Sneaker Icon: Nike’s Air Kukini Finally Gets Its Comeback
Nike Air Kukini from 2000. Photography courtesy of Nike
Have you ever heard of the Air Kukini? The archives of an industry behemoth like Nike, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, are stuffed with classics that have only grown in mainstream popularity over the decades. Take the ubiquitous Nike Air Force 1, which this year celebrates 40 years of being everyone’s go-to sneaker. The Nike Air Kukini, however, is a lesser-known model that experienced a successful but short-lived release.
First launched in 2000, the Air Kukini was the creation of Mr Sean McDowell, a designer and innovator who held a 22-year tenure at Nike, during which he crafted a handful of pioneering running shoes, including the Nike Air Plus Max and the Nike Mayfly. The Air Kukini was also created with athletes in mind, and it fell under Nike’s newly launched Alpha Project, a category of products focused on pushing the boundaries when it came to both performance and design.
However, unlike many of the brand’s performance-led shoes, the design of the Air Kukuni wasn’t originally inspired by a runner, but by a skier. While watching a Winter Games qualifier, McDowell spotted American alpine ski racer and Olympic gold medallist Ms Picabo Street in a sleek ski suit with spiderweb detailing across the side.
“It’s iconic enough that people will want to buy it the second time around, and also weird enough to grab the attention of the individualist youth of 2022”
“It was the boldest, incredibly interesting thing, so I wondered if you [could] build a shoe out of a spiderweb,” McDowell recalled in an interview with the late sneaker expert Mr Gary Warnett. “Then I decided to pull that out and start making the web a stretchy material then connect them and tape the web to the top of the shoe and have the circles coming out from the centre. We tested it and you have a lot of protruding bones at the top of the foot so it becomes really irritating.”
McDowell took early versions of the Air Kukini to Texas to be tested out by Ironman triathlete Mr Mark Allen. As an athlete who was constantly performing in and out of water, the word Allen used to describe his chosen sport was “amphibious”. This term spun the entire project around, with McDowell working alongside the Nike Sport Research Lab (NSRL) to research amphibians. The whole pattern was changed accordingly, with the initial weblike construction swapped out for TPU tooling that both distributed pressure and supported the foot by wrapping it snugly – without the need for laces. The slip-on aspect became a key selling point for the shoe, with many ads referring to its “fast on, fast off” construction.
Allen had some other key insights to share with the Nike design team. These included the fact that he’d regularly pour cups of water over his head to cool down, which would inevitably pool inside his shoes. So, McDowell initially placed lots of holes in the midsole to allow water to drain easily. The upper was crafted from form-fitting Lycra and quick-dry breathable mesh and Nike also added visible Air Max technology into the heel for long-term cushioning.
What was also striking about the Air Kukini was its debut colourway. Obviously inspired by water, the aquamarine upper had a pattern reminiscent of bright summer sunlight refracted through a clear blue swimming pool.
“I don’t remember the cage or the Air bubble, but I absolutely remember the aqua-patterned neoprene upper,” says Mr Sam Le Roy, creative lead at digital sneaker publication Hartcopy. “It’s a sneaker my father would wear at length.”
Subsequent releases were less “out there” and slowly the silhouette faded into relative obscurity – except in Japan, where it developed a small but loyal cult following, likely aided by collaborations with Junya Watanabe. It crept back in and out of stores over the years, appearing as the Air Kukini 3 with Velcro straps instead of the signature webbed cage in 2003, and with a Nike Free sole added into the mix in 2012.
“It’s such a polarising design – a disruptive yet innovative piece of tech”
However, 2020’s in-demand Nike X Stüssy Air Zoom Kukini marked a pivotal turning point for this underdog. It propelled the shoe straight into the wish lists of an entirely new generation of sneakerheads and cleverly paving the way for a steady slew of re-releases.
“It’s been long enough that it will hit both markets,” notes Le Roy, referring to those who were fans of the Air Kukini in the 2000s, as well as Gen Z. “It’s an iconic enough shoe that people will want to buy it the second time around, and it’s also weird enough to grab the attention of the individualist youth of 2022.”
The Y2K trend, which revisits early 2000s fashion through a nostalgic lens has reached peak popularity, marking the perfect time for an underrated and distinctly turn-of-the-century sneaker to resurface. Unorthodox shoes are in, and as Warnett put it, the Air Kukini is “good, but ugly”. So, what better time is there for a comeback?
Fittingly, the first few versions released this year felt extremely 2000s: a blue upper with a transparent cage and topographical detailing in metallic silver, not dissimilar to the shoe’s original spiderweb inspiration; a leopard print iteration, which just dropped on MR PORTER; and one in a striking blue/green/neon yellow gradient finish.
The shoe may be kitsch, but it’s undoubtedly designed with comfort in mind. And unlike many high-end takes on the ugly sneaker trend, nobody can accuse the Air Kukini of being all style over substance.
“They’re underrated for sure,” Le Roy acknowledges. “It’s such a polarising design. People either love it or hate it. The Air Kukini may not be an icon in the traditional sense: they lack the cultural cachet of the Air Jordan 1, Dunks, or anything in the Air Max series. But they’re an icon in their own right – a disruptive yet innovative piece of tech that Nike may just be finally realising the full potential of.”