Sneakers
From the ground up

When it was first released in 2000, the Nike Air Presto was one of the Swoosh’s most innovative sneakers. Dubbed a “T-shirt for your feet,” it was designed to fit immaculately with unmatched comfort. Co-designed by Tobie Hatfield, brother of legendary sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield, the Air Presto grandfathered the Nike Free program, whose goal was to give runners an experience as close to barefoot running as possible.

The Presto was a huge success upon release thanks in part to Nike’s incredible marketing campaign, which involved 13 colorways released simultaneously and each assigned a “character.” Each colorway had its own TV spot, featuring art direction by Monica Taylor and character nicknames courtesy of Dylan Lee, with the campaign overseen by legendary ad agency Wieden+Kennedy.

But the Presto was soon swallowed up by the Free running line, which Nike had started to push as its premier running program. Over the next decade, the sneaker found its way back into the public consciousness, albeit as a lifestyle shoe. Since then, the model has had several big moments thanks to limited, highly sought-after collaborations with ACRONYM and Virgil Abloh’s OFF-WHITE label. While both the ACRONYM and OFF-WHITE versions are reselling for several times their retail price, Air Presto enthusiasts such as Highsnobiety’s Timothy Suen point to another iconic collaboration: the Hello Kitty x Nike Air Presto.

Steven Smith, who designed the black/blue colorway of the Hello Kitty x Nike Air Presto
Highsnobiety / Clayton Cotterell

“This collaboration deserves grail status for so many reasons,” says Tim. “Most significantly, it’s the people behind the project: Hiroshi Fujiwara and Steven Smith. When the godfather of streetwear and the designer of the InstaPump Fury spam Japan’s most iconic cartoon character onto one of Nike’s best silhouettes, you know something good’s going to happen.”

Most outlets covering the Hello Kitty Air Presto have overlooked Smith’s involvement in the project, wrongly attributing both main colorways — pink and black — to Fujiwara. We’re here to set the record straight and give you a little more insight into the story of the Hello Kitty x Nike Air Presto.

The collaboration consisted of four sneakers in total, one — the white/pink version — was designed by Fragment’s Fujiwara, while a second — in a black/blue colorway — was designed by Smith, the man behind the Reebok InstaPump Fury and Nike Zoom Air Spectrum. Two other pairs were also seen in promotional materials ahead of the proposed release, but the Fujiwara and Smith pairs are by far the most talked about.

Highsnobiety / Timothy Suen

The Hello Kitty Air Presto was part of a project to celebrate the character’s 30th anniversary in 2004. Initially, according to Smith, the pack was supposed to get a limited-but-available release. But ultimately only an estimated 12 pairs of each colorway made their way to friends and family of Nike and Hello Kitty maker Sanrio. “I’m not sure why they became so limited,” says Smith. “The original plan was for 500 of each style when the project was first presented to me.”

It might sound odd given Hello Kitty’s target demographic, but Smith was the ideal candidate to design the shoe. “Mark Parker [now Nike CEO, then co-president] knew how much I loved Japan and Sanrio,” he says. “I would bring in my Hello Kitty waffle iron and make everyone Hello Kitty head waffles once or twice a year just for fun. I brought my lunch every day in a Hello Kitty or Bad Badtz-Maru lunchbox. It just seemed natural that I should work on the special project for Hello Kitty’s anniversary.”

Totally unlike Fujiwara’s classic Hello Kitty white/blue/pink colorway, Smith opted for something darker for his Hello Kitty Air Presto. “The colors were just ones I thought would be good when we put them together,” says Smith. “I also did the layout of the pattern on the HTM simple white version. I tried to create a range of simple literal art and a progression to distortion of Hello Kitty’s iconic head.”

When asked how closely he worked with Hiroshi Fujiwara, a legend in his own right, whose first name is the “H” in Nike HTM (alongside Tinker Hatfield and Mark Parker), Smith explains, “It was really interesting. I would get a little direction from Nike Japan and Hiroshi sent me a page with the graphic. I then applied it along with the Presto I generated to set the scale and location of the imagery.”

The fact the sneakers were so limited and only given out to friends and family makes them a holy grail for sneaker collectors — especially those who specialize in Air Prestos — not to mention Hello Kitty obsessives. As with anything, exclusivity breeds hype and insane resale prices. There’s a rumor that a pair of Hello Kitty Air Prestos were bought at a Goodwill charity thrift store for $10, while one pair is apparently sitting at Round Two with a resale price of $3,000. The sneakers’ almost mythical exclusivity and the somewhat murky understanding of how the collaboration came about make the collaboration one of the sneaker world’s ultimate curios.

Smith says he “loved the Presto from when I first saw Kevin Hoffer’s prototype transformed into the commercial version that Bob Mervar finished off.” To him, the Air Presto is an “evolved state” of the Nike Air Sock Racer’s stretch upper. “It was very well done and deserves to be held up as an icon,” Smith adds of the Presto’s design.

Fast forward to today and the Air Presto is enjoying a new lease on life thanks to the ACRONYM and OFF-WHITE collaborations. The latter has just seen the release of two new colorways (one black, one white) to go with the original “The Ten” release from late 2017. Smith has no qualms with how Abloh has interpreted the sneaker’s design. “I think the Virgil treatment is a fun way to continue injecting life into the model,” Smith says. “It’s always interesting to see what other creatives add to a model from their perspective.”

Exactly what Nike has planned for the Air Presto down the line is currently unknown, but the fact that various designers on the Swoosh’s stacked roster have now put their own spin on the silhouette speaks volumes about its place in sneaker history. As for Hello Kitty’s exploration of the sneaker world, Nike-owned Converse recently announced a Hello Kitty collection, which Smith is a big fan of. “I really like the Cons — I would like to have a pair myself!” he says.

We’re sure an old friend at Nike can hook him up.

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Footwear Staff Writer

My mum says I won’t win a Pulitzer writing about Supreme. She’s wrong.

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