The History of the Nike Air Tailwind Series
The History of the Nike Air Tailwind Series
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date September 5, 2019
Few things in the Nike archive have endured a more puzzling evolution than the Air Tailwind family. From the inaugural silhouette, released in 1979, to the most recent iterations, there is little in the way of a common thread. The shoes share a name, but little else. The Air Tailwind’s role in the development of Air—arguably the most important invention in Nike’s history—is largely overlooked. Taken together, it has made of the Tailwind a family of shoes that is misunderstood and under-appreciated, particularly when compared to other Nike models that came after it in the 1980s and ’90s.
Frank Rudy’s story is well-known. His name is often cited when the Air Max 1 origin story is told. Rudy was an aerospace technology specialist who approached Nike in 1977 with a revolutionary idea: using air as cushioning in footwear. A detail that is oft-forgotten, though, is that Rudy’s Air cushioning did not debut in 1989’s Air Max 1, or even in the Air Force 1, released in 1982. Instead, Nike Air debuted in a shoe that featured in the 1978 Honolulu marathon—the Nike Air Tailwind.
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Like all Nike sneakers at the time, the Tailwind was designed as a performance shoe. It was streamlined and lightweight, constructed from suede and nylon mesh. The Air unit wasn’t simply thought up to reduce impact—air is, obviously, weightless and that played a big role in Nike using it for the Tailwind. The shoes were originally released through six retailers in Honolulu in the lead up to the marathon and—foreshadowing the future of the industry—the shoes sold out.
A wider release followed in 1979 and, in the lead-up, Nike touted the Tailwind’s Air-linked properties. “Unequaled cushioning in state-of-the-art testing,” read the copy of one ad; Another ad claimed that, “runners who have tested the Tailwind are reluctant to return even crude prototypes [saying] it is the most comfortable shoe they have ever worn.” The Tailwind supposedly, “increased stamina and distance-running ability” while reducing knee and leg fatigue.
It was framed as a groundbreaking performance shoe and the most technologically-advanced running shoe on the market—with good reason.
But, Nike also saw the Tailwind as more than just a running shoe. Its own ads spoke to just how important the Tailwind would be in the brand’s evolution. Nike drew comparisons with the Wright Brothers, name-dropping Apollo 11 and the Concorde, before stating that the Air Tailwind “[was] the most revolutionary thing we have ever done.” Nike saw the Tailwind as portending “the next generation of footwear.” They were bold statements, but, over time, they turned out to be true.
The Air Tailwind was a hit upon wider release in 1979 and became a favorite among distance runners—both professional and amateur. More importantly though, the Tailwind sparked somewhat of an arms race between footwear brands, seeking to develop and implement new technology. What’s surprising is that it took more than a decade for Nike to update the Tailwind. Thanks to the Tailwind, Nike Air became the foundation for sneakers like the Air Force 1 and Air Max 1; shoes like the Internationalist, which was released in 1982, channeled the Air Tailwind’s sleek design.
The Tailwind would only receive a proper heir—one that carried forth the shoe’s name—in 1992. The Air Tailwind 92 combined the Tailwind’s ethos of providing the most cushioning possible, with Nike’s silhouette du jour, the Air Max 180. In other words, the Air Tailwind 92 looked nothing like the original Tailwind from ’78. It did, however, sport Visible Air, allowing people to see the technology that the Tailwind had pioneered.
The Air Tailwind 92 also served as the basis to relaunch the franchise in a new direction. The latter half of the ’90s featured a yearly addition to the Tailwind family, with each more closely resembling the ’92 version than the ’78 version. Gone were the days where the Tailwind looked like what it sounded like: a sleek, slim, aerodynamic shoe. Instead, the Air Tailwind 96, II, III and IV were bulkier and very much in-line with the general aesthetic of late-’90s trainers.
The franchise became known for offering some of the most versatile running silhouettes on the market—without quite getting into cross-trainer territory. The Air Tailwind 96 boasted a unique aesthetic thanks to an upper that took similar cues to the Air Max 96 and a bigger window than the Air Tailwind 92. It came to be one of the brand’s more under-the-radar favorites from the late ‘90s—though, it wasn’t quite on the level of, say, the Air Max 97.
Borrowing—or at least sharing—design cues from other sneakers became a hallmark of sorts for the franchise. The Air Tailwind II, which was released in 1997, is strikingly similar to the Reebok Daytona DMX, down to the grey, black and yellowish-green colorway. This is not to say that it was based on the Daytona DMX, but that it didn’t necessarily stand out.
