WORDS BY STEPHEN YU
What makes the Nike Air Force 1 one of the most iconic silhouettes ever created? For a start, it’s one of the few sneaker designs that transcends all cultural boundaries, loved and worn by dads, sneakerheads, fashion insiders, and teenage girls alike. It’s now one of Nike’s most adored lifestyle silhouettes, but like many of the Swoosh’s creations, the Air Force 1 was once at the cutting edge of basketball sneaker technology. Named after the aircraft that the President of the United States of America travels in, its influence is rivaled only by Michael Jordan’s wildly popular Air Jordan series. Join us as we take a brief look back at the Air Force 1’s history.
The History of Nike Air Force 1
The Makings of an Icon
The Air Force 1 was a sneaker of firsts for Nike. It would be the first basketball sneaker to feature the Swoosh’s revolutionary Air cushioning technology within its heel, and also its first experimentation with slip-lasted construction – a process still used to this day in sneaker manufacturing. But most notably, the Air Force 1 would be legendary Nike designer Bruce Kilgore’s first foray into the world of basketball sneaker design.
Prior to Kilgore’s arrival, prototypes for Nike’s first Air-cushioned basketball sneaker were so unattractive that they drew comparisons to the Michelin Man from Nike employees. Armed with X-rays of the human foot and research conducted by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, within a few sessions Kilgore had weaved his minimalist magic to create the Air Force 1 we know and love today. To meet the performance demands of basketball players, Kilgore incorporated the slanted heel of a hiking boot for added flexibility without sacrificing ankle support, with a removable ‘proprioceptive belt’ for increased support if necessary. He added concentric circles to the tread pattern of the outsole, giving players a pivot point for explosive and sudden direction changes. Finally, he took inspiration from the Notre Dame cathedral to balance the increased height of the cupsole (due to its Air unit) and make for a more stable ride. And it all worked too. Prototypes sent out to college basketball players for wear testing performed so well that they were never returned. One player, then an architect for Nike, would be so impressed by the Air force 1’s design that he decided then and there to change roles and become a footwear designer. His name? Tinker Hatfield, the man who would go on to design every legendary Air Jordan from III to XV.
In 1982, the first Air Force 1 debuted on the courts as a high-top in a white/neutral grey colorway. Worn by six of Nike’s NBA players – Michael Cooper, Bobby Jones, Moses Malone, Calvin Natt, Mychal Thompson, and Jamaal Wilkes – and with a clever marketing campaign slogan, ‘Air will be sold by the box’, sales of the AF1 skyrocketed. By 1983, the shoe was so successful that Nike introduced a low-top model alongside a series of Air Force 1 colorways in an array of bold team colors.
By 1984, with the Swoosh looking to create the next big innovation in the world of basketball sneakers, the Air Force 1 was facing retirement. Were it not for the ingenuity of three Baltimore sneaker retailers, Downtown Locker Room, Cinderella Shoes, and Charley Rudo Sports (aka the Three Amigos), we might not be wearing the Air Force 1 at all today. With the AF1 being such a big hit in Baltimore, the Three Amigos were not keen to let their number one seller disappear from their shelves, so they decided to fly to Beaverton Oregon to present a sales pitch at the Nike HQ. The idea, dubbed the ‘Color of the Month’ program, was a monthly colorway drop exclusive to the city of Baltimore, and Nike – with its lack of inner city sales – was keen to activate it. Foreshadowing the sneaker culture of the future, sneakerheads would drive up from as far as Philadelphia and New York to get the latest ‘Color of the Month’ release.
Just like the sneaker it tried to save, the campaign was the first of many for the sneaker industry. Although commonplace today, it was the first collaboration between a retailer and a brand, and as a set of exclusive colorways for one city, it pioneered the idea of regional exclusives and limited-edition products. It also introduced the concept of retro releases to the sneaker world which, alongside innovation, is essential to every brand’s sneaker strategy and calendar today. By 1986, the Air Force 1 was back for good with some contemporary tweaks – an italic logo and a Swoosh at the heel.
