Sneakers
From the ground up

In 1971, Nike co-founder Phil Knight paid Portland State art student Carolyn Davidson $35 for what would become one of the world’s most famous logos: the Nike Swoosh. At the time, Knight was just launching Nike and needed a flashy logo that would stand out from his competitors. Nike’s sneaker designs were pretty straightforward back then: they slapped a standard-sized Swoosh logo on the medial and lateral sides of the shoe, stitched a NIKE AIR logo on the heel and called it a day. Twenty years later, things started to change.

In the early ‘90s, sneaker designs in general started getting bolder. Thanks in part to Tinker Hatfield’s work with the Air Jordan line, Nike understood the success of a model was not necessarily tied to a big Swoosh logo – an aesthetically pleasing design spoke for itself. For example, the only Air Jordan to feature a Swoosh in the ‘80s was the very first model. After the Air Jordan 1, the Air Jordan 2 featured only the Wings logo, and then the Air Jordan 3 featured the now-famous Jumpman logo.

Besides the early Jordans, there weren’t really any other Nike sneakers out there that didn’t have the standard Swoosh logo, except for a basketball series called the Nike Outbreak line. The Outbreaks dabbled with both minimal Nike branding and an oversized NIKE logo on the side of one of the models. However, the Outbreak series has long been forgotten by most sneaker enthusiasts. They were a testing ground for messing with the standard Swoosh placement though, which helped pave the way for Nike’s first successful minimal Nike branding campaign aside from the Air Jordan line: the Air Huarache.

In 1991, Nike eliminated the side Swooshes altogether with their ground breaking Huarache sneaker line. Basketball, running, tennis and trainer Huarache models barely had any Nike branding on them whatsoever. The Huarache featured a neoprene sock stitched inside a plastic cage – a look that was drastically different but strikingly eye-catching. In ’92, the “Outdoor Use Only” Air Raid didn’t feature a Swoosh either. The Air Raid drew its inspiration from the Air Jordan 8, with a similar heel design and cross straps for a snugger fit. These extreme changes were also the work of Tinker Hatfield, who was known by then to take a risk or two.

The Huarache and Air Raid would continue their success into 1993, opening the door for Nike to be much bolder with their designs and reintroduce the Swoosh in different ways. One Huarache model that did feature a shrunken-down Swoosh was the Air Huarache Light. Not as well known as the Air Huarache, but still significant, it was one of the first runners to feature a mini Swoosh.

Whether the success of that Huarache Light model was a determining factor in shrinking down the Swoosh with future models is unclear, but by 1994, a vast array of models ditched the traditional Swoosh for a smaller one. Andre Agassi’s popular tennis sneaker line was actually one of the forerunners, starting with the Nike Air Flare. Always willing to push boundaries in terms of tennis fashion and style, the Air Flare suited the rock n’ roll tennis star’s image well. Agassi’s favorite model not only featured the mini Swoosh, but it was also flipped backwards. The later retro models would turn it back around the traditional way.

Also in ’94, the Air Unlimited and Air Max CB2 would feature the mini Swoosh. The Air Unlimited was a sneaker made famous by Chris Webber his first year with the Warriors, and David Robinson with the Spurs. College star Grant Hill rocked them as well in the NCAA Championship game verses Arkansas. Charles Barkley donned the CB2 during his time with the Suns. Usually polka dots don’t fare too well on Air Max basketball shoes, but the combination of the little Swoosh above the Air Max heel unit and the dots worked perfectly for Sir Charles.

In 1995, Nike launched their LWP line, with the running, basketball, trainers, and tennis models featuring mini Swooshes. LWP stood for Lightweight Performance, and was the world’s introduction to Tensile Air. Nike would later rename that technology “Zoom Air.” This low-to-the-ground cushioning gave athletes a much more responsive and lightweight cushioning underneath their feet, and is still popular 23 years later.

The Nike Air Lambaste also released in 1995, and was worn by NBA stars like Penny Hardaway of the Orlando Magic. The Lambaste was one of the first Nike models to feature the jeweled Swoosh – a nice twist on the logo that would become prevalent with the Air Force 1, Cortez, and Air Max 1 beginning a few years later in 1998.

The Air Max 95 – the first Air Max runner to ditch the standard Swoosh on the side.
Titelmedia / Asia Typek

Also notable in 1995 was the iconic Air Max 95 – the first Air Max runner to ditch the standard Swoosh on the side. The Air Max 95 was different in many ways compared to earlier models – not only for its smaller logo, but also for its black sole and the visible heel and forefoot Air Max units.

By 1996, it seemed like half of Nike’s sneakers featured a smaller Swoosh. From trainers like the Air Bowl, Air Fly and Air Turmoil, to basketball models like the Air Maestro, Air Zoom Flight ’96, and Air CB34, to runners like the Air Max Triax, Air Structure Triax, and the Air Footscape. It’s such a commonplace feature now, but back in the early ‘90s, messing with the logo size was a radical idea. By removing the Swoosh altogether with Huarache models and then gradually reintroducing it in different sizes and locations on more and more Nike models only added to its brand effectiveness. The results were not always positive, as there are some models that have long been forgotten (like the Air Check in ’93 and the Air Baja 341 in ’95).

For the most part, however, it was a genius move by Nike to shrink the Swoosh.

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Words by Drew Hammell

New York-based sneaker commentator perpetually stuck in the ’90s.

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