Cooler Than "Iceman": A History of the Nike Blazer
Cooler Than "Iceman": A History of the Nike Blazer
- Words Pete Forester
- Date September 20, 2017
The Nike Blazer was first released in 1973 as Nike’s best basketball sneaker, a far cry from how we think of it today. The brand was only nine years old at the time, a young upstart still finding its way through the industry, and for most of that time they weren’t even known as “Nike.” Blue Ribbon Sports was founded in 1964 by Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight as an organization to distribute Japanese footwear in the US, but it wasn’t until 1971, with the design of the famous Swoosh (by graphic design student Carolyn Davidson) that they’d be known as Nike and begin creating its own shoes.
Two years after Nike was founded, they took that now famous swoosh and plastered it on a plain white shoe, creating a sneaker that was as much a logo as anything else. It’s a simple shoe to this day, beloved for its simplicity, but in 1973 there were still a lot of technological advances to come in the world of footwear that would quickly swallow the Blazer.
The shoe featured a leather upper, a mesh nylon tongue and a textured vulcanized rubber sole—the preferred sole for basketball sneakers in the early 1970s. In fact, each of these elements were the best technology available for shoes on the court. It’s easy to forget, looking back from 2017, that the ‘70s were the early days of sneakers. Before the ‘60s and ‘70s, sneakers were merely rubber soled shoes used for athletics and nothing else. It was Bowerman who first put real brainpower into developing footwear that would support athletes in effective ways to change their game. Nike became the epicenter of that investigation. Even after the debut of the Blazer it would still be five years before Nike first injected air into its soles with the Nike Tailwind, and 12 years before they signed Michael Jordan to be the frontman of its basketball business. Nike as we know it today did not exist beyond the founders and a few running shoes that are still in rotation, but the Blazer is an icon from that moment and has survived the progress of time. For most silhouettes that have lasted almost as long as the Blazer, they’ve done so by changing with the times. But the Blazer hasn’t changed, instead its community has changed around it.
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It’s only fitting that Nike’s first significant basketball sneaker would be named after the local basketball team, the Portland Trail Blazers. But it was George “The Iceman” Gervin (notably of the San Antonio Spurs) who was first to wear the shoe. “Nike was very innovative…Nike was thinking out of the box back in the ‘70s,” Gervin says. “When I first joined the NBA I used to wear adidas and then Nike came on board and Nike approached me and wanted to give me much more money and they had a better quality shoe, I thought. So, I went with Nike through the rest of my career.” For Nike, its partnership with Gervin was all about branding. It was no coincidence that they were new to the industry and designed a sneaker dominated by its logo. Then it found one of the most notorious players in the game, with a nickname for his cool attitude on court and an incredible track record as a shooting guard. The cameras were pointed at Gervin every game, and whenever those cameras caught his feet they found huge Nike swooshes. Every photograph became an advertisement.
As his professional career continued, Gervin’s relationship with Nike grew right alongside it, culminating in a uniquely custom Blazer style. What modern sneaker fans would dub a “player exclusive” this Blazer model had “ICEMAN” emblazoned across the heel where “NIKE” usually sat. Player exclusives are one-off colorways or renditions created for players by the brands and are frequently used today to build hype around silhouettes, test colorways, and as a public expression of a brand's commitment to the player. But back in the 1970s PEs were so rare that the Gervin Blazer PEs may very well be the first PE sneaker ever made. The industry was so new at that point that lines between general releases and PEs were not as clear as they are today. What we do know is the ICEMAN PE was never made available to the public and stands as a crucial moment to help define how brands and players interact.
Soon after the Blazer was introduced, Nike put its focus into developing its AIR program, and basketball technology took off. As all the best athletic minds took to expanding the possibilities for basketball sneakers, heavy leathers, fragile meshes, and hard vulcanized rubber soles got left behind one by one. In just a few short years the Blazer was far from the best of what Nike had to offer and the sneaker fell out of favor with basketball players. But the sole that was once designed for traction on court was quickly recognized by skateboarders for having amazing traction on their grip tape. The heavy leather and suede uppers stood up against the beatings skaters wrought against them. The mesh tongue wasn't ideal - skaters prefer a little more cushion in the tongue - but Nike would solve that soon enough. As basketball players left the Blazer behind, skaters took ownership of the sneaker and it found a second life that would ultimately save the silhouette from ever going out of style.
The Blazer continued to survive as a low budget sneaker. It was light on aesthetics and easy to wear for fans of the classic look. Plus it was an inexpensive purchase for skaters who wanted to beat them up.
In 2003, street artist Futura 2000 used the opportunity of a Nike collaboration to bring his own take to the budget sneaker. Their collaborative effort that featured a blend of olive, tan, and navy suedes, and released only 1000 pairs, making them immediately rare and collectable. Although the Futura collaboration would raise the profile of the Blazer, it wasn’t until a few years later that the Blazer finally caught a glimpse of glory on par with The Iceman’s debut.
