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Nike on AirCourtesy of Nike

How the Nike Air Max became an icon of subcultural style

As the Nike Blueprint Pack is announced ahead of the Paris Olympics, we look back at the Air Max’s subcultural past and into its innovative future

“Can you imagine a world without Air?”

I heard this question repeated a lot during my visit to Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Portland last month, where press from around the world had gathered to celebrate the arrival of the newest member of the Air Max family: the DN.

And while, if I’m being totally honest, I can imagine a world without Air, its status as one of the greatest footwear lines of all time is undeniable. Since 1987, when the first iteration of the shoe – the Air Max 1 – was first unleashed, it has appeared in many forms, weaving in and out of sports, sub- and style cultures, from here in the States, to small towns in the northeast of England, and across the globe.

The Air Max has been central to Nike’s success story, to its transformation from a small running shoe maker to the $30 billion-dollar behemoth it is today. Even on a physical level, the scale of the brand now is astounding. The 286-acre campus in Beaverton is a workplace to over 12,000 people – the Serena Williams Building alone (which opened in 2022) is over a million square feet, covering the equivalent of over 140 full-size tennis courts.

However, the Air Max had an auspicious start. In his memoir, Shoe Dog, Nike’s former CEO Phil Knight remembers thinking that when he first heard the pitch for shoes with air cushioning from NASA engineer turned inventor Frank Rudy, it sounded like “jet packs and moving sidewalks”. But they went ahead anyway, reflecting the fearless approach to innovation that the brand still has today.

It was Tinker Hatfield – an apt name for a designer if ever there was one – who decided to make this cushioning (an actual pouch filled with pressurised gas) visible, after visiting the Centre Pompidou in Paris and being struck by the building’s iconic ‘inside-out’ design. “I remember thinking that destruction sometimes is an important thing that needs to happen for culture, art and design. The building was very much a disruptive thing,” Hatfield said some years later. “I came back to work thinking, ‘That’s exactly what Nike needs!’”

And that’s how the Air Max 1 came to be. Of course, 37 years on, this original shoe has many descendants: the Air Max Light, the 90, the 180, the 93, CB94, 94, 95, 97, the 360, the Vapormax, the 270 and the 270; and now, of course, the DN. Inspirations have ranged from the human anatomy (the 95), to Japanese bullet trains (the 97) and the French banlieues (the new DN).

And while in the States, the Air Max’s history is very tied to sport, in Europe it’s much more connected to culture and subculture. Take, for instance, the Air Max BW, which was adopted by the dance music scenes of the 1990s. “I think people looked at the bubble and thought it would give them bounce if they were dancing all night, like at a rave out somewhere in the forests,” says Reggie Hunter, Nike’s product director, who is himself from the northeast of England. “So when you think about the BW, it’s associated with gabber music in the Netherlands and has a really deep connection with Rotterdam and Amsterdam. And I would say the 90 had that similar connection through acid house in the UK. Rave culture was underground, sneaker culture was definitely underground at that time.”

Of course, it didn’t stay underground for long: the mid-90s saw “the first real surge in sneaker culture”, according to Reggie. Footballers were wearing the 95, along with TV presenters (the Jamie Theakston type, not the Paxman type) and Sporty Spice herself, Mel C. Up in Middlesbrough, where Reggie was growing up, the Air Max TN was the first shoe to grab his attention, but trainers were less accessible then; it was the time before online shopping and you might have had to travel to your closest major city to find a certain pair you were after.

When the 2000s hit, sneaker culture had a bit of a lull: garage music was dominating the charts but its proponents were more interested in wearing Italian designer labels than sportswear brands; clubs had no-trainers policies and it was about drinking champagne and exuding a sense of wealth, glamour and exclusivity.

And then came grime, garage’s loud, brash, disruptive younger sibling which brought things back down to earth. Led by Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Kano et al, the genre brought music and style back to the streets. Eschewing those designer labels in favour of tracksuits and trainers, Air Max experienced another resurgence. Just think of Dizzee appearing on the cover of his now seminal debut album Boy in Da Corner in an all-black tracksuit and matching pair of Nike Air Max BWs.

After another lull between 2008 and 2012, when indie music and its cursed combination of drainpipe jeans, brogues and Brothel Creepers, jaunty hats and highly questionable waistcoats, sneaker culture came back bigger than ever before – again, in part thanks to grime, which experienced a tectonic revival. Supreme and Palace ushered in an era of hype fashion, with luxury brands wanting a slice of the pie. The line between luxury fashion and streetwear was all busy dissolved and ‘contemporary luxury’ was born. And this is the climate in which the Air Max DN has been released.

Aside from the added bounce, the Air Max DN is designed with France in mind – specifically the banlieues of Paris, which exist outside the postcard cliches of the city and are home to many of its North African citizens. Its young citizens, many of whom are budding athletes and musicians, were a particular source of inspiration. “It’s almost like that spirit of the banlieues and the music that lives there,” says Reggie, nodding to the dancehall and drill which are especially popular there. “The affinity for the Air Max TN came into our minds as well, because I think that shoe was having a resurgence when we were thinking about the DN.”

The result of conversations with multiple athletes, the shoe is fitted with a four-tubed Nike Air unit which is meant to make you feel like you’re literally walking – or running – on air. Spend any amount of time at Nike’s headquarters and you’ll pick up on the restless energy there: much like the athletes they work with, they’re constantly pushing themselves, wanting to outdo themselves, never content. That’s why the Air Max has consistently evolved over the past four decades and why, if you wander around the Nike headquarters, you constantly run into signs of its relentless pursuit of new ideas – take for instance, the robots which sweat, so that Nike’s designers can study the effect of perspiration on their clothes. This particular field of research has resulted in a fabric which, when exposed to moisture, concertinas, allowing air to flow more freely and the body to cool more quickly.

Whether it’s sweating robots, the new DN or their collection for the Paris Olympics, everything Nike does is informed by that fearless approach to innovation – just like when Frank Rudy suggested injecting soles with bubbles of air, all those years ago.

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