Infrared Vision: A History of the Jordan VI
Infrared Vision: A History of the Jordan VI
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date February 10, 2021
After sweeping the defending champion Detroit Pistons in the infamous 1991 Eastern Conference Finals and exorcising the disappointing demons of playoffs past in the process, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls sauntered into the NBA Finals to face off against none other than Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. With Chicago’s biggest bully now in its rear-view mirror, it seemed pre-ordained that this was Jordan’s year to ascend to the NBA’s summit.
After losing Game 1 in disappointing fashion, Jordan refused to lie down, opening Game 2 with an offensive flurry. He poured in 33 points and dished out seven assists, but his most indelible mark on the game (and the series) would be another one of his patented aerial shows.
He received a pass from Cliff Levingston at the free-throw line, blew past Magic and took off. As he was reaching his apex, A.C. Green and Sam Perkins lay beneath him, bracing for a potential meeting at the rim. Jordan, sensing a block attempt from the right, switched the ball from his right hand to his left, in mid-air, before kissing it off the glass with a left handed scoop–a truly unbelievable display of dexterity. Marv Albert’s call of the “spectacular move” would live on in NBA highlight reel tapes for the next three decades. Jordan and the Bulls dominated the game and cruised the rest of the series en route to a 4-1 rout. The coronation had begun.
Jordan’s on-court exploits weren’t the only part of his ever-expanding portfolio to hit the stratosphere, as his sneaker line had already infiltrated pop culture on a massive scale. Buoyed by incredible ad campaigns featuring the likes of Spike Lee, prime placement in movies like Do The Right Thing and TV shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the Jordan III, IV and V had pushed the brand to unforeseen levels of success. Masterminded by the genius Tinker Hatfield, by 1991, he was now faced with the unenviable task of making hit after hit. And he did just that.
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The Jordan VI originally released in 1991 for $125 and dropped in five original colorways: White/Infrared, Black/Infrared, Maroon, Sport Blue and Carmine. Jordan debuted the Black/Infrared colorway during the 1991 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, where MJ led all scorers with 26 points. From that point on, Jordan and the Bulls were off to the races.
Car design would eventually go on to play a huge role in the inspiration of many Jordans over the ensuing decades, but that motif originated with the VI, specifically Jordan’s German sports car. Tinker even went so far as to nickname the shoe’s rubber heel tab a “spoiler,” and when you look at it, you can see why. With the exception of the Carmines, all of the original colorways sport a fairly monochromatic look with matching accents along the midsole and in subtle branding hits. The “Carmines”, however, feature a two-toned approach, with bright red paneling throughout a white upper.
“Michael actually started influencing more design power over the process, and I was cool with that,” said Hatfield in an interview with ESPN. “He started feeling like his signature look shouldn’t have a [toe] tip. He was wearing dress shoes at the time that had a cleaner toe and a molded toe.”
The sneakers do indeed sport a clean toe, as well as a neoprene booty on a full-grain leather upper. Molded Durabuck was added to some colorways for durability and lightweight flexibility, while perforated paneling added breathability on those trademark flights to the basket. Jordan had complained about sometimes struggling to pull on his sneakers with previous models, so Hatfield added an exaggerated rubber pull-on tongue for easy entry and a lace pocket to prevent any interference on the court. The Air unit is once again visible in the heel, with matching cushions in the front of the shoe.
Like the III, IV and V before it, the VI would feature both Nike Air and Jumpman logos, however the VI would be the last Air Jordan model to feature visible Nike Air branding. The following year, the Jordan VII would usher in a completely new era for the Jumpman, effectively branching off from Nike, at least in terms of outward branding. Jordan Brand wouldn’t become an official subsidiary of Nike until 1997.
It took nine years for Jordan Brand to begin releasing retro versions of the Jordan VI, with the first wave of retros featuring the “Black/Infrared” pair, undeniably the most popular VI to ever exist and a pair which Jordan dominated the 1991 playoffs in. Also released during that 2000 run of drops was a “White/Navy” pair, as well as the popular “Olympic” colorway, which featured a white and navy scheme in the “Carmine” color blocking, and was released shortly after the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney (where they were worn by Ray Allen). Low-top versions of the VI began to permeate sneaker shops in 2002, with “Black/Silver”, “White/University Blue” and a “White/Pink” women’s colorway being the first to drop the top on the VI. This entire wave of retros from 2000 on would feature a Jumpman logo by the heel, replacing the Nike Air branding. This would remain the norm for well over a decade.
But the next big moment for the VI wouldn’t happen until 2006, as the silhouette was put on ice for a few years. In 2006, Jordan Brand released its “Defining Moments Pack,” which featured a “Black/Gold” version of the Jordan VI alongside a modified “Concord” XI with metallic gold accents. The pack was designed to commemorate the two sneakers Jordan wore during the first year of each of his three-peats, with these pairs representing the shoes he wore during both the 1991 and 1996 NBA Finals, respectively. The “Defining Moments Pack” VI received its own solo release in 2020, the first time that particular colorway hit the market by itself, and the first time it's been released at all since the DMP dropped in 2006.
