The One That Started It All: A History of the Jordan 1
The One That Started It All: A History of the Jordan 1
- Words Pete Forester
- Date August 24, 2017
Whatever adjective you want to ascribe to it, the most telling thing about the Air Jordan 1 is that the Air Jordan 1 exists because Michael Jordan didn't want to sign with Nike. As history would have it, Jordan's favorite shoe to ball in during college was Converse's Chuck Taylor, a shoe that no one would dream of seriously playing in today. But Jordan loved the shoe and wanted to sign with Converse as his career in the NBA began.
Nike drove a hard bargain (going so far as to ask his parents to drag him to Nike's campus in Beaverton, Oregon). The pitch from Nike was comprehensive: they were going to create a whole brand around Jordan, push him forward as the face for the brand, and make his wildest dreams come true. But Jordan wasn’t convinced: he didn’t like the shoes – Nike’s soles were too thick, he couldn’t feel the court under his feet. Nike capitulated on that point, it was an easy change for them to make. So they did, and the Air Jordan 1 was born. What happened over the next few years would change the direction of Nike and sneaker culture forever.
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Nike’s creative director, Peter C. Moore, was tasked with designing Jordan’s first shoe. The rookie gave Moore a little direction (that the shoe needed to be “different” and “exciting,” plus the aforementioned desire to be lower to the ground), and initially hated what Moore created saying, “I’m not wearing that shoe. I’ll look like a clown.” But the shoe design that we’ve come to know grew on him and it was time to release it to the masses.
The Jordan 1 launched in 1985 at the tail end of Jordan’s rookie year, and since it wasn’t going to be ready until November, Jordan played in a different sneaker: Nike’s Air Ship. They chose the Air Ship because it shares a lot of similar design elements to the Jordan 1, and they wanted to fool the world. On the TV screens and film cameras in 1985 it was hard to distinguish an Air Ship from what would become the Air Jordan, and Nike wanted to sell those Jordans, so they let the deception endure. It was that little visual trick that lead to one of the greatest sneaker legends of all time.
The first Jordan 1 that sneaker fans think of when they think of the Air Jordan 1 is the “Banned” colorway, also known as the “Bred” or Black and Red. They’re called the “Banned” because the story goes that Jordan was fined $5000 per game that he wore them since they broke league uniform rules. It’s true that Jordan wore Black and Red sneakers, and it’s true that NBA commissioner Russ Granik sent Nike a letter about the shoes, but the rest of it is pure legend as far as anyone can tell. The shoes in question were Air Ships, and he wore them only once on October 18, 1984, before the season officially began – the letter was a warning, not a levy of a fine. There’s no confirmation of any subsequent violations, except photos of Jordan wearing the Air Jordan 1s in the same colorway during the 1985 Dunk Contest. There’s no confirmation of any fines.
The reality didn’t matter. As soon as word got out that the NBA wasn’t happy with Jordan’s footwear in the fall of 1984, Nike and their advertising agency (Chiat/Day) jumped on it immediately. Scant weeks went by before a new ad appeared on televisions all over the country:
”On October 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe,” the narrator intones. “On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can't stop you from wearing them. Air Jordans. From Nike."
That’s all anybody needed. The shoes dropped and sold out immediately. Nike set retail at $65 a piece, expensive for their time, and they sold out as quickly as they do today. Resellers even made a few bucks at the time, flipping the shoes for $100—a habit that basically had no precedent.
During that first season, and that first go around with the sneaker, Nike released 13 colorways of the shoe. The famous “Banned,” “Chicago,” “Royal,” “Black Toe,” “Shadow,” and “Carolina Blue” colorways, as well as Black & White, Blue & White, Metallic Red, Metallic Purple, Metallic Blue, Metallic Green, and Natural Grey. Although dozens of Jordan 1 colorways have followed these first 13, those colorways will always stand as the base for what the Air Jordan 1 would grow to become. As weird as it might sound now however, back in 1985, the shoe meant less than the man, and the 1 was no more powerful than the models that would follow them.
