Sneakers
From the ground up

Turning 30 has traditionally been more of a bummer than a milestone. It’s often regarded as the end of youth and the last acceptable cut-off point where extended adolescence starts to look seriously undignified.

But when it comes to footwear, being a full three decades old is more of a commercial miracle than something to cry over. Fashion is an industry defined by fads, transience and designed obsolescence; yet here we are, gathered here on the internet today to celebrate Nike’s Air Max 1 hitting the big 3-0.

While countless trends have come and gone in that time, Tinker Hatfield’s bubble-soled creation has endured as an undisputed cult classic – and many, myself included, regard it as the greatest sneaker line ever created. Even if you don’t agree, you’d have to be the world’s biggest contrarian to deny how impressive this feat is.

Nike

But what is it about the Air Max that makes it so stubbornly ever-present in an industry where disposability is enshrined as modus operandi? In my view, it’s the conceptualist philosophy that underpins it: Tinker Hatfield didn’t simply aim to create a good-looking shoe, he looked outwards, beyond footwear and fashion, to create a memorable piece of design.

There was a depth to his thinking that I personally can’t see in the various YEEZYs, which I regard as little more than hollow marketing tricks. There’s a conceptual sophistication to the Air Max 1 and an approach that transcends commerce, which might explain its unshakeable appeal.

As you might have read somewhere in streetwear folklore (or here on Highsnobiety, rather), the exposed air bubble of the original Air Max, which has become the centerpiece of the entire line, was inspired by the facade of the iconic Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Dezeen

Built in the 1970s, the Pompidou, which serves as a museum of modern art, was both groundbreaking and controversial at the time: its exterior consists of naked tubes and pipes that are typically hidden away between the walls of most facades, but in this case they act as a sort of exoskeleton. Its ultra postmodernism jars with the conservative beauty of the surrounding area, which is very much postcard Paris, but it’s widely – and rightly – regarded as one of our planet’s great architectural marvels.

This what inspired Hatfield to bring the internal to the surface. Although it’s only the heel bubble that makes an obvious reference to the Pompidou, subtler similarities can be seen on the upper as well: it’s a constellation of patchwork pieces that have proved so infinitely customizable over the years, and are a big part of the reason why the Air Max 1 is now entering its third decade of production.

While the sneaker line might only expand by a single model every year, its two most popular iterations, the 1987 original and the 90, are constantly re-imagined in new collabs and colorways. Their maximalist, multi-component designs are like an assortment of jumbled LEGO blocks that reappear every few months in a new material, finish or shade. I often wonder if the Pompidou, which looks like an industrial Rubix Cube of tangled intestines, also inspired the AM1’s uppers.

BKRW

The Air Max 95 might have been designed by Sergio Lozano, a fresh-faced junior Nike designer at the time, rather than Mr. Hatfield, but Tinker’s influence still remains. The layered, rib-like upper is inspired by the striational ridges found on rock faces in the Grand Canyon, as well as the human body, with references to the human ribs, vertebrae, muscle tissue and skin coursing through the design. But going a step further, the design is really tied together and filled with a conceptual wholeness by the fact that it even looks like a sportswear take on a hiking shoe.

And all of the greatest Air Max models have some kind of story. The cult classic AM97 looks to Japanese bullet trains and captures the spirit of the Y2K era by seeping turn-of-the-millennium futurism from every stitch – but more of that here.

Although it’s not an Air Max, the Air Huarache subscribes to the same school of thought, reimagining the Mexican huarache sandal for the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air demographic.

Dominik Schulte / Highsnobiety.com

It’s this sort of thinking that creates an icon. I have a degree in product design, and my university professors were always insistent that great design is always outwardly referential. When conjuring up, say, a coffee table, it’s incredibly shallow and uninspiring to simply think of an archetypal table and try to make it as aesthetically pleasing as possible. You’re not going to conceptualize up a truly memorable design for a bottle of vodka by simply taking existing templates and trying to make them look better or different. You need to dig deeper by, say, turning to brutalist architecture for inspiration.

Sure, you can design something that’s nice to look at without thinking this profoundly, but pure beauty is often bland and forgettable. If you look at top supermodels like Kate Moss, there’s something weird and unconventional about their appearance that sets them apart from the stereotypically good-looking girls that you’ll find working at the perfume counter of an upmarket department store.

As uneasy at it makes me drawing parallels between human beings and consumer goods (I would hate to be accused of objectification, but it is commerce that objectifies these women; I’m just relying on them as examples), it illustrates my point: absolute aestheticism doesn’t always have the biggest draw. And the Air Max range is an unshakeable testament to that.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.

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