The shoe was officially considered a basketball sneaker by Nike, albeit a low tech one, until 2005 when pro skateboarder Lance Mountain announced the development of Blazer SB for Nike, adding padding to the tongue and bringing Nike Air into the sneaker for the first time. The Air appeared as a pair of Air Zoom insoles, meaning that the bulk of the sneaker remained intact, but the comfort was dialed up. These minor tweaks made the shoe officially a skate shoe, and set the stage for the Blazer to transform. And not a moment too soon. In 2006, when the Blazer celebrated its 33rd birthday, the shoe got an entirely new identity.
Everything that happened to the Blazer before 2006 was well earned history, solidifying the Blazer as one of the most long lasting silhouettes of all time. But it was in 2006 when iconic skate brand Supreme collaborated with Nike on a trio of Blazers that elevated the classic silhouette to one of the most sought after sneakers in the world. Supreme released three quilted Blazers with Nike, in black, white, and red, each with faux snake skin swooshes, and Gucci inspired ribbons up the heels that held golden D-rings. The shoes retailed for a whopping $180 (three times what some Blazer SBs go for), and although they weren’t an overnight success, as the years have gone by that release is regarded as a tipping point. To this day, the 2006 Supreme Blazers are considered by many to be the high watermark for brand collaborations, and (in the view of some) the best Nike collaboration Supreme has ever made. Unworn pairs are rare to come by, and even worn pairs fetch four figure prices. On the continuum of sneaker sales they’re nowhere near the highest (the first adidas Yeezys easily sells for over $3k), but the 2006 Supreme Blazers live outside of the typical hype machine, recognized by serious collectors and long-time fans as a legitimizing pair for anyone lucky enough to have them in their collection.
It is without hesitation that we can say it was this 2006 collaboration that brought the Blazer to a level that would clear space for following collaborations with brands including the likes of Comme des Garcons, Fragment, and the upcoming collection with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White.
The CDG Blazers dropped in 2013 as suede lows and were an official release with the diffusion brand BLACK COMME des GARCONS. The sneakers were, naturally, colored black, featuring suede uppers with leather swooshes, heel ribbons, and heel panels. The “NIKE” at the heel was replaced with “CDG” much like on the ICEMAN PEs. In 2014, they followed up with a similarly colored version of the Blazer High, and then in 2016 released a high and a low in black, but this time in all leather (plus a white mudguard to break up the darkness a little bit). The simplicity of the sneakers paired with the diffusion line may explain why these shoes are still pretty easy to come by, but as an elevated, go-anywhere sneaker you can’t get much better.
Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Tokyo based Fragment Design took on the Blazer in 2014 with a pair of lows in beige suede. Fragment’s signature light touch made for a pretty unremarkable design, but still created a classic look that fits well with the Blazer’s original styling. The shoes featured tiny Fragment logos at the heels and were only available at Fragment’s Tokyo office.
In 2016, Supreme followed up the famous 2006 collaborative Blazer trio with another threesome, this time on the low GT silhouette in pink, beige, and blue suedes. The sneakers sat on gum soles, featured tonal leather swooshes, and debossed gold box logos at the heel. On the back, “NIKE” was replaced by “FTW,” which was never explained but without a doubt stands for “For The Win.”
If the 2006 Supreme Blazers set the new benchmark for the sneaker, 2017’s Off-White collaboration is about to raise the level again. Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten” collection features a dizzying array of sneakers in two sub-groups, Ghosting and Revealing, the latter being the collection the Blazer falls under. Like the rest of the collection, there’s a lot happening on the Off-White Blazer, but unlike the other sneakers in the collection (save maybe the Chuck Taylor), there’s very little to work with. A massive part of the Blazer’s identity is the simplicity of design. Each sneaker in the collection has been completely reworked by Abloh and when it comes to the Blazer there’s not a lot to do. That also means that every change Abloh applies has a much larger impact.
Like others in the Revealing collection, the majority of the upper is dominated by the underside of traditional upper materials. We see stitching and industrial printing that would otherwise be hidden under layers of leather and suede. The massive swoosh is made even bigger on Abloh’s version, extending from the heel over the heightened vulcanized sole. Bone colored suede provides a base for the eyelets and appears on the heel, while white leather wraps around the throat of the shoes. The tongue maintains the same mesh as came on the original design, with the Nike tag on the lateral side of the shoe rather than the top of the tongue. “Shoelaces” printed shoelaces, like the rest of the collection, finish out the sneaker. We’ve discussed Abloh’s idea of conceptual deconstruction, and this take on the Blazer is exactly that. It blows apart the disparate elements that have made the sneaker what it is, forcing us to examine this classic sneaker for its pieces, while understanding that it’s not just the pieces of leather and suede and rubber that makes the shoe. Instead it’s how we read how those pieces come together. They force us to reevaluate what each element of the shoe means, and if it actually means anything in a vacuum, or if the meaning of the shoe is less its constituent elements and more how we reconstruct it with our community.
Few shoes have gone through the social evolution like the Blazer has, with multiple communities adopting the simple shoe allowing it to have a shelf life longer than almost any other sneaker in the game. It appeared at a time that should have forced it to be forgotten as much more advanced sneakers came quickly after it. But somehow, either thanks to its simplicity, brand awareness, or by pure circumstance, the Blazer continues on. And if it gets treatments like that with Supreme and Off-White, we may see another 40 years of the Blazer to come.