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Special Feature

The Nike Air Max

As Nike unveils the latest reboot of the franchise – the Air Max Zero – we explore the origins of the world’s most recognisable sneaker

Ever since it was first introduced in 1987, the Air Max with its visible air bubble has been Nike’s ultimate crossover sneaker – arguably the one shoe that sits neatly in the Venn diagram intersection of Everyman and sneakerhead and various other subcultures from hip-hop to hipster. Nearly 30 years on, the Air bubble shows no sign of bursting.

Nike designer Mr Tinker Hatfield deservedly gets the credit for designing the original Air Max 1, but enthusiasts also owe a debt of gratitude to Messrs Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini. It was these three architects who dreamt up the postmodern Pompidou Centre in Paris, and their exposed skeleton-like concept with its transparent walkways and bold pops of colour inspired Mr Hatfield, a trained structural architect himself, to transpose the idea to footwear.

“I specifically went to Paris to see the city, but also to visit the Pompidou Centre,” Mr Hatfield recalls now. “It was a building turned inside out, with a glass skin underneath. Coming back to [Nike HQ in] Oregon, I had meetings with the technicians who were working on the larger Air-Sole units and I relayed my thoughts: maybe we could also expose the Air-Sole technology and create a shoe that’s like no other.”

  • “Air Max 87 in the Nike Store”, Air Revolution Store Mailer, 1987 Courtesy Nike

The son of a basketball coach, Mr Hatfield was an all-star athlete and played for his state in both basketball and American football. He won a scholarship to study architecture at the University of Oregon where he ran on the track team under coach and Nike co-founder Mr Bill Bowerman. He began working for Nike as a corporate architect in 1981. “I was designing some very unique buildings and offices and things at the time and people were like, ‘That guy should be doing shoes.’ I wasn’t pushing for it but, quite frankly, I knew it was inevitable and when it finally happened I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s roll’,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “Even as a young architect I was always the lead architect, even at the beginning I always had the creative process down and packed.”

Mr Hatfield’s athletic experience combined with architectural background helped him approach sneaker design in a fresh way. He wanted the Air Max to be noticeable from a distance and discernible by its signature silhouette. The innovation helped take Nike to the next level as a business.

“It caught on for a lot of reasons,” says Mr Hatfield. “It had new colours and it was wearable and yet wasn’t too crazy. The shoe was designed to breathe, be flexible and fit well but the fact it had the air window in the sole and the frame colour around it meant it looked a lot different from other shoes in its day.”

The design innovation was ground-breaking and Nike famously used The Beatles’ song “Revolution” on the 1987 TV ad which featured Messrs John McEnroe and Michael Jordan, helping transform the brand into a household name.

Importantly the Air Max wasn’t just a sports shoe. Nike had struck on the perfect combination of function and fashion – and unlike so many other 1980s icons, both the technology and the aesthetics have withstood the test of time. “Nike Air became their calling card,” says Mr Gerald Flores, editor-in-chief at US sneaker magazine Sole Collector. “Not only was it game-changing performance technology, but it also looked really cool.”

“The Air Max is like a supercar with a glass hatch to show off the engine,” says Mr Vinny Tang, assistant editor at Australian magazine Sneaker Freaker. The person who first invented this “engine” was aeronautical engineer Mr Marion Frank Rudy who made the concept of walking on air a reality in the late 1970s when he developed a polyurethane capsule filled with pressurised gas and showed it to Nike co-founder Mr Phil Knight.

This Air-Sole was then fine-tuned by Mr David Forland, Nike’s director of cushioning innovation, who was responsible for bringing Mr Hatfield’s vision to fruition. Between them they managed to repeat the trick with fresh Airs released every few years. “It was easy to recolour it and do it over and over again – it wasn’t over-designed,” says Mr Hatfield. 

“The Air Max is iconic in itself, and each iteration [see panel below] has its own following,” says Mr Sam Lobban, Senior Buyer for MR PORTER and resident shoe guru. From the purity of the original Nike Air Max 1 in Pompidou red and the neon-highlighted gradient overlays of the Air Max 95 and the futuristic silver bullet of the Air Max 97 to the gnarly exoskeleton on the Air Max Plus, each design is championed and chased down by obsessive collectors around the world. 

High-profile fans have also helped keep Air Max at the pinnacle of popular culture. President Obama goes running in a pair; Mr Kanye West was a devotee until he signed his Yeezy deal with adidas; rappers Eminem and Dizzee Rascal have both designed their own. The series has become so big that Nike has even claimed an anniversary dedicated to it: 26 March is now Nike Air Max Day, an opportunity for enthusiasts to join together globally to “wear their Air”.

From their rise in the 1980s, sneakers have never been more popular than they are today, partly thanks to the explosion in social media which has helped broaden their appeal and instantly diffuse new styles. “Sneaker culture has emerged from being niche to something much more mainstream – without losing its cool factor,” says Mr Lobban. “Broadly speaking, casual attire is definitely more the mainstream aesthetic than ever before,” he adds, “so premium or luxury sneakers fit in perfectly with a lot of guys’ day-to-day wardrobe.”

Of course, every successful franchise has a prequel. And this week Nike released the Nike Air Max Zero – dubbed “the one before the 1” – based on Mr Hatfield’s very first 30-year-old sketches from 1985. “At first glance I like the design of the Nike Air Zero,” says Mr Kevin Norman, considered one of the world’s foremost Air Max aficionados. “It has the classic silhouette of the Air Max 1 with the visible window in the midsole but from the back there are elements of [another Nike shoe] Huarache and the sock design of the upper and the innovative heel strap is a modern form-fitting update.”

  • Mr Hatfield at the Nike headquarters, Portland, Oregon, March 2015 Courtesy Nike

An energy options trader in Manhattan by day and a nightlife impresario by night, Mr Norman has more than 300 pairs of Air Max in his collection. But his favourite pair of all remains the original. “The Air Max Zero might be based on the early blueprints but the Air Max 1 is still the shoe that started the dynasty. In architectural terms, it is the foundation.”

Looking back at how successful the line has become, it is surprising to learn how difficult it was to lay those early foundations. Mr Hatfield revealed recently that he struggled to get his first Air Max off the ground. “A lot of people were trying to get me fired for [designing] it at Nike,” he said. “I’m kind of proud I’m named after someone who breaks the rules a little bit here and there. I’m a tinker.”

MAX POWER

How the Air bubbles have risen over the years 

Air Max 90

Arriving in 1990, this shoe had a larger volume of Nike Air in its sole. The Air Max 90 included ribbed plastic panels and multiple lacing options to create the perfect fit. President George H W Bush had a pair specially commissioned with AIR PRES branding. 

Air Max 93

Like the bumper on a car, the Air unit wraps around the back of the shoe with 270-degrees of visible air.

Air Max 95

This design is based on the human body: the midsole is the spine, the eyelets represent the ribs, and the layered panels and mesh symbolise muscle fibres and flesh. 

Nike Air Max 97

Inspired by Tokyo’s bullet trains, the silvery uppers and reflective piping of this shoe give it a futuristic look. The Air unit stretches the full length of the shoe.

Air Max 360

In 2006, almost 20 years after the original Air Max debuted, a 360-degree Air unit realises Nike’s initial vision of running completely on air.

Air Max Zero

The Nike Air Max 1 wasn’t designed in one shot. Rather, it was the result of several design iterations, one of the earliest being the concept of the Air Max Zero. The original sketches turned up in Nike’s archives and the result is true to the original vision, realised in modern materials and construction.