Inner City Status Symbol
For the first time, a sneaker had transitioned from the realm of sportswear to the world of fashion. Throughout the Noughties, every major event and holiday was an opportunity for Nike to release a new Air Force 1 in a variety of materials. Already a status symbol for those with expendable cash, during the early Noughties the Air Force 1 would be established as the inner city shoe of choice for hip-hop communities in East Coast America (leading to the nickname ‘Uptowns’, in reference to the regularity of sightings in Harlem in uptown New York) and the London grime scene.
Today, this iconic sneaker continues to be used as an experimental canvas for Nike’s most innovative technologies, from their personalization service Nike ID, to the more sustainable Flyknit knitted uppers, and Lunarlon foam cushioned sole units. After almost retiring at the grand age of two, it seems very likely that the Air Force 1 will still be around for its 40th anniversary in 2022.
Original release date: Circa 1996
‘The most iconic colorway of one of the greatest sneakers ever.’ Zack Schlemmer of Stadium Goods
The second best-selling shoe of all time after the Air Jordan 1, in what must be Nike’s highest-grossing colorway ever. Forever immortalized in Jay-Z and Nelly songs, the white-on-white lows were possibly the first shoe ever to be co-signed lyrically by both model and colorway. Potentially released as early as 1992, and as late as 1997, if the greatest sneakerhead of all-time Gary Warnett couldn’t figure it out, we have no chance.
2. Nike Air Force 1 Mid “White on White”
Original release date: 1994
‘The mid-top version of the iconic all-white colorway.’ Zack Schlemmer
With the mids being released some 12 years after the original AF1, they’ve had a tough time emerging from the shadows cast by their older sibling. But now it’s youth before beauty, with the white-on-white mid being the shoe behind the AF1’s recent resurgence. Popularised as the on-stage shoe of choice for ASAP Rocky in the early Noughties, Rocky would later claim in an interview at the Oxford Union that he only wore the then ‘wack’ shoe to see if he could get them trending again.
3. Nike Air Force 1 Low “Linens”
Original release date: 2001
‘This is one of the most legendary Air Force 1s ever. It was first released in 2001 and only in Japan. Collectors all around the world were scrambling to get a pair.’ Zack Schlemmer
As part of its strategy to expand the shoe’s following in foreign markets, Nike released a slew of regional exclusives during the Noughties. Released as one of three Japan-only colorways (the others were the ‘3M Snake’ and Atmos AF1’s) by Nike’s Co.jp aka “Concept Japan” (Nike’s Japanese activation team), the ‘Linens’ mixed a pink Swoosh and outsole with earthy-linen brown uppers. In 2016, AF1 fans in the states had a second chance to get their hands on this former Asia exclusive when the silhouette was re-released by Kith.
Original release date: 2017
‘Released with Virgil Abloh’s already legendary “The Ten” Nike collaboration, the Air Force 1 Low is one of the best designs of the entire set.’ Zack Schlemmer
Abloh’s ‘The Ten’ collection was defined by its deconstruction and reconstruction of 10 Nike icons, and exploring the themes of ‘Revealing’ and ‘Ghosting’. While models from the ‘Revealing’ theme were defined by Abloh’s use of an X-Acto knife to expose internal foams and remove Swooshes, the ‘Ghosting’ theme this Air Force comes from was all about revealing the inner workings of each silhouette through the use of transparent materials. Featuring translucent uppers and midsoles with a deconstructed Swoosh, each piece in the collection charted Nike’s 94-year history in the sports of basketball (beginning with the Chuck Taylor) and running (ending with the Zoom Fly) through shared materials.
Original release date: 2014
‘Supreme has designed numerous editions of the Air Force 1, but many consider the “World Famous” pack of Air Force 1 Highs from 2014 to be its best effort to date. Simple two-toned colorways of red/white, white/black, and black/white combined with bold Supreme branding on the heel and ankle strap to make one of the most memorable looks on the silhouette ever.’ Zack Schlemmer
The second Nike Air Force 1 silhouette (third if you include the self-released ‘Midtown’ which looks suspiciously like the Swoosh’s ‘Uptown’) and one of the earliest non-Nike SB collaborations from the New York-based skate brand. These shoes were famously released online only, leaving hundreds of Supreme devotees in NYC empty-handed with no in-store release on the horizon. It was also the first time Supreme was carried on the NikeLab online store.
