My love for sneakers can be traced all the way back to the 2013 Black Grape Jordan 5. Being 14 at the time, this was my formal introduction into sneakers and what it really meant for a community. Something that was bigger than “just a sneaker”, what once was considered a “performance basketball shoe” has now transcended its initial purpose and has now become a fan favourite for those who grew up watching Michael Jordan play. I loved Kobe growing up and I idolised his game; if anything, he was my ‘Michael Jordan’. But as much as I loved watching Kobe, Jordans were what got me hooked. Being a Filipino didn’t help the Jordan bias, as all the “Titos” (uncles) and older siblings/cousins were also heavy into Jordans since they were at the age where they either saw Jordan play in his prime, or in his later years. Years later is where I found a growing love for Air Maxes, and since then that’s all I can remember spending all my hard worked money on. Opening the box to a pair of Air Maxes, still deadstock, factory laced, and with that universally recognisable NIKE glue smell, it was a feeling of pure euphoria.
Now if you were to ask me what I thought was the greatest sneaker of all time is, I’d probably say it’s a toss up between the the Airmax 1 or Jordan 1’s. But if you were to go on the street right now and ask people what they believe the Greatest Shoe of All-Time is, you’ll get almost a million different answers. Some will say Kanye’s YEEZY line with Adidas, or maybe Michael Jordan’s lineage of basketball sneakers, some would even come out and say that with Converses legendary status in street and sport culture that the Chuck Taylor would be heralded as the “Greatest Shoe of All-Time”. But without a doubt, one shoe that you would hear over and over again is the almighty Air Force 1.
The story of the Air Force 1 began with Bruce Kilgore, and his entrance into NIKE as a track spike designer alongside NIKE’s first employee, Jeff Johnson. After creating the perfect spike that led Carl Lewis to 4 Gold Medals at the ‘84 Atlanta Olympics, Kilgore was then positioned to lead NIKE towards a more “basketball” catered market, being tasked to create NIKE’s first basketball shoe to incorporate “AIR” technology.
At this point, AIR technology was still relatively new to the company’s design ethos where the NIKE AIR Tailwind first debuted 3 years prior in 1979 as a performance running shoe. By this point, NIKE was at the cusp of the mainstream as little did they know but in a few short years, they would sign a 21 year old Junior from the University of North Carolina who would later spearhead the brand into heights they would have only ever imagined...but back to the Air Force 1!
In contrast to the low cut, sleek, white-on-white Air Forces that we all know and love today, the original design that was released in 1982 was a high-cut boot style with an ankle strap and mesh panels along the lateral side of the shoe. Legend has it that in 1981 when Tinker Hatfield was employed as an Architect for NIKE, he one of the first to wear-test the Air Forces on court which then led him to drop his role and become a sneaker designer. In essence, if there was no Bruce Kilgore, there possibly would not have been a Tinker Hatfield, and subsequently the history of “sneaker culture” as we know it to be today would have been completely different. Would Reebok have taken over athletic culture with its Reebok Workout Plus? Or would Adidas have signed Michael Jordan? The possibilities are endless.
What made the Air Force 1 so revolutionary was that instead of using the traditional herringbone pattern on the outsole of all performance basketball shoes at the time, it was designed with a circular traction pattern that allowed players to pivot on the heel and ball of their foot with ease. This design allowed for the “BIG” dominated playing style from players such as Moses Malone, Mychal Thompson and Jamal Wilkes in the 80’s and into the early 90’s to flourish. Latter years saw anyone from forwards/centres like Rasheed Wallace and Charles Barkely to guards such as Kobe Bryant sporting the kicks on court.
Although the heritage of the shoe derives from a basketball designed ethos, the shoe itself hit the streets by storm and became almost a cult-favourite for anyone from drug dealers, basketball players, to kids on the block who just simply wanted a fresh pair of kicks to stunt at school. In today’s landscape of street and sneaker culture, every second person can be spotted in a crispy pair of white on whites, lows and mids, general releases to collaborations, it seems like every man and their pet owns a pair of Air Forces. But it wasn’t always this accessible, before all the fame and collaborations, it was a seasonal sneaker that eventually got shelved from the market.
Upon its release and success, NIKE sought to put the shoe away for the meantime opting to offer newer products with newer technology on catalogue to retailers and their consumers; this led to the discontinuing of the Air Force 1 in 1984, only 2 years after its initial release. Although prior to its discontinuation and with its current popularity, stores such as Charley Rudo, Cinderella Shoes, and Downtown Locker Room came knocking on NIKE’s door requesting exclusive colourways for their stores. This was inspired by the PE colourways that the Original 6 would be seen playing in on court; and later would spark the “Colour of the Month” marketing strategy that NIKE would use in 1986 upon the retro of the Air Force 1’s, creating regional exclusives that was first implemented by those 3 retailers.
The origins for the classic leather white-on-whites are almost lost in history as there have been artists spotted in pairs as early as 1992 although many claimed to see its rise around 1997. Canvas and leather iterations opened the floodgates for pairs to fill the streets, although with all the styles, colourways, cuts and collaborations to ever release, nothing grabbed the customers attention like the white-on-whites did. Entering the 90’s, Air Force 1’s were already making a heavy name on the streets of New York with rap legends such as Jay Z, Diddy and Biggie all spotted roaming the Boroughs in a crispy pair of white on whites, where they would go out to all the local Footlockers and buy out all pairs in their size. Whilst it did seem like a lot of money to spend, for a retail price of $80, this was chump change for these guys.
As the years have gone by, the shoe has only maintained, if not spiking in popularity throughout its 37 year history; receiving signature touches from the likes of DJ Clark Kent in his 112 Pack, the famous “Linen” colourway exclusive to ATMOS, Errolson Hugh taking a tech-wear approach to the classic silhouette, to even most recently being apart of “The 10” in Virgil’s OFF-WHITE collaboration with NIKE; the shoe has seen life thousands of times over, being re-imagined and re-created every single time. It’s proven time and time again that it is the perfect canvas for artists to take their own twist to it, and still offer a premium product that everyone from any subculture can enjoy.
It is a shoe that has stood the test of time and trend, and even with the thousands of iterations and retros the shoe has seen in its life, it has forever claimed a spot in history as one of, if not THE Greatest Shoe of All-Time.