Today, we can point to many sneakers that have stood the test of time.
Converse’s Chuck Taylor All-Star has evolved from the original performance basketball shoe to stylish, transcendental subculture staple. The adidas Stan Smith is more known for being the go-to white plimsoll of street style stars and teenagers alike, rather than the moniker of one of the best tennis players to ever grace the court, something Stan Smith (the man) has come to terms with. Given that Smith actually took over the naming rights to the silhouette from French player Robert Hailett, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that his legacy is intrinsically tied to a perennially popular shoe.
But the Air Force 1 is in a class of its own. Beyond the myriad athletes and celebrities that have endorsed it over the years, the Nelly song that pays homage to buying multiple white-on-white pairs, and the collaborations with relevant brands like Supreme, Off-White, VLONE, and ACRONYM, it’s achieved a certain status based on its own merits.
Designed by Bruce Kilgore in 1982, the Air Force 1 is notable for being the first basketball shoe to implement Nike’s Air technology, and among the first basketball shoes to utilize durable cup soles. This process cradles the shoe’s upper with a taller sidewall that is then sewn around to reinforce its bond with the sneaker, making the shoe lighter, more flexible, and more prone to handle abuse.
In the same way that the Pompidou museum in Paris inspired legendary shoe designer Tinker Hatfield to implement a visible Air bubble in the Air Max 1 less than a decade later, Kilgore took inspiration from the Notre Dame cathedral when thinking about how to angle the wide midsole of the Air Force 1. And in another twist of fate, Hatfield began to seriously think about applying his architectural expertise to footwear as an early wear-tester of the Air Force 1. A lifelong athlete, Hatfield was a corporate architect at Nike at the time, but he was so impressed with the performance aspects of the shoe, it sparked a new sense of creativity in him.
Considering Nike’s design legacy is built on the interdependent relationship between form and function, the Air Force 1 unites both in an ingenious, understated way. It’s sleek and pragmatic in the same way that the iPhone is — the kind of smart design people appreciate then instantly forget about. Comfortable and stylish, the clean lines of the shoe complement athletic gear, casual clothing, and in some cases, have even been worn with a suit.
During the early days of sneaker culture, the only place to buy Air Force 1s in New York City were in mom-and-pop sports stores in Harlem and The Bronx. Venerable sneakerheads like Bobbito Garcia and DJ Clark Kent drop names of defunct sneaker stores, like the colloquially-named “Jew Man’s” in The Bronx, as the go-to spot to cop the increasingly popular silhouette. Originally called “Nike Airs” by the fledgling sneaker cognoscenti, the AF1’s nickname soon evolved to reflect the area of New York City that put it on the map — the Uptowns.
It’s gone from mere silhouette to canvas, a symbol of New York City style and the grey area where braggadocious basketball culture spills over into the streets. In 2014, Supreme celebrated its 20th anniversary with a high-top pair that embodied the sneaker’s significance to NYC culture. When A$AP Bari released his VLONE x Nike Air Force 1 Highs on the East Coast, he did it at a pop-up shop in Harlem, bringing the “Uptown” silhouette closer to its roots.
The versatile sneaker has gone on to inspire several higher-end reinterpretations, most notably Nigo’s A Bathing Ape “BAPESTA” to Phoebe Philo’s pared-down take on the Air Force 1 Mid for Céline for the label’s Fall/Winter 2014 collection. Philo eschewed the iconic Nike swoosh but kept the silhouette’s round toe and proprioceptive belt, then rendering the sneaker in luxe calf leather. In a case of the snake eating itself, Philo’s monotone uppers in tan and blue leather have since seeped into Nike’s in-line offerings.
But the future of the Air Force 1 goes beyond simple retros and recolors. Designers like Errolson Hugh of ACRONYM and Nike designer Ben Kirschner have expanded its scope, taking it from casual style staple to utilitarian performance shoe. Silhouettes like the ACRONYM x Nike Air Force 1 Downtown and Kirschner’s Special Forces Air Force 1 use Bruce Kilgore’s foundation as a grounding point, updating the silhouette with modern materials and forward-thinking design details.
In doing so, the Air Force 1 becomes much more than a shoe; it becomes a medium for self-expression. And that creativity extends to the people who wear the kicks in their own way. As more and more sneakerheads and stylish citizens around the world get dressed from the feet up, the Air Force 1 continues to be the ideal foundation where sport, fashion, and timelessness meet in the middle.
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