Nowadays, the Air Jordan 1 may be one of the most recognizable and beloved sneakers on the planet – but that wasn’t always the case. Going back to the beginning, Michael Jordan famously wanted to sign with either adidas or Converse (Jordan was an early supporter of Converse shoes like the Fastbreak), but both companies turned him down. Nike was predominantly known as a running shoe company, so he considered the Swoosh a step down from the two brands he wore during his college days at North Carolina.
Nike was so keen to sign the Chicago Bulls rookie that it offered him a $2.5 million endorsement deal including his own signature shoe and apparel line, which was unheard of in the NBA in those days. The initial 1984 Air Jordan 1 was an updated version of Peter Moore’s Nike Air Ship model with the addition of the inaugural wings logo on the shoe’s upper. Following the NBA’s supposed “banning” of the shoe, Nike rolled out a canny advertising campaign which, alongside MJ’s spectacular debut season, made the shoe a huge hit and netted Nike $130 million by the end of 1985.
Nike’s Air Jordan 1 “Banned” commercial kick-started an era of athlete-endorsed sneakers that were actually more in demand to flex on the streets than to wear for sports. The Air Jordan 1 was the must-have fashion shoe which would become the backbone of streetwear culture for years to come, and the key deal to propel Nike into the global giant it is today.
My personal journey with the Nike Air Jordan 1 started way back in 1986, but had nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with skateboarding. Growing up as a young skate rat living in rural England during the pre-internet 1980s, my most important link to the outside world came in the form of Thrasher Magazine from San Fransisco. Copies of the mag were fairly hard to come by in the UK, so each issue I was lucky enough to come by was treasured and read religiously from cover to cover.
Back then, the magazine was printed on newspaper, with the majority of the content and advertisements presented in low quality black-and-white. The July 1986 issue featured a nine-page feature on the Sacto Streetstyle comp, one of the first major events focused on a new style of skateboarding known as “street skating”. I was fascinated by the images throughout the full color spread, of skaters like Mark "The Gonz" Gonzales and Steve Cabellero busting doubles off a jump ramp and Neil Blender skating the hood of an old car. Not only were the tricks something completely new for the time, but all the skaters were wearing the same shoes – Nike Air Jordan 1s.
During that year, the pages of Thrasher Magazine pictured many of my favorite skaters, such as Christian Hosoi, Tommy Guerrero and Natas Kaupas wearing color variations of Air Jordan 1s. I had personally never heard of Michael Jordan, but I had always worn Nike Bruins and Blazers to skate in, and instantly loved the look of these new high-top Swoosh sneakers. The absolute killer for me was seeing my idol Mark Gonzales wearing the Chicago colorway in a series of photo shoots and commercials promoting (his now legendary) Andy Takakjian-designed pro model for Vision Skateboards.
When my aunt returned from a trip to the states with a pair of Chicago Air Jordan 1s, I was beyond stoked. I wore these shoes to death – for skateboarding, for BMXing, for playing football, for hanging out…their versatility to look good with everything (while doing anything) was the key to their appeal and, in turn, their longevity.
It’s this universal appeal and timeless look that has kept the Air Jordan 1 in the hearts, and on the feet, of so many for over three decades. The first, and most simple of all Jordan's signature shoes, has blazed a trail to become the shoe that defined sneakers as streetwear:
Michael Jordan may not be the most stylish icon in streetwear (some of those oversized suits and baggy denim should’ve never seen the light of day) but when the 21-year-old NBA rookie of the year burst on the scene with his debut season for the Chicago Bulls, his influence on the street was as impactful as his performance on court.
The aforementioned “Banned” commercial alongside Nike’s “Man Was Not Meant To Fly” campaign propelled Jordan and his debut sneakers across the States and became the essential fashion tribute to basketball’s hottest rising star.
If Jordan didn’t possess as much style, flair and charisma on the court, maybe the desire to be “Like Mike” wouldn’t have caught the attention of so many so quickly and the Air Jordan legacy we know today may have never outgrown that debut shoe.
Skateboarding is more of a lifestyle than a sport, so with no need for team uniforms, skateboarders have always worn whatever feels and looks good.
To make way for the 1986 Italian-produced Air Jordan II, Nike heavily discounted the remaining stock of Air Jordan 1s so skaters jumped on the $30 sneakers in droves. Nike even sent The Bones Brigade a box of Jordan 1s to wear when filming their 1987 era-defining video The Search For Animal Chin with all members of the team bar Tony Hawk (who still had a box fresh pair of Vans Sk8-His saved especially) wearing them throughout.
In an era predating skate shoe companies and skater pro models, simple canvas sneakers like the Vans Sk8-Hi and Converse All Stars were the skaters main choice in the ‘80s. With the quickly developing street tricks the canvas shoes would wear through at an increasing rate so this high-top leather sneaker was both a comfortable and durable alternative.
Once street skating really took hold there was a major uptick in popularity, with Natas Kaupas and Mark Gonzales standing out as both pioneers and stars of the art form. Shoe companies clocked their popularity and new companies and more established sneaker brands started to sponsor skaters. Hawk signed to Airwalk (which started off straight imitating traditional Vans styles), Gonz and Gator went to Vision Street Wear (the clothing division of their board sponsor who started producing footwear) and Natas was taken on by a new French brand called Etnies who offered him the first ever pro model skate shoe. This was a defining landmark in skateboarding, as you had a brand owned by skateboarders, making shoes for skateboarders and personally endorsed by skateboarders. The Etnies Natas shoe was (ironically) inspired by the Air Jordan 1 with a traditional hi-top basketball cut and similar midsole.
