Sneaker Icon: How The ACG Air Mowabb Took Nike To New Heights

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Sneaker Icon: How The ACG Air Mowabb Took Nike To New Heights

Words by Mr Joseph Furness

6 October 2021

“Gorpcore is a pretty fascinating trend,” says sneaker journalist Mr Ross Dwyer. “Especially in a big city such as New York, where the concept of combating the elements means something completely different from rural hiking settings. Here, you’re not snowboarding or climbing mountains, so you don’t really need a Gore-Tex jacket, but they’re still useful for taking on the urban environment.”

Whether it’s the pandemic or extreme weather events, in recent seasons, there has been a shift towards the outdoors in menswear. Brands such as Arc’teryx, Patagonia and The North Face, known for their serious hiking hardware, have been worn for more everyday pursuits.

So, it makes sense that Nike’s revived ACG (All Conditions Gear) subline has found its footing. More than that, it is setting the pace. Take Mr Salehe Bembury’s recent efforts with New Balance, Anta and Crocs. Or what Mr Sean Wotherspoon is doing at adidas. ACG got there first. In short, it’s peak peakwear.

Nike ACG Air Mowabb advertisement, 1992. Photograph courtesy of Nike

“ACG’s purpose was and still is to be a functional, outdoors-led product,” says Mr Joss Long, sneaker buyer at MR PORTER. But don’t just take our word for it. “The collections ACG have been putting out recently have been fantastic,” says outdoorsy Instagrammer @114.index. “The colour palettes are always on point and the design team have nailed the vintage-style fit.”

Recently reissued to celebrate its 30th birthday, the ACG Air Mowabb is the jewel in ACG’s crown. Forged “for running on trails, riding mountain bikes, climbing hills, jumping streams or sprinting away from bears”, as the promotional material around its 1991 debut put it, this is a shoe that will channel your inner Indiana Jones.

“Air Mowabbs are culturally significant because they took the idea of connecting performance and lifestyle beyond where it had started – on the street, in the gym, on the basketball court – and brought it into the realm of the wild,” says Mr Howie Kahn, co-author of New York Times bestseller Sneakers. “Hiking needed a dose of neon.”

This wasn’t entirely uncharted territory for the Beaverton sportswear giant. A decade before, Nike had launched a trio of trek-appropriate creps called Lava Dome, Magma and Approach, each designed to provide protection and stability, no matter the topography. Then, in 1988, the first ACG shoe was introduced. A reworking of its trusty Air Pegasus model, the ACG update featured a rubber toe guard and replaced the soft textiles of the upper with a waterproof synthetic leather.

The Air Pegasus ACG was something of a soft launch for the imprint. ACG was formally announced the next year with the release of two shoes, the Son Of Lava Dome, a lightweight shoe inspired by its namesake, and the streamlined Wildwood. But it was the model that followed that took ACG to new heights.

“It’s a middle finger to the traditional outdoor clothing brands that, in the 1990s, would target middle-aged ramblers”

As with most Nike origin stories of the era, the creation of the ACG Air Mowabb begins with Mr Tinker Hatfield, the prolific architect cum sneaker designer. Tasked with designing an idiosyncratic ACG model, Hatfield hit on a shoe that paid homage to Moab, a small city in eastern Utah that had served as his base camp for numerous climbing, biking and hiking adventures in the red rock landscapes of the nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. (The alternative phonetic spelling was chosen to give it a “lighter feel and attitude”, Mr Craig Duerr, then Nike product line manager, revealed.)

It was here that Hatfield became preoccupied with the concept of turning a moccasin, an indigenous American leather shoe that allowed the wearer to feel the ground, into a cross-trainer sneaker designed to minimise the degradation of the soil it trod on. Moreover, he was keen to take design cues from the geography of the area.

The final product also borrowed elements from the Air Huarache, a recently released silhouette inspired by ancient Mexican sandals that had turned sneaker design upside down. The Huarache’s trademark sock-like neoprene collar was deployed to ensure sand and rubble were kept out of the sneaker, while its thermoplastic heel strap was used to provide additional support.

But what really made the Air ACG Mowabb sing were the intricate details Hatfield brought to it, particularly the conspicuous ACG logo sewn into the bootie upper. For @114.index, this branding “represents a certain attitude. It’s a middle finger to the traditional outdoor clothing brands that, in the 1990s, would target middle-aged ramblers”.

