Sneakers
From the ground up

After Nike’s Air Max 90 made the fledgling “Air” line white hot, there was only thing for the Swoosh to do: turn up the degrees.

In 1991, Nike unveiled the Air Max 180. The product of internal collaboration between legendary designers Tinker Hatfield (Air Max 1) and Bruce Kilgore (Air Force 1), the AM180 came hot on the heels of its right-angled brother. Like the Air Max 90, the AM180 launched in a vibrant colorway that highlighted the Air unit with bright Infrared. Unlike the 90, that highlight didn’t go all the way. Only the third Air Max runner ever released, the Air Max 180 would introduce the line’s first Air unit to make direct contact with the ground.

Initial reception was, in a word, muted.

“One reason could be that the upper design was a bit too ‘dad-like’ for a lot of people’s taste,” says Drew Hammell, curator of @nikestories, an Instagram account dedicated to vintage Nike which counts Ronnie Fieg and the A$AP Mob as followers. “The sole was new and unique, but the rest of the shoe was more traditional.”

Whatever the reason, the Air Max 180 just didn’t quite catch on. Despite being set up for success as the focus of a 1992 Olympic marketing push (Michael Jordan was often spotted in 180s as the international sports media breathlessly covered the habits of America’s “Dream Team”), the ground contact sole just wasn’t good for much traction at the cash register. It certainly didn’t help that original print ads for the shoe didn’t look very “Nike.”

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Compared to the Air Max 1, Air Max 90, or soon to come Air Max 95, the launch of the AM 180 was rare miss. But that’s not where its story ends.

While it was marketed as a next-gen runner, the Air Max 180 shares a special connection with art and culture. In 2004, then-upstart Kanye West received a gift in celebration of his debut album. In a box from Oregon lay West’s first custom Nikes: the ultra-rare “College Dropout” Air Max 180. One year later, British grime pioneer Dizzee Rascal would choose the Air Max 180 as a canvas for his own Nike collaboration, the “Dirtee Stank” 180 limited to just 60 pairs. Then, in 2006, Eminem would add the exclamation point: the 1/1 “Shady 45” Air Max 180 was sold at charity auction. Another Eminem Air Max from the same series recently listed for over $7,000 resale.

Arguably, those original “un-Nike” ads from 1991 were part of this ahead-of-its-time lean towards creative culture. The original Air Max 180 ads were made of work commissioned from artist collaborators, not Weiden & Kennedy Art Directors. In a time when a sports photo and the right price made for reliable marketing, Nike put co-branded modern art into magazines worldwide.

However, artist co-signs could only do so much. The sneaker game of the mid-2000’s functioned much different than our own: without beefed-up distribution and cultural demand, even West and Eminem couldn’t turn the shoe’s 2006 relaunch into gold. Subsequent attempted relaunches (like 2013’s size? collab, “180 Terra” unveiling, then radio silence) seem to have met the same fate. The Air Max 180 – that sleek, ground-pounding, artist’s choice runner – must have appeared destined to fizzle.

Then along came Rei.

Last summer, legendary Japanese fashion house COMME des GARÇONS unveiled the latest installment of its long-running Nike collab: a pink-tinged Air Max 180, due out for Men during Spring/Summer 2018. Rei Kawakubo, the line’s founder, is seen as the “artist’s artist” within the fashion world – a mysterious, unapologetic avant-garde couturier. Just as notably, Nike had used a Comme des Garcons show just one year earlier to introduce the world to Vapormax, kicking off a year-long hype train that’s still gaining steam today.

It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that Air Max Day 2018 will see the debut of the Air Max 270, a hybrid silhouette that combines the iconic Air Max 93 with – you guessed it- the Air Max 180.

Could a CDG co-sign, Air Max Day bump, and a dash of the “dad shoe” trend be the secret formula for getting the 26-year-old sneaker to finally stick? Only the future knows. What’s certain is that despite its status as a more obscure member of the Air Max family, the artist-involved, Kanye-cosigned Air Max 180 paved the way for many of the cultural currents we see in sneakers today.

“[The Air Max 180 was] the first signs of more visible Air in Nike soles,” concludes Hammell. “It was a foreshadowing of what took 25 more years to perfect with the VaporMax: total Air cushioning throughout the entire shoe.”

While it may have never truly caught fire commercially, the Nike Air Max 180 lit the way for a generation to come.`

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  • Main & Featured Image: Overkill

Alex Rakestraw is a writer, strategist, and creative based in New York. He covers fashion, footwear, sustainability, and tech.

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