96 II Ultra) was, confusingly, the first Air Max 97 that year), it was a timely drop. Both men and women’s $150 shoe’s launch makeups were silver, expanding on the much discussed gold sprint spikes sprinter Michael Johnson had worn in Atlanta the previous summer and pre-empting a new kind of flashy speed-themed soccer boots like the Mercurial that Nike would use to become a real force in the marketplace during the next World Cup (Tresser had worked on the Mercurial’s predecessor, the Air Zoom GX, which also shares DNA with the 97 and Spiridon). This time, not even a reissue of the Air Max 95 the same year could drown out the new addition.
Promoted with ads that featured veteran Nike endorsement Carl Lewis (who wore the shoe for an event commemorating his retirement from professional sports) as well as Michael Johnson, given the breadth of the brand’s offerings, it was clear that fashion forward audiences were gravitating to flagship Air Max models over hardcore runners. An expanded 1997 reprint of the coveted Boon Extra Japanese Air Max bible made the 97 its cover star.
While the Air Max 97 was only on the market for a few seasons before being superseded by the first of two Air Max 98s (the one recently reworked by Supreme), its impact was significant. Italy in particular would fall head over heels in love with the shoe—Le Silver incorporates several, brilliantly contradictory accounts of how and why. A national affinity for futurist design was a possible underlying explanation to that appeal, but a number of tribes embraced it.
Despite a supposedly slow start when they arrived at retailers like Foot Locker, that popularity would erupt. Rome’s graffiti crews seeing the connection between those lines of 3M to match their North Face gear appreciated how they seemed to explode when the camera flashed posed in front of freshly painted pieces. Clubland wanted to shine too. But it was the shoe styled on the catwalk in an early 1998 Armani show and on a Dolce & Gabbana catwalk later that year that is reputed to have turned them into something of an Italian phenomenon (which Prada’s 2012 Levitate design—full visible cushioning on a dress shoe seemed to nod too), down to the slew of metallic, sleek designer imitations that followed.
The 97 was feted in fashion circles elsewhere too. As sports footwear took a bold, limitless approach with curiosities like Reebok’s Pump Fury and the Nike Air Footscape and Rift, unorthodox became something of a style currency. In the UK, Maharishi pants, Helmut Lang, Hysteric Glamour and an import runner or trail shoe was a key “end of the century, stagger out whatever member’s club was hot” combination. Vogue profiled the new breed of Nike shoe in 1998, complete with a photo of Garbage vocalist Shirley Manson in her silvers. Alexander McQueen, then heading up Givenchy, was interviewed in a none-more-’97 combination of selvedge denim, vast turn-ups and that year’s Air Max offering.
At another undeniably influential side of pop culture, “Sporty Spice” Mel C of the Spice Girls shifted plenty of pairs through her patronage of big bubbles and tracksuits. Whether it cracked a mass male audience in some countries like it did elsewhere in Italy is debatable. Revisionist history might have the shoe as a street-level favourite in the UK, but despite its strong sales, 1998’s introduction of the Air Max Plus (aka the “TN”) in Foot Lockers nationwide was a far bigger deal.
Realising the demand for their recent deletions and old favorites, Nike had launched lines like its Sport Classic line (abbreviated to SC) under its LE Limited Edition team, tapping into an appetite of retros that wasn’t confined to pre-1980 staples. The first instance of a box label calling the shoe by the name it’s known instead of a simple’ Air Max’ was a 1998-made “reissue” that read Air Max ’97 SC. That in itself pitted new chapters in the series against its older siblings, but environmental concerns would stall things even more.