The shoe’s speckled midsole, inspired by the rainbow trout of Moab’s lochs, wasn’t something Nike had worked with before. Hatfield’s team resorted to flicking paint onto samples to get the desired effect, pushing the developers at the factory to devise a solution for a mass-produced flecked finish.

Perhaps the biggest statement is the one designed not to make a mark, the “leave no trace” outsole. The shoe itself was built to tread lightly, but the underside of the Air Mowabb certainly makes an impact, adorned with the ACG logo and the name of the model in a zany, zeitgeisty typeset.

The original release came in a colourway dubbed Rattan Birch: beige and blue with jarring pops of orange. In the early 1990s, it was a palette that would have stood out, but these tones were chosen as a nod to the Utah landscape, reflecting the sand, lakes and rocks.

“The colourway is so iconic that All Conditions Gear instantly comes to mind when you see a beige, blue and orange colour combination,” says @114.index. “The Air Mowabb introduced a colourway that has become synonymous with Nike and ACG, finding its way onto Air Force 1s, Air Huaraches, Air Max 93s and Air Max Lights over the years,” says Mr Alex Powis, author of Sneakers Unboxed.

Two more colourways followed, Twine and Trail End Brown, and the sneaker really took off – and not just in the national parks it was built for. You were as likely to spot it on Seinfeld as you were in Sequoia. “It may have been sold as a hiking shoe, but it wasn’t long before it became a hit within NYC sneaker culture,” says Dwyer.

A year later, Nike introduced an update, the Air Mowabb Plus. Released in three colourways – White/Black, Spruce and, the most sought-after of the three (and a favourite with rapper Mr Travis Scott), Gravity Purple – this souped-up edition featured the Huarache motif on the tongue, which brought it into the fold of the trailblazing line. The upper bootie now featured a helpful pull tab, while the ACG logo had been replaced by the name of the shoe.

“It may’ve been sold as a hiking shoe, but it wasn’t long before it became a hit within NYC sneaker culture”

A sequel, the Air Mowabb 2, dropped a few years later. “The profile was slightly lower and the colours were stronger, a blend of olive green, pale green, deep purple, marigold yellow and black,” says Long. “It also featured intricate maroon details.” Despite this, it failed to make the splash of the original shoe.

In the years since, re-issues of Air Mowabbs have been few and far between. A limited 2009 drop in the original colourway was quickly snapped up, as was a 2015 edition in Trail End Brown and Rattan Birch. Collabs with Jay Gordon Bodega and Pendleton (2017) and Comme des Garçons (2018, in instant-classic monochrome colourways) followed. In 2019, Nike teamed up with Ms Olivia Kim, Nordstrom’s vice president of creative projects, to release a new version, in a colourway called No Cover, with a mini Swoosh to the mudguard. Beyond these, sightings were scarce, which only makes this re-release, 30 years on, that much sweeter.

“It’s a monumental anniversary for the sneaker,” says Dwyer. “Nike would never pass up on an opportunity to celebrate such a date. Nike can introduce the sneaker and its story to the Gen Z sneakerheads for the first time.”

The class of 2021 is a fresh take on a familiar shoe, combining elements of the ACG Air Mowabb, the Air Mowabb Plus and the Olivia Kim Air Mowabb. It’s a Megazord Mowabb.

The bootie upper features the ACG logo and two access tabs, with the Huarache logo on the tongue and a mini Swoosh embroidered onto the mudguard. The new design also features a softer midsole foam and a much stretchier collar, officially now called the Conga collar. Aptly, Nike has pulled colourways from both the 1991 and 1992 collections for the release of this fusion silhouette, namely Rattan Birch, Twine and Gravity Purple.

Given the way the gorpcore aesthetic has infiltrated luxury fashion and streetwear, the timing of this re-issue couldn’t be better. “The outdoor trend is having a big moment, amplified by the pandemic forcing people to holiday in their home country and to value time in nature,” says Powis.

In 2021, perhaps the biggest selling point is the promise of the small footprint. It’s the “leave no trace” ethos that chimes with today. “The trend isn’t going anywhere,” says Long. “And, as these new generations dive into ACG, they will come to appreciate the Air Mowabb silhouette.”

Walk on air