The “Carmine” pair would see its first retro release in 2008 as a part of the Jordan Brand Countdown Pack, paired alongside a black Jordan XVII. The pair would become one of the more popular Countdown Packs, thanks in large part to the “Carmines” returning. The “Carmines” would resurface again in 2014 and will see yet another retro release in 2021, this time with all the original trimmings, including Nike Air branding on the heel for the first time since 1991. A perfect way to celebrate the silhouette’s 30th anniversary.
Jordan Brand would continue to roll out retros throughout the 2000s, especially at the turn of the decade when the sneaker (and other similar Jordan retros) were having a moment in pop culture, thanks in large part to Kanye West and others. Arguably the most influential man in fashion and music at the time, West was routinely photographed wearing “Black/Infrared” Jordan VIs and even wore them during 2011’s “Otis” video from the Watch the Throne album. Capitalizing on this moment, Jordan Brand would re-release the original Infrared pairs in 2010 (both black and white) albeit with a twist. The bright Infrared would be replaced by a more traditional Team Red color for two 2010 releases, a small yet earth-shattering change to sneaker purists. Jordan Brand would return to its OG ways later that year, when it released both colorways in the original Infrared trim for its “Infrared Pack,” which also happened to be the first time the “White/Infrared” pair received a retro release. They’ve attempted to stick to that original Infrared hue with every ensuing release since then. When Jordan Brand released the “Black/Infrared” pair in 2019, it was accompanied by the Nike Air branding for the first time since its original release in 1991.
While much is made about the Infrared and “Carmine” pairs (and rightfully so), the “Maroon” colorway went the longest between releases. Following its original 1991 release, the “Maroon” colorway was shelved for 24 years before its 2015 retro release. The “Sport Blue” colorway went through a similarly long hibernation, sitting in the Nike archives for 23 years before a 2014 retro version hit shelves.
Like most Air Jordans in the canon, the true legacy and power of the Jordan VI lies in its original, Jordan-worn colorways. With the exception of the “Defining Moments Pack” VI, “Olympic” VI and a few other colorways like the “UNC”, the Jordan VI will be remembered for its original five versions. However, the VI has been featured in collaborations with everyone from Gatorade, Paris Saint-Germain, the University of Oregon and Doernbecher, among others, over the last two decades. Despite its expanding reach, the VI has remained relatively underrated to the average hypebeast consumer until very recently.
Only in the last handful of years has the silhouette become a destination for hype and high-profile collaborations. The VI received a remix from Aleali May, with a Millenial Pink colorway in 2019. The international stylist who is perhaps best known in sneaker circles for her silver and black take on the Jordan I in 2017, May took on the VI two years later with the dulled pink tonal upper and bright crimson accents.
Even Travis Scott, Nike’s current go-to guy, took to the Jordan VI in 2019 for an Olive version of the iconic shoe. He debuted the kicks during the Super Bowl Halftime Show, however they wouldn’t see an official release until October. Scott’s version featured a glow-in-the-dark outsole, a snap pocket by the ankle and Cactus Jack branding on the heel, not to mention a commercial featuring former Jordan Brand athlete and iconic wide receiver, Randy Moss.
When the Jordan VI initially released in 1991, Nike equipped it with its signature classic commercials and print ads. The VI marked the last time Jordan would collaborate with Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon character on television ads, marking the end of a legendary run for the duo. For the Jordan VI spots, Mars was joined by a genie (played by rock and roll legend Little Richard) granting Mars’ wish to fly like Mike and gifting him a collection of Air Jordans. In addition, there was a Jordan VI “Flight School” commercial featuring Mars and a host of NBA players (Chris Mullin, John Salley and others) who wanted to learn to–what else–be like Mike.
In addition to the commercials, Nike also equipped the Jordan VI with accompanying print ads/billboards, like this matching Flight School ad and another which featured prominently at the Portland Airport.
While Kanye and others breathed new life into the Jordan VI at the end of the 2000s and beginning of the 2010s, it was an unlikely sneakerhead who kept the Jordan VI front and center on television during the shoe’s initial 1991 run: Jerry Seinfeld.
Seinfeld has had a well-documented relationship with clean sneakers and often wore a slew of new Nike’s during Seinfeld’s epic run in the 1990s. The Jordan VI was a favorite of his then and remains so now. Even his friend and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David has been spotted wearing Jordan VIs over the years.
One of the really cool pieces of pop culture trivia regarding the Jordan VI is that the sneaker actually appeared in Batman Returns. Michael Keaton’s version of Batman rocked an all-black pair of custom VIs, which featured matching armor attached to the top of the shoes. They didn’t garner the same screen time as the Jordan IV (Do The Right Thing) or Jordan XIII (He Got Game), but none of those other silhouettes hold the distinction of being Batman’s shoes.
By 1991, the Air Jordan line had already ascended to the apex of sports, fashion and pop culture. From a design standpoint, the Jordan VI didn’t so much as blaze a trail as it carried the torch. It took a thriving line and kept it moving in the right direction, thanks to a tried and true combination of innovation, style and on-court excellence.