nike acg primer main
Getty Images / Los Angeles Times / Robert Lachman

For all their athletic connotations, sneakers are an indoorsy product. Think of the squeak of an outsole on hardwood flooring or those pairs of mint-condition kicks left on ice in humidity- and temperature-controlled safes. As Spike Lee taught us, scuffs, creases, and cracks are the bane of every sneakerhead’s life.

But Nike ACG (All Conditions Gear) is meant to be worn, conditions be damned. The promo shots for ACG’s new Spring/Summer 2019 collection show its new React Terra Gobe sneakers muddied and out on the trail. They’re not meant to be kept under glass. These shoes want you to go outside.

As Oi Polloi noted in a comprehensive essay, ACG probably wouldn’t exist without its outdoor predecessor Nike Hiking, which started in 1981. The Swoosh’s first stab at all-purpose gear featured a footwear triumvirate: the Lava Dome, Magma, and Approach. The latter shoe is perhaps most notable for being Nike’s first to feature GORE-TEX.

“The heaviest is the Magma,” read a Nike print ad from the time, “which tips the scales, barely, at 500 grams.” The lightweight hikers were a welcome innovation in outdoor shoes, which often weighed down the wearer with steel toes and bulky uppers.

While the ACG designation was first deployed in 1988 on the Air Pegasus ACG all-terrain trainer, Nike ACG’s official launch happened in 1989 with the release of the Son of Lava Dome and Wildwood shoes and an apparel arm to put out weatherproof gear designed for natural extremes of wind, rain, and snow.

nike acg primer
Nike

From the beginning, ACG sought to differentiate itself from other lines under the Nike umbrella. ACG’s ads were tongue-in-cheek, at times downright funny. Tanner Gimbel, owner of Portland retailer The Culture PDX, says ACG’s ad work helped build the sub-brand’s cult following. “The creativity, edgy slogans, and somewhat rebellious attitude of it all is really what we connected with,” he says.

ACG collector and Nike devotee Claude Fuchs tells a similar story: “Seven years ago, I was looking at Nikes on eBay when I stumbled on an old ACG ad for the Air Terra. The ad read, ‘CALL OF THE REALLY REALLY WILD,’ and I fell in love with the poppy colors of the pair. After this day, I bought every Nike ACG Terra.”

Early Nike ACG ads offered the “Top Ten Reasons to Start Outdoor Cross-Training.” Among the reasons were “7. Less likely to bump into people you owe MONEY to,” and “6. Few FOREST CREATURES have cellular phones.” Reason number one? The 1991 Air Mowabb, an outdoor cross-training shoe designed by Tinker Hatfield.

The Mowabb took design cues from the Wildwood and Air Huarache (released the same year) and fused them with influences that included Native American moccasins and the landscape of Moab, Utah. The shoe’s funky colorways and speckled midsole became a staple of Nike design and the OG is an instant grail for any Nike fan.

The ACG design team was as offbeat and maverick as the products it produced. As the late Gary Warnett wrote on these pages in 2014, “ACG was — and still is — a place where Nike’s greatest designers could go wild and make products for some extreme situations.” Not only was former architect Hatfield involved, the project attracted minds such as former designer of aircraft interiors Peter Fogg.

Fogg’s 1997 Air Humara trail runner was actually released under the Nike Running umbrella but has since come to be thought of as ACG’s most beloved stepchild. For the designer himself, the overlap of categories was logical. “All the trail shoes I designed in the ’90s were actually designed for Nike Running,” Fogg told Sneaker Freaker in 2018. “Trail shoes need to be great running shoes first and foremost.”

The pioneering work of designers like Hatfield and Fogg mean ACG has been at the cutting edge of Nike design development since the get-go. And with trail and performance outdoor wear gaining prominence within fashion and streetwear, the 2014 relaunch of Nike ACG as NikeLab ACG under ACRONYM head honcho Errolson Hugh was a prescient move.

“Errolson’s experiences and style from ACRONYM gave ACG a significant boost with a young, modern, street- and techwear-obsessed culture,” says Gimbel, noting how a number of his friends were brought into the ACG fold following Hugh’s reorientation of the line toward modern techwear.

As Tyler Watamanuk put it in GQ last year, ACG kicks “fall right within menswear’s current love for all things tech-y and utilitarian.”

“It brought an aesthetic aspect to the category that had never been there before,” Gimbel adds. “This all-black, GORE-TEX, fully taped seams, multifunctional, urban ninja-type feel really resonated with a lot of longtime ACG fans while creating a lot of new fans as well.”

But ACG’s pre-Hugh product roster remains a who’s who of cult classics. There’s the Air Deschutz, a kayaking sandal with Nike Air cushioning in the heel, and the Air Moc, a shoe best described as half-slip-on, half-sleeping bag.

And while the fashion world has come around to uber-technical gear in recent years, with Hugh’s departure after ACG’s Holiday 2018 collection, Nike has shifted the line back in a more heritage-led direction under new senior brand creative director James Arizumi. To that end, Nike ACG brought back the Wildwood in February, following the return of the Okwahn II and much-loved Air Revaderchi last year.

Whether this new-old approach works out or not, Nike ACG is going back outdoors, getting back in the mud, and back to the wild. If you’re buying them, just make sure you’re actually wearing the damned things.

For even a deeper dive into Nike, watch the video below.

Words by Ben Roazen

Ben Roazen is a writer, editor, and a hack-of-all-trades. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.