Starting with the back cover of LL Cool J’s debut album Radio in 1985, hip hop's love affair with the Air Jordan 1 – and the entire Air Jordan range – shows no sign of letting up. From JAY-Z to A$AP Rocky, Drizzy to Kendrick, the classic Js have adorned a who's-who of emcees over the years. The fact that the Jordan 1 is such an entry level sneaker has allowed the entire Jordan franchise to become definitive staples in hip hop, a genre which has embraced the sneakers arguably more than any other.
Hip-hop fashion has evolved many times throughout the decades – track suits and gold ropes in the '80s, bucket hats and Starter jackets in the '90s, throwback jerseys and tall tees in the '00s, through to the all-black everything and streetwear of recent years – but the Air Jordan 1, alongside the classic Timberland 6-inch boot, has kept its longevity as a hip hop footwear staple.
With Jordan Brand even going as far to now ink endorsement deals with the likes of Drake, Travis Scott and DJ Khaled, the line looks to continue its dominance of the genre.
While hip-hop may be the musical genre mostly associated with the Jordan line, the Air Jordan 1 was actually hugely popular in the California Rock scene during the mid/late 1980s.
From the Bay Area to the Sunset Strip, the de rigueur look for thrash, metal and skate punk bands was big hair, cut-off band tees, skinny jeans and Nike hi-top basketball kicks.
Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine and even Slash from Guns’n’Roses were big fans of "Bred," "Royal" and "Chicago" Air Jordan 1s. This look went on to inspire many of today’s hip-hop stars adopting the vintage rock band tee/skinny pants/Js look for their own modern styling.
With Hollywood A-list fans such as Jason Sudeikis and Mark Wahlberg (with the latter even awarded his own AJ1 “Wahlburgers” colorway in 2015) it comes as no surprise to see the iconic Jordan 1 featuring on the silver screen.
From screwball comedy Police Academy IV to Spike Lee’s debut She’s Gotta Have It, the Jordan 1 has made multiple appearances in movies but none quite so prevalent as the "Old Love New Love" Black Toe 1s on the feet of Will Smith’s anti-hero Hancock in 2007.
If the Air Jordan 1 kick-started streetwear then Nike SB took it to a whole other level in 2002. With their limited edition distribution, endless colorways and ever changing collaborations, the SB line became the essential streetwear shoe of the ‘00s.
The SB hype may have long died down by the time Nike’s skateboarding division announced a collaboration with Jumpman Brand in Spring 2014, but the two projects were still well executed. Multimedia artist, and Dogtown original, Craig Stecyk presented an iridescent green/black AJ1 SB in March 2014 with Bones Brigade legend Lance Mountain following up with his pairs several months later.
While Stecyk’s pair were hardly groundbreaking, the interesting element to Lance’s concept was a nod to when he used to rock mismatched Breds and Royals. The Lance Mountain SB x AJ1 featured a layer of paint that was designed to wear off when skated in to reveal the original colorways.
We may have already spoken of hip-hop's love of the Jordan 1 but, for several years, Kanye's dedication to the shoe was above and beyond your average rapper.
Before his own Air Yeezy shoe (a first for Nike to award a signature shoe to a non-athlete) a pair of Air Jordan 1s seemed to be a permanent fixture whatever West’s outfit. "Bred" and "Royal" colorways were his choice, and have been omnipresent from the front row at Paris Fashion Week to the streets of his Calabasas neighborhood.
Love him or hate him you can’t deny Kanye’s influence on the way young men dress, being one of the few celebrities to genuinely influence fashion trends and movements. His (post-Nike split) claim on radio program Juan Epstein in 2013 that he and manager Don "Just Don" Crawley started the trend for retro Jordans may be a little far-fetched but he certainly helped increase the thirst.
“The only reason why Brand Jordan is relevant is because of two people – me and Don C. Because Don C used to order them vintage Jordans for me when I was the new, up-and-coming style icon in hip-hop.”
Very few outside companies have been awarded the honor of collaborating on the iconic Air Jordan 1, with Jordan Brand selecting just a few high profile brands to work with on the silhouette.
Hiroshi Fujiwara’s label fragment design took a subtle approach with a minimal branded "Royal/Black Toe" make-up in 2014 that was feverishly received, going on to change hands for insane prices on the resale market. This was followed by COMME des GARÇONS’ retail outlet Dover Street Market who teamed up with both NikeLab and Jordan Brand for a navy patent version of the AJ1 the following year.
The latest collaboration is an upcoming project with Virgil Abloh’s OFF-WHITE label in September this year, which has even been supported by Louis Vuitton's creative director of menswear, Kim Jones. By far the most daring interpretation of the style to date, Abloh’s take on the Chicago classic is more of an extreme remix than most sneaker collaborations we’re used to seeing. Sure to polarize opinion in equal measures, it’ll be interesting to see how the OFF-WHITE Jordans sits within the silhouette's history in years to come.
An Unmatched Legacy
Over the past 30 years, the Air Jordan 1 has been so iconic within sneaker culture and streetwear it’s fitting that it has now started to influence itself with recent "Top Three" and "Homage to Home" tributes to it’s early releases.
In a bizarre sneaker-inception the original Air Jordan 1 has morphed into multiple incarnations including the KO, Ultra High, Pinnacle, Satin, Deconstructed, Flight, Golf Shoe, Heiress, Mid, Low and countless colorways that allow this legendary basketball shoe to continue inspiring sneakerheads, fashionistas and athletes for years to come.
Now see Higsnobiety's very own ranking of the best Jordan releases of 2017 so far.