A New Blueprint: A History of the Air Max 95
A New Blueprint: A History of the Air Max 95
- Words Stephen Albertini
- Date January 10, 2019
Milton Glaser, legendary designer of “I Love New York” logo and the now-famous Bob Dylan poster, once said: “There are three responses to a piece of design: Yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.”
Classic shoes that warrant retrospectives, anniversaries and oral histories are of the latter group: they wow. Sometimes in their elegant simplicity, other times in their unique ability to eradicate preconceived notions of the status quo and forge a new design path. The world’s largest footwear company, Nike has always excelled at locating and cultivating great designers who strive to push boundaries. From top tier in-house talent like Tinker Hatfield and Bruce Kilgore to some of the hottest names in contemporary design like Virgil Abloh and Samuel Ross, the Swoosh has always sought out the best in the business. One of its best moves, however was hiring Sergio Lozano. A young designer at the time, Nike essentially gave him free reign. The result was one of the most popular and celebrated sneakers of all time, the Air Max 95.
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In the early 1990s, basketball sneakers were Nike’s primary focus. Michael Jordan’s sneaker sales were on another planet, and the rest of the Nike hoops roster read like an All-NBA team. In an effort to revitalize the lackluster Nike running division, Nike wanted to depart from the typical Air Max look and attack the design process from a fresh perspective. “That was really the goal,” Lozano said in an interview celebrating the shoe’s 20th anniversary, “do something we’ve never seen before.”
Originally designed by Hatfield, the Air Max was far and away Nike’s top running silhouette. When designing the 95, Lozano’s goal was to make a bold statement, presenting an entirely new take on the sneaker. Debuting in a electric colorway, the original Neon Volt Air Max 95 helped establish the bold color codes that dominated the ‘90s. What set the shoe apart, however, was a gradient pattern going up the sides of the shoe, a complete departure from the more restrained prior generations.
Featuring four waves of color fading from the light grey eyelets down to the black midsole, the gradient pattern was inspired by rainy days at the Nike campus and the beautiful Oregon landscape. Essentially the sneaker equivalent of a geologic striation, Lozano developed the concept while “looking across the lake out into the trees, and I began picturing the process of rain eroding and the earth and thought it would be interesting if the perfect product was unearthed by erosion,” he said.
Human anatomy also served as a source of inspiration. The body’s complex web of tendons and muscles working in tandem was the blueprint for the shoe’s upper, which featured layered panels reminiscent of muscle fibers and flesh. While not easily visible at first glance, but look at the shoe from the rear (as displayed in the classic Nike phone number ad) and you can clearly see a version of the human spine and its accompanying vertebrae.
The black midsole was as much a practical decision as a stylistic one. Lozano and his team grew tired of seeing footwear with predominantly white midsoles in the often dreary Portland weather. As white midsoles always inevitably grew dirty, Lozano opted for black midsole instead, which felt both fresh and hid some of the silt that piled up as you ran.
While synonymous with Nike running sneakers and apparel today, 20-plus years ago the volt colorway was not in the athletic company’s wheelhouse. When presenting preliminary sketches of the shoe in that colorway, Lozano was told flat out that there was no way Nike would produce that shoe. After some coaxing, however, Nike finally relented. Those same prototype sketches also failed to feature the hallmark Nike swoosh anywhere on the shoe. “I had initially designed the shoe without a swoosh because I wanted it to be aesthetically strong,” Lozano said. During the pre-production process, a small swoosh was added on the top corner of the side panel. It was visible, sure, but they never made it big enough to distract from the gradient—Lozano’s intended design aesthetic.
Aesthetic details aside, what truly made the Air Max 95 a trailblazer was its unique technical features. The first Air Max to feature air cushions on both the heel and the forefoot, the 95 utilized air pressure technology to mold to the foot’s curvature. Original releases even featured a “25 PSI” air pressure reading on the rear air unit and 3M Scotchlite uppers. According to Lozano, “The whole shoe was controversial because it wasn’t your typical running shoe...from the design to the color to the little swoosh, it all caused controversy."
