In some respects, 1987 was a great year for entertainment and culture. Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Simpsons made its first television appearance, Michael Jackson released Bad and Nike released the inaugural Air Max sneaker, the Air Max 1. These moments would all go on to be hugely influential and each one’s revolutionary character lives on today.
For Nike, the Air Max 1 went down in history as a pivotal and innovative design that elevated the brand when they needed it most. Although the story is part of sneaker lore, its 30th birthday—also known as Air Max Day—is approaching and as Nike dedicates an entire month to its celebration with more releases than we can keep track of, we’re taking a look back at how the Air Max revolution started.
It’s a story that can’t be told without first introducing renowned designer Tinker Hatfield. In 1981, long before becoming sneaker industry royalty, Nike hired Hatfield as a corporate architect to design buildings on the brand’s Oregon campus. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1985, that he would begin designing footwear upon request. He applied his architectural background to sneaker design and it didn’t take long for him to impart a rebellious spirit into the recently struggling brand. “I began working on a renegade set of shoes that were not part of a design brief or marketing drive,” he explains, referencing what would become the very first Air Max sneaker.
The ‘80s started well for Nike, they’d acquired 50% market share in the U.S. athletic shoe market and were on track to become a one billion dollar company. However, midway through the decade, the competition was creeping up on them. Bright colors, daring patterns and bold neons embellished the era, and Nike needed something more striking. Nike’s Cortez, Waffle Racer and Tailwind had proved popular in the past but they didn’t capture the experimental nature of the time. Hatfield saw the importance of risk taking and a trip to Paris would provide the catalyst for a brightly burning idea…
Nike’s Air technology wasn’t new; it was developed by former NASA engineer Frank Rudy and introduced in the Air Tailwind in 1978. Air replaced traditional molded EVA soles with gas filled urethane pouches. However, it was the consensus that as performance technology the pouches ought to be felt and not seen. That was until Hatfield came along.
It wasn’t another sneaker or even a fashion concept that planted the idea to expose the Air-cushioned sole in Hatfield’s mind, it was a controversial building in Paris that many considered an eyesore. “I don’t know if I was thinking, well now I’m going to design a shoe based off of this,” Hatfield said in the documentary series Respect the Architects. “I just remember being super influenced by it and having my architectural senses turned upside down.” He’s referring to the Centre Georges Pompidou, a building design that took all its functional and structural elements and placed them on the outside for all to see. Even today, its irregularity remains impossible to miss amongst Paris’ traditional architecture. Hatfield believes that had he not seen the building he may never have suggested revealing the air pouch: “I thought let’s make the bag a little bit wider, make sure it’s stable, but then let’s go ahead and remove part of the midsole so we can actually see it.”
Nike had been trying to make its air technology smaller, increasing its size and displaying it was a provocative idea — the brand feared the transparent display would look structurally weak and easily punctured. In the Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, Hatfield describes the reaction to early Air Max sketches: “It was widely discussed that I had pushed it too far. People were trying to get us fired.” Fortunately, Hatfield had the confidence to challenge the opposition with support from David Forland, Nike’s Director of Cushioning Innovation. However, while Hatfield had complete confidence in the integrity of his design, no one could have predicted the Air Max 1’s lasting impact.
Nike’s first sneaker to reveal the Air-cushioned sole, the Air Max 1, finally released March 26, 1987 and featured in Nike’s first television ad the same year. It was part of the Air Pack which also featured the Air Trainer 1, Air Sock, Air Revolution and Air Safari. “I was at an airport right around the time the first Air Max sneaker launched,” explains Forland. “I was calling a tech in the lab when someone walked by wearing a pair. I stared at him from the phone booth and said, ‘Somebody bought them. I see the Air-Sole going up and down!’ It was a big risk, but bigger reward.”
From then onward, Air Max has been the gift that keeps on giving, the innovation led to a sneaker series that’s still going strong thirty years later. Air Max 90, Air Max 180, Air Max 95, Air Max 97, Air Max Plus, Air Max 360 and Air Max 2015, amongst others, have all notably followed the original. In 2017, alongside the Air VaporMax, Nike debuted the most innovative Air Max 1 to date, the celebratory anniversary edition Air Max 1 Ultra 2.0.
The reworked sneaker came in the OG Air Max 1 colorway with 3.26 embellishing the tongue and commemorating the original’s anniversary. Thanks to the lightweight Ultra 2.0 outsole it’s also one of the lightest Air Max models ever.
For a deeper dive into the world of Nike’s Air Max, watch the video below.
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