When the first Air Max 98 had the same air unit, it became apparent that it might be hanging around a little longer. Nike developers were working hard at the time, in the light of revelations regarding potentially damaging sulfur hexafluoride leaks and the greenhouse effect, the brand began working on new solutions to be a cleaner brand by 2000, eventually settling on nitrogen filled units. There was a slight problem though—that would take another eight years to action. Alongside the Foot Locker affiliated Tuned Air which was expanded for some late 1990s and early 2000s cult favorites, a Tube Air replacement technology introduced in 2001, was poorly received. When the Air Max 2003 and 2004 arrived, diehard fans were disappointed to see the same Total Air dosage in the sole as the 97. It would be the late 2005 debut of the Air Max 360 that brought things back up to date with the new, bigger nitrogen unit.
In late 1999, the gold variation of the 97 was released, with several new makeups following post-millennium. It’s notable that, for many, the shoe was something to replace and keep clean rather than covet and collect like, say, the 95 which, by that point had a Niketalk collector community behind it trading Euro, co.jp and US exclusives. As the Italian passion for ‘Le Silver’ began to tail off towards the mid 2000s, the model, having been reissued a handful of times by that point began to be altered—eagle-eyed fans can see a missing seam on the upper construction, changes to the size of that heel area and increased rear taping. Many, to be fair, don’t care.
Air Max 97 collaborations were, initially, thin on the ground. It would be San Francisco’s True, founded by Michael Brown in 1996, who took the silhouette into a different place when they partnered with Nike. Their 2004 ACG-style premium reinterpretation explored the potential that panelling hinted at, downplaying the gleaming, shining stuff and looking very mature indeed. When it came to celebrations and conceptual packs and colorways, like early 2006’s expansive Powerwall Air Max collection, the 97 sold but wasn’t as discussed (connoisseurs creating their own editions on NIKEiD got the last laugh though). A quiet tenth anniversary was commemorated with special editions sold in spots like London’s NikeTown, where high Italian footfall was anticipated. Even a 2010 made-in-Italy Lux edition, limited to 1,695, didn’t cause queues.
Somewhere, between the early 2013 reissue of the silvers and the present day, the hype snowballed. That umpteenth retro wasn’t much of a moment, but a global fascination with 1997 era aesthetics embodied in output from every key streetwear line—with the aforementioned Supreme 98s from last year stoking the flames—created a mania for some neglected big bubble makeups as well as its more curious budget spinoffs. Prices soared and Facebook groups like [Air Max 97 Enthusiast](www.facebook.com/groups/airmax97) (which has 21,539 members at time of writing) were full of WTB and WTS posts.
Late 2016’s celebrations, arriving in the age of content, “the culture” and hype, embraced the legacy of the Air Max 97. Events in the country that embraced it and a special Italy-only edition with the country’s flag on that familiar taping (an adaptation of some special Foot Locker editions from five years prior) set things off. Given Nike’s inclination towards grand birthday treatments for old favorites, the push was inevitable, but even without it, the 97 was in the right place at the right time.
In 2017, makeups that haven’t been reissued in years, new colors and the divisive Ultra edition have levelled pricing out a little as the marketplace is flooded week on week. Is it right to get precious over a shoe that was always there until a surge in streetwear spotlighted its absence?
This month, the shoe rarely used as a collaborative canvas receives two big-name makeovers: a recently revealed phantom-like variation from Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten” and London grime veteran Skepta’s SkAIR edition. Both editions wisely avoid treating the shoe as a sacred cow—Abloh blows up the subdued branding but masks other details, while Skepta brings the cult Air Tuned Max from 1999 to the party, applies an Ultra sole to a sewn upper and even ditches the original hidden lacing (a first in its day) to apply the Zoom Spiridon lacing system because of personal preference, creating an unexpectedly subtle union of the big assignments on Tresser’s desk all those years ago. Even designer Derek Welch’s masterful post-‘97 Tn, Mx, Tl, Zm and Lo branding can’t escape a remix.
It’s right that those recent Air Max 97 reworkings aren’t bogged down by their reverence for the shoe, because it’s an irreverent piece of design to start. Rooted in excess (it’s about the maximum after all), that more, more, more spirit is open to extra expression.