Walking On Air: How Nike’s Tailwind 79 Sneaker Sparked A Revolution

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Walking On Air: How Nike’s Tailwind 79 Sneaker Sparked A Revolution

Words by Ms Molly Isabella Smith

17 July 2020

“No shoe ever made has created so much discussion – even controversy,” reads the typically bold slogan of a Nike advertisement from the 1980s promoting the brand’s revolutionary new Air technology. With no picture, you’d be forgiven for assuming the ad refers to 1987’s Air Max 1, a shoe credited with ushering in a sneaker revolution and now so firmly embedded in the sneakerhead psyche that its debut is commemorated every year on 26 March, otherwise known as Air Max Day.

You’d be wrong. The subject of the ad is the Tailwind 79, an unassuming-looking running shoe and the first sneaker to feature Nike’s Air technology, albeit hidden away in the midsole. Despite playing a formative role in Nike’s history, the Tailwind is often overlooked – unfairly so, according to the brand. After an exhaustive list of its performance benefits, the commercial continues: “The Tailwind is our finest training shoe. But the past is only prologue. This shoe is the start of things to come for the athlete who runs on air. What we know today makes it hard to wait for tomorrow.” Nike knew it was on to a very good thing. Few others at the time thought so.

The Tailwind story starts with Mr Marion Franklin Rudy, a Nasa aerospace engineer, who approached the brand with the idea of using pockets of air as a cushioning platform in shoes. Nike wasn’t his first stop. “Prior to his first meeting in 1977 with Nike’s co-founder, Mr Phil Knight, Mr Rudy had pitched his air bag innovation to 23 other shoe companies,” the brand tells MR PORTER. “They all rejected him.”

“It was seen as a gimmick,” says Mr DeJongh “Dee” Wells, a self-described “kickstorian” and founder of the podcast Obsessive Sneaker Disorder (OSD). “It was so different, so outlandish that no one thought it could work. It took someone such as Nike, particularly Knight and Bill Bowerman [Nike’s co-founder], to look at it and say, ‘You know what? We can use this thing.’”

That radical, try-anything mindset was likely informed by Nike’s aim to dominate the running market at the time. Today, we tend to think of the brand as the sportswear behemoth, but back then, compared with its competitors, it was a relatively fresh player in the athletics world. “Nike is number one,” says Mr Wells. “But it wasn’t always number one. In the world of sneakers and trainers, it was all about adidas, Converse and Puma.”

The company more than made up for this with its energy. “Nike debuts in 1972 and it is hyper focused on running,” says Ms Elizabeth Semmelhack, creative director and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. “Bowerman had been responsible for importing the concept of jogging into the US in the mid-1960s and wrote a book about it. Running was part of the ‘me’ generation’s new-found focus on exercising for personal best. It was about testing the limits of yourself as an individual. It’s when marathon running has a big surge in popularity and running for health and fitness becomes increasingly important.”

What convinced the top dogs at Nike to take a chance on Mr Rudy’s invention was getting their hands on the new technology. “After Phil took one of Frank’s air-cushioned prototypes for a test run, he immediately saw the potential of Air as an athletic innovation and teams began innovating to adapt the new platform,” says the brand. A year of trial, error and testing followed before Nike unveiled the Tailwind at a marathon. Released in limited quantities (which swiftly sold out) at the 1978 Honolulu event, the Tailwind was launched worldwide the following year, hence the 79 in the name. Nowadays, with Instagram just a tap away, the sneaker world tends to think of pre-release runs as a means to generate buzz, but the brand had a much more practical reason for approaching the launch this way: the importance of testimonials. “I think that really what Nike was doing at the time was just getting them into the hands of people who would wear them and give them actual feedback as a way of improving the product,” says Ms Semmelhack.

The Tailwind was part of Nike’s effort to create a supremely lightweight shoe. “They were really breaking away from the more traditional Converse and Ked’s canvas upper, rubber-soled look to make this highly desirable sneaker that would segue very easily between fashion and fitness,” says Ms Semmelhack. “One of the challenges that runners have is that footwear can wear you down if it doesn’t seamlessly connect to your foot. It can add lag and drag. And so, one of the things that Bowerman was trying to do was innovate ways to protect the body from taking a complete pounding while running on pavement.”