Original release date: 2002
‘You can’t have any discussion about the Air Force 1 without giving a shoutout to Rasheed Wallace, who wore the hightop throughout most of his NBA career from 1995 to 2013. Sheed kept it real in a wide variety of player exclusive colorways throughout the years, usually in shining patent leather. This white and blue version from his days with the Detroit Pistons was re-released in 2018 as part of Nike’s “Think 16” collection, paying homage to various NBA Championship winning players and the shoes they wore on the way to their 16 playoff victories to earn the title.’ Zack Schlemmer
It takes a real AF1 fan to still be wearing the shoe professionally some 30 years after it was released, but that’s exactly what Rasheed Wallace did. While basketball shoe technology moved on leaps and bounds during his career, Wallace never strayed. And though fans speculated his pair had Zoom Air technology hidden inside, Rasheed would later confirm that he wore standard Air Force 1s with custom orthotic insoles and nothing else. We can’t think of a Force fan more deserving of their own shoe than him. Each Rasheed Wallace collab features a Jordan-esque logo of his trademark fadeaway shot and comes in a variety of patent leather colorways. Wear yours with the strap hanging off the back, just like Sheed did.
Original release date: 2017
‘As part of the 35th anniversary celebration for the Air Force 1 in 2017, Nike tapped Travis Scott to design this highly coveted version of the silhouette. Complete with grillz on the laces and interchangeable Swooshes, Travis Scott’s Air Force 1 was the first of many insanely popular collaborations between the rap superstar and Nike.’ Zack Schlemmer
While the Houston-raised hip-hop artist’s most recent collaborations with Nike are anything but subdued, his first foray into the sneaker world was quite the opposite – a clean white canvas Air Force 1 Low with a tasteful gum sole and chromed out Swooshes. He didn’t stop there though: the shoe exhibited that classic Cactus Jack flair with multi-colored reflective taped seams that lit up under camera flashes, 3D lenticular holograms hidden under the removable Swooshes, and velcro patches for the laces. The shoe was so good, he even brought it back a year later with sail-colored canvas uppers.
Original release date: 2006
‘In 2006, Nike teamed up with Sony to celebrate the release of the PlayStation 3 by dropping this incredibly limited Air Force 1. Only 150 pairs were produced and were mainly given to Sony employees and celebrities, making it one of the most highly coveted Air Force 1s to this day.’ Zack Schlemmer
. Released as one part of the many regional exclusives that defined the early Noughties’ AF1 drop calendar, this stateside release was only available to the general public through a raffle. Mixing premium leather with a patent leather toebox, red laces, and a faded heel panel complete with the iconic OG PlayStation logo, the shoe would be rereleased in 2009 in full patent leather with purple laces.
9. Original Nike Air Force 1 High White/Grey
Original release date: 1982
‘Because you have to include the shoe that started it all.’ Zack Schlemmer
Debuted as a high-top, the first Air Force had a mesh side panel and toebox and had a front mudguard that was composed of two panels stitched together. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, the mesh was deemed too expensive so was cut in favor of toebox and side perforations. Who knows if the AF1 would be as iconic as it is today if it had kept its original mesh construction? The first retail versions also had side-stitched detailing and no heel quarter panel.
Original release date: 2015
‘Errolson Hugh’s Acronym label combined forces with Nike for an Air Force 1 collaboration in 2015, resulting in this wild, zippered take on the silhouette. The unfinished aesthetic of the design was unprecedented at the time, but the exposed stitching and haphazard approach would soon become commonplace after Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten” collection arrived in 2017. In hindsight, the Acronym x Air Force 1 was way ahead of its time.’ Zack Schlemmer
Bringing the same focus on innovation and functionality that he masterfully weaves into every piece of Acronym, designer Errolson Hugh adds a zipper to make this Nike icon easier to slip in and out of – no more untying and retying laces. The super lightweight Lunarlon sole makes these even comfier than the original too. Hugh claims he dipped the heel in resin to bring balance to the shoe yet still emphasizes its angularity, but all we know is that it looks great.