Until, of course, Jordan retired.
As quickly as the shoes sold out, Nike restocked them. But they made too many the second time, and they sat on the shelves. And sat. And sat. They sat for years, literally, eventually getting marked down in some places all the way to $20, and many retailers just pulled them off the shelves to marinate in the stockroom, forgotten for a generation. The Jordan 1 was quickly overshadowed by later models, especially the Jordan 3, and effectively forgotten.
The 1985 flood of Jordan 1s on the market came at the same time that the skateboarding community was looking for something new, and the two communities converged. With Jordan 1s sitting on shelves for $20, and skaters looking for affordable sneakers that were more robust than the canvas shoes they were wearing, it was a perfect marriage. Although skate culture has done little to drive the success of Air Jordan, the culture has helped to drive sneaker culture writ large: you need look no further than Nike’s SB Dunk program years later (the Dunk, it should be noted, shares a lot of aesthetic similarities to the Jordan 1). This seemingly random pairing would pay off years later when Nike’s Skateboarding program got their hands on the sneaker officially with a Lance Mountain collaboration and others.
The restock of Air Jordan 1s in 1985 also explains why, although still rare, it's easy to find pairs from that year. Determining the street value for these shoes is nearly impossible because despite their rarity, serious demand is also limited. But limited at a high cost. Depending on their condition and provenance, pairs have sold in recent years for anywhere between $3,000 and $33,000. High selling price aside, it’s worth noting: 30-plus years later, the soles will no longer walk without crumbling, so only the most committed collectors keep them as cultural artifacts and monuments to successful design.
After 1986, the Jordan 1 was shelved for almost a decade, but before that sabbatical came a short mysterious chapter. Around the same time that the Jordan 1 released for the first time, the Air Jordan K.O. released as well. Known as the “AJKO,” the shoe features the same colorways as the Jordan 1, with almost exactly the same upper, but made of canvas and given a couple tweaks. There’s almost no contemporaneous documentation of why Nike created the shoe, who the target market was, or even an official word on what “K.O.” stands for. Most assume it means “Knock Out,” but there’s no primary source to offer clarity. Unless there are still hidden secrets in the Nike vault, we may never know. The AJKOs were retired along with the classic leather version, and that seemed to be the end of the shoe.
As the world followed Michael Jordan’s career, they also followed what was on his feet. And each year, with the release of a new game shoe, there was a new sneaker to buy. Back then the Air Jordan 1 wasn’t called “The Air Jordan 1.” None of the shoes were numbered. They were all merely “Air Jordans” and what you got was what was in stores. But in 1994, eight years after the last produced Air Jordan 1, Jordan Brand had the crazy idea of bringing back a piece of history. So they re-released some colorways, mainly the “Banned” and “Chicago” colorways. Surprisingly, it was pretty much a dud.
Barons minor league baseball team—a source of major sneaker inspiration in later years. In hindsight, there’s no question over the circumstances of Jordan’s decision or how it fit into his own life’s journey, but it was a doozy for his fans—and it showed in sneaker sales. Consumers were confused over Jordan’s move to baseball and, while searching for new basketball heroes, they were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of buying sneakers that commemorated Jordan’s supposedly finished NBA career. It was also the first time a sneaker brand brought a sneaker back that had gone out of production in this way. In 2017 there’s a “retro” sneaker release almost every week, but in the mid 1990s the mere idea of bringing a sneaker back from the dead didn’t make sense. The technology was old and history was happening on TV (except for when history was Jordan swinging bats at laced balls). Nostalgia hadn’t kicked in yet.
Jordan returned to the game of basketball again the next year. And then retired again in 1999. He came back in 2001 and so did the Jordan 1. Over the following three years, Jordan Brand brought back a couple of the classic 13 colorways (Royals and Breds), as well as released a small number of new colorways on the old shoe that would become classics like the Japan Navy, White Chrome (that featured a Jumpman logo instead of a swoosh), Black/Metallic Gold, and introduced the sneaker in a low profile version—the first change to the silhouette since the AJKO. Michael Jordan officially retired for the final time in 2003, and Jordan Brand retired the Jordan 1 the following year in 2004.