Like the shoes that came immediately before it, the Air Tailwind IV—released in 1999—drew on Nike’s most recent Air Max, in this case the Air Max Plus. The Tailwind IV was built around the same chunky outsole as other Tailwinds, but featured the Air Max Plus’ iconic swaying lines on the upper and whale-inspired mid-sole insert. What the Tailwind IV did differently, though, was offer windows along the entire length of the sole, from the heel to the toe box—though it wasn’t a single window with an entirely visible Air unit, which eventually debuted on the Air Max 360.
And, unlike previous Tailwinds, the IV managed to make an impact beyond the athletic world. Much like the Air Max Plus, the Air Tailwind IV debuted with an almost prohibitive price point, which led to the Tailwind becoming something of a status symbol among street characters. That was especially true in Australia, where the shoes became known as “Jailwinds”—and, as the name suggests, came to be seen a symbol of prison royalty. According to urban legend, the Air Tailwind IV became the most shoplifted shoe in Australia, such was the thirst for wannabe gangsters to rise up the ladder.
Still, as one inmate explained to Vice, the fact that the Air Tailwind IV was one of the best running shoes on the market played a big role in its initial emergence as a popular trainer within Australian street and prison culture. The Air Tailwind IV’s popularity even led to it being included on the list of customizable shoes on a then-nascent NikeID platform in the mid-’00s.
As time wore on, and subsequent Tailwind models were released, other silhouettes surpassed the franchise’s offering from a technological standpoint. In 2009, Nike released the Air Tailwind+, compatible with Nike Plus, and designed as an all-around trainer. Newer versions of the Air Tailwind+, which featured increasingly streamlined silhouettes, lighter materials and colorways frequently associated with action footwear entrenched the Tailwind as a performance shoe with little crossover cultural appeal.
But amid the push to turn contemporary Tailwinds into a mass-market training sneaker, Nike quietly delved into the archives to elevate the original Air Tailwind to a style-first sneaker. By 2012, the Tailwind’s once ground-breaking technology was outdated from a performance standpoint, but the ’78 release still represented an interesting retro runner at a time where menswear has a mild obsession with Nike Internationalist-style sneakers. Similarly, the Air Tailwind 92 received a reissue in the late-’00s, in an attempt to build some cultural capital around the line.
On both fronts, Nike enjoyed questionable success and the Air Tailwind’s importance was still largely overlooked within contemporary sneaker culture.
But, almost a decade later, Nike is attempting to once again inject the Air Tailwind into the sneaker world. Nike tapped Jun Takahashi’s Undercover in Spring/Summer 2019 to spawn the collaboration Nike Daybreak model—a shoe with obvious aesthetic roots in the original Tailwind silhouette. Supreme, too, revisited the Air Tailwind IV, dropping as part of the brand’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection.
Outside of fashion, Nike tied the Air Tailwind into the release of Netflix's Stranger Things' third season by dropping three different iterations of the Nike Tailwind (now more commonly known as the "Tailwind '79"). Hitting on the show's mid-'80s setting, the first Air Tailwind model is a perfect fit for the kids fighting the paranormal in Hawkins, Indiana.
It’s important to note that both the original Air Tailwind and Air Tailwind IV are celebrating anniversaries this year—40 and 20 years, respectively—and, as such, it makes sense for Nike to entrust them to its most valued partners. It’s a strategy that has paid dividends for the brand before. It’s also worth noting that both Undercover and Supreme have an excellent track record when it comes to creating hype for Nike sneakers—be it Undercover’s recent success with the React Element 87, or Supreme’s ability to turn the Air Max 98 from a largely forgotten silhouette to one of the key sneakers over the last few seasons.
Nike’s Tailwind franchise may have never been designed for more than running. And, with the notable exception of the Air Tailwind IV—no Tailwind may have ever been considered more than a pure running shoe when it released. That being said, Nike has, historically, shown a knack for turning what were once performance shoes into fashion sneakers. They may succeed with the Air Tailwind or Air Tailwind IV. But maybe they won’t—perhaps the Internationalist and the Air Max Plus have already captured the niches that the Air Tailwind seeks to cater to. Even if they don’t, though, the Air Tailwind will always have a spot in the pantheon as the most important Nike shoe—and franchise—of all-time. After all, without the original Air Tailwind from 1978 and ’79, we may never have gotten Nike Air.