“This consistent cushioning was unlike anything else on the market at that time, the air unit underfoot had a high rate of energy return and was resilient, allowing runners to redistribute energy with every stride”

“This consistent cushioning was unlike anything else on the market at that time,” says Nike. “The air unit underfoot had a high rate of energy return and was resilient, allowing runners to redistribute energy with every stride.” Scientific studies backed up Nike’s claims. Runners who wore Tailwinds expended less energy and  were able to run farther, faster and for longer.

Like the Cortez, Nike’s inaugural running shoe, before it, the Tailwind made the most of another of the brand’s innovations, the waffle sole, the main purpose of which was to reduce weight. “That’s sort of the famous reason for the waffle trainer, right?” says Ms Semmelhack. “Bowerman was trying to make the sole as thin as possible while also providing traction. The Tailwind is just a part of that trajectory, but they’re trying to add more cushioning for the runner by making use of the lightest thing available: air.” And while you might not have been able to see it, you could certainly feel the technology. “The first sneakers that I saw from Nike were the classic Tailwinds,” says Mr Wells. “The whole Air technology was mind-blowing even before we got to see the visible window. We knew it was in there.”

From the start, Nike positioned the Tailwind as being in a league of its own. Even the instructions (yes, they came with instructions) on the box of a 1981 pair in the Bata Shoe Museum’s collection mark it out as a one-off. “The feedback we have received from our test runners indicates that the unique features of the Tailwind may require a short period of adjustment before you can fully appreciate the advantages of the Air sole,” it reads. “For example, the runner may experience a feeling of sinking while walking in the Tailwind. This sensation is reduced or eliminated when running. We suggest that the shoes initially be worn for short runs until you are accustomed to the Tailwind ride.”

To prove the point further, it goes on to provide highly detailed care and washing instructions, warning the wearer always to handwash them and never put them in a tumble dryer.

In the years that followed, the Tailwind underwent a transformation that rendered it practically unrecognisable from its predecessor. Updates to the design in the 1990s capitalised on the cache of visible Air bubbles, which had disrupted the market with the release of the Air Max 1 and Air Revolution models in 1987.

“When Nike was able to show the Air bag, that was like the Willy Wonka, Wizard of Oz moment where you’re seeing behind the curtain,” says Mr Wells. “It was like a big reveal. And that connected with runners, but it really connected with people who just wanted sneakers that looked cool.”

Performance sneakers were now a style statement. “The designs were always bold and always the most contemporary expressions of the Nike Air aesthetic. The models released between 1992 and 1999, all versions of the Tailwind, introduced radical – and instantly memorable – colour blockings and gained a strong following,” says Nike.

“It was always a sensitive subject for a lot of sneaker makers, this intersection between fashion and fitness,” says Ms Semmelhack. But it’s probably why Nike decided to issue a re-release of the Tailwind 79 in its original guise in 2012 and again, arguably more successfully, in 2018. “I was blown away that they came back,” says Mr Wells. “It’s not a flashy-looking pair of sneakers. It’s a classic silhouette that hit.”

Ms Semmelhack reckons the shoe’s popularity – mesh uppers, waffle soles, Air midsoles and all – has a lot to do with our nostalgia for days gone by. “Part of it is cycles of fashion,” she says. “Part of it is just basketball shoes’ dominance for so long. And so, I feel like the revival of the running shoe is, in part, just looking for another shape. Because the desire for retros remains so strong, companies start to look back into their archives for shoes that were popular in the 1970s and early 1980s.”

We don’t have time to unpack precisely why sentimentality for the past continues to reign in the sneaker and style worlds, but Mr Wells suggests that part of the reason is that those who came of age during the first, second and third Tailwind releases are now attaining financial security. And with disposable income, there’s nothing to stop them indulging in a little nostalgic fun.

“I’m amazed every time a retro sneaker comes out,” he says. “I’m blown away by the obsession with that sneaker. The message boards, Twitter and Instagram. This thing is never going to go away. Truly obsessive sneaker disorder lives with a lot of people. As long as there are human beings on this Earth, there are going to be people who want those sneakers, because they do remember and maybe they do have some more money, and now they’re able to buy or splurge or treat themselves to a classic pair of sneakers.”

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