The Cultural Chameleon – 35 Years of Nike Air Force 1
The term “timeless” is often used for a lot of classic sneakers, but few live up to this title as much as the Air Force 1 does. Ask a random person with little knowledge of the culture to draw a sneaker for you and they might hit you with something that resembles this Swoosh staple. And that’s no coincidence, considering that the AF1 is the best-selling athletic shoe of all time. Part of the success story is the sneaker’s ability to cater to an incredible amount of different tastes. It’s worn and loved throughout the generations and keeps being reinvented by every new scene that embraces it. In order to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the sneaker game’s universal star, we’ve dedicated our precious cover spot to the NBA-themed “Statement Game” pack. This premium beast with the big Swoosh and Nike-lettering from lace tip to lace tip comes in eight colors, three of which are featured on the front of SNEAKERS MAGAZINE issue #36 – yes, there are three different cover versions this time! Moreover, we’ve asked five Air Force admirers from different generations and backgrounds about their love for the AF1. But before that, let’s take a look back to where it all began.
Originally conceived back in 1982 by legendary Nike designer Bruce Kilgore, the Air Force 1 (then simply known as “Air Force”) shares a heritage with many of the greatest silhouettes out there as being introduced as a performance shoe. Of course, the model made waves with an array of new technology that was groundbreaking for its time – like the outsole pivot point, ankle strap and being the first Nike basketball sneaker with Air cushioning. Adding a whole new level of durability to the world of b-ball kicks, the Air Force 1 took the hearts of both NBA’s hardwood pros and street ballers alike by storm. But the sophisticated look achieved by a mix of smooth premium leather and the shiny metal deubré as well as additional iterations like the beloved low-cut white-on-whites quickly made the shoes transcend their natural habitat.
Today the Air Force 1 is often seen as the prototype of east coast sneakers – the counterpart to the west coasts Chuck Taylors if you will. During the early 80s, NYC’s northern neighborhoods like the Bronx and Harlem were vibrant places and home to the emerging hip-hop culture. Here the AF1 made its transformation from a beloved performance sneaker to a coveted status symbol and gained its famous “Uptowns” nickname. As the epitome of sleek freshness, the Air Force 1 soon became a staple for rappers, DJs and b-boys as well as notorious hustlers and everyone who aimed to imitate their style. And it finally gave Nike something they were looking to achieve for a long time coming: street cred. This new-found love from urban communities in cities like New York, D.C., Philly or Baltimore is what prevented the shoe from being archived indefinitely and paved the way for an unparalleled success story.
In 1983, just about one year after its initial release, Nike ceased production for the AF1 to push other silhouettes from their basketball line instead. Mind you, they just were about to make the bold move of signing a whopping contract with NBA rookie Michael Jordan and giving him his own signature sneaker. But the fans weren’t having that. So in 1984, Nike went out of their way for another maneuver that would lastingly change the sneaker world: by popular demand and the requests from three Baltimore retailers, they made the Air Force 1 the first ever model to be re-released after going out of production. The ‘Color of the Month’ program featured new city-specific colorways and was such an immediate success, that it returned to more east coast stores with further regional exclusives in 1986 – and the Air Force 1 was finally there to stay.
This important point in Air Force history perfectly outlines the shoe’s undeniable charm and the reason for its ironclad status as a universal star in sneaker culture. From being a NIKEiD evergreen over having numerous rap songs dedicated to them to shaping the science of keeping a box-fresh pair clean for as long as possible, the Air Force 1 is a common denominator for various generations of sneaker heads. Take it from these five diverse personalities as we capture the transformative nature of this cultural chameleon.