When the shoe released in 1995 for $140, its brash design and departure from the Air Max status quo made it a hit—and not just with cool kids trying something new. The shoe was praised universally for its design and functionality. “Although still relatively beefy, the latest Air Max provides a much more responsive ride than previous models did,” said Runner’s World in its performance review. Time magazine’s “Best of 1995: Products” feature declared the Air Max 95 one of the year’s best sneaker designs.
Popularity aside, the shoe wasn’t without its detractors. The architect of the Air Max, Tinker Hatfield, appreciated Lozano’s risk-taking, but wondered about its functionality as a running shoe, telling Sneaker Freaker in 2012, “[Lozano] took it in a non-runner direction, because clearly that upper was not meant for running.” The Air Max 95 was notoriously bulky compared to sleeker Air Max models. Hiroshi Fujiwara, considered by many to be the “godfather of streetwear,” once said flat out, “I didn’t like them much.” Regardless, the OG Neon Volt colorway has been re-released over ten times since 1995, most recently August 2018.
The sneakers were especially coveted in Europe and Asia. In fact, the sneakers sold so well in Japan that a lucrative second-hand market developed following their release. In 1996, original Air Max 95s were selling for ten times retail price on the secondary market. Hype would eventually die down with subsequent Air Max releases, but prior to the Dunk boom the shoes were a crucial component of reseller culture.
Nike began to release retro versions of the shoe as early as 1997, an unheard of turnaround time from the original release. The reissued original’s were so popular that in parts of Japan, the re-released 95s sold twice as much as current colorways. In the city of Sakai, near Osaka, the Air Max 95 was part of the country’s first ever sneaker robbery. Teenagers grabbed steel pipes and attacked three men, eventually making off with cash and a pair of 95s. Air Max 95’s criminal association was not only relegated to Japan. The sneaker became criminals’ footwear of choice in the UK. An expensive shoe at the time, it of course attracted a certain clientele, but according to a forensic science report from the mid-2000s, the Air Max 1995 ranked second (eight percent) in “typical pattern frequency distribution for footwear marks from a UK police force.”
Like many other classic Nike designs, the hip-hop community fell in love with the Air Max 95. Eminem, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Fredro Starr and Warren G are all noted fans, and Gucci Mane, Fabolous and Curren$y have all name-checked the shoe in songs. The shoe’s most well-known shout out is no doubt by The Game from his 2005 hit “Hate It or Love It,” where he lays it out plain and simple: “I’ll kill you if you try me for my Air Max 95s.”
With over 150 colorways in the 24 years since its original release, including dozens of collaborations, the 95 is one of the most beloved, if decisive, sneakers in the Nike canon. To this day, the silhouette is constantly being tweaked to work with current Nike technology, like its recent VaporMax hybrid release. Current Nike designer Dylan Raasch gave his take on the shoe—the Air Max 95 Ultra—in 2015, and Ben Yun did the same when he flipped the classic shoe into the Air Max 95 Ultra Jacquard.
While some designers wouldn’t want their signature shoe tinkered with, Lozano encourages the creativity. “I think sometimes we can hold things too preciously and not mess with them,” he said. “If you’re a purist, that’s cool. But I like not keeping things so sacred and so precious, that it doesn’t allow us to kind of experiment.”
While the Air Max 95’s individuality was a hindrance in Nike production meetings, it’s since become the shoe’s defining characteristic, and led to two decades of success. Lozano’s forward-thinking design methodology served as a blueprint for future Air Max releases, including both the Air Max 97 and the Air Max Plus—two popular models in their own right—as well as the Air Max 98, which developed from that same design lineage as well. Without Lozano’s fresh take on the Air Max 95, none of that innovation, or any of the proceeding sneakers, would have been possible.
Speaking on the future of sneakers, Lozano said, “it’s possible to still blow people’s minds and change the paradigm with great design...it’s just a little bit more difficult than it used to be.” If anyone will work wire tirelessly to find designers willing to push the paradigm, its Nike—where “wow” is encouraged.