Until it came back for good.
In April of 2007, Air Jordan released the Jordan 1 as a two pack they called “Old Love, New Love” that included a retro of the original “Black Toe” colorway paired with an entirely new pair that was black and yellow. Hardcore Jordan fans were mixed on the New Love colorway since it was one of very few new takes on the sneaker in its 22-year history. After the original 13 colorways, very few new additions had been made to the color history and sneakerheads weren’t ready to open their hearts to New Love quite yet. That was too bad, because the floodgates were about to open.
Once the “Old Love, New Love” pack dropped, the metaphorical hose turned on and the following ten years featured a deluge of new colorways. In the first month there were ten colorways (with very few worthy of note). Then, in June, the audacious “Alpha” with a screen printed image of Jordan on the quarter appeared. That was certainly something new.
The following years brought changes to the silhouette that traced style trends. Straps were added, a “Phat” version injected more padding. In 2010 the “Air Jordan 1 Alpha” warped the whole thing to look like a nightmarish version of the future, while the “Anodized” put the whole shoe through a VacTech treatment like it were wrapped in Spandex. The years went by with very few new releases of note (the silver “25th Anniversary” pairs from 2009 still hold up, Dave White’s collaboration from 2011 still has some rabid fans, and the SB take that Lance Mountain offered in 2014 was a seminal moment), until the end of 2014 when Air Jordan released their collaboration with Fragment Design.
When pictures of the “Frags” first surfaced, there seemed to be little to them. The color scheme was the same as the Black Toes, except Hiroshi Fujiwara used the blue from the Royals instead of the traditional Chicago red. There was also a debossed Fragment logo at the heel. For one or many reasons (either because the shoes were so limited, or they kept with a recognizable theme, or stayed within the core four colors), the shoes were hunted down ruthlessly and immediately became the hottest ticket in town. Until the Frags, the only Jordan 1 releases that commanded that kind of attention were from the original 13 colorways, and even then it was mostly just five or six of them. The release of the Fragment 1s represented a modern reclamation of a sneaker that was nearly 30 years old.
After the Frags came a host of new colorways hit in 2016 that would outpace their more traditional siblings: Shattered Backboards (both Home and Away, inspired by Jordan’s shattered backboard moment in Turin, Italy), swooshless lows in pastels, and a “Top 3” take that blended Breds, Black Toes, and Royals onto one shoe. Now, more than halfway through 2017 we’ve already seen the All-Star 1s fly off the shelf through multiple restocks, and Spike Lee’s incredibly limited “Mars Blackmon Promo” pairs that demand blistering prices. But 2017 isn’t done quite yet.
In perhaps the most highly anticipated sneaker release of the year, Virgil Abloh and Off-White have gotten their hands on the Jordan 1. Abloh has conceptually deconstructed the sneaker (along with nine other Nike silhouettes) as a part of his “The Ten” collection, in a treatment he’s named “Revealing.” If you squint, the shoes look just like the Chicago Jordan 1s with all the constituent pieces, but Abloh has put the pieces together in a way that reveals how they’re made, what makes them, and flips our expectations of what the shoe should, and could, mean. Whether it’s the tacked on Swoosh that replaces a normal panel, pieces that are punched for stitches but aren’t stitched, or a sole unit with “AIR” written directly on it, the components force us to recognize our expectations and assumptions about this most iconic of sneakers.
32 years is a long time for a sneaker to be continually reimagined, recontextualized, and reinjected into the culture, but 32 years after the shoe first made it to the market, Abloh has blasted it apart so we can see how we got here through in concept and materials. 32 years later the shoe will be hunted after like it was the first time, proving there’s a long future ahead of it.