Today, sneaker collaborations fill the e-pages of Highsnobiety, and it's peculiar to imagine a time when these partnerships were not commonplace.

In 2000, California surf brand Stussy partnered with Nike to produce two limited versions of the Air Huarache. This partnership was years ahead of its time, and created an important precedent that opened a space for smaller, independent brands to work with bigger, more established names like Nike. "Collaboration" was far from the enticing, marketing buzzword that it is today, as the audience for sneakers was much smaller in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After Stussy got the ball rolling, Japanese retailer atmos joined up with the Swoosh in 2002 to create a unique version of the classic Air Max 1. The team at atmos added an unmistakable "Safari" motif to Tinker Hatfield's now-iconic design, which is today considered one of the greatest versions of the Air Max 1 to date.

A year later, in 2003, atmos again re-worked the Air Max 1, giving fans a new "Viotech" version with a purple and mixed brown theme. Japanese retailer atmos was quickly gaining acclaim in sneakerhead circles, firming up a strong foundation of collaborations with Nike. Jumping forward to 2007, the atmos x Nike Air Max 1 "Elephant" arrived on the scene as part of a "Zoo" pack. While the Air Max 1 "Elephant" is only one example of Nike's keen eye for collaboration, especially in streetwear culture's early days, last year Air Max fans used their votes to resurrect the sneaker for 2017. Speaking to Nike, atmos Creative Director Hirofumi Kojima noted: "Of course it was a great pleasure and the greatest honor for a person whose job is about sneakers. To be honest, I did not realize the significance of the event at first, but a lot of celebratory remarks from the staff and my friends made me realize it."

For a massive sportswear company who was battling the likes of Reebok and other brands for dominance in the US market, it was relatively risky to allocate resources towards a collaboration with a small, Japanese boutique like atmos. Speaking on the unabashed color scheme, Kojima went on to explain; "I remember talking with the people in Nike Japan, who were involved in the project, about creating something crazy and stupid that would give impact to the market. We happened to find a pair of vintage Nike kids shoe with zebra print, and we decided to create shoes with animal prints under the concept of zoo." As we've seen, this tradition of Nike partnering with smaller boutiques and brands to give rise to their ideas has paid off in a big way.

Interestingly, the color story of the atmos x Nike Air Max 1 "Elephant" parallels that of Japanese streetwear first-mover A Bathing Ape, which refers to the idea of a monkey bathing in lukewarm water, as a self-aware metaphor for the overindulgent, younger generation in Japan at the time, which eventually became the label's own customer base. Similarly, the Air Max 1 "Elephant" recalls the image of an elephant taking a bath, with hits of bright turquoise on the heel, tongue and Nike Swoosh.

In 2017, sneaker collaborations continue to act as platforms for innovation and creativity, driving new ideas and bringing like-minded (or in some cases dissimilar) partners together. Despite being part of vastly different cultures, Nike and atmos found common ground to tell a coherent story which has lasted through the years.

Today, March 18, Nike is re-releasing the iconic sneaker, accompanied by an all-new atmos x Air Jordan III in matching colors. Replacing the classic Jordan elephant print with spotted safari details, the basketball sneaker also features a translucent sole and hits of orange.

Get your pair from Nike direct or through Nike stockists.

  • Main & Featured Image:Thomas Welch /

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