The Illustrated History of the Air Force 1 Pt. I

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The history of the Air Force 1 symbolizes the history of the sneaker itself. As a performance flagship and the first basketball shoe with the Air system it stepped up to the journey that would make it an icon of the street. That’s what it was made out to be – but not by a global marketing campaign, rather by the people who showed their affection for the shoe on the courts and in the hoods. Later on it disappeared for a while, only to come back in more variants and even more colors. And still it remains instantly recognizable, even today launched into the future as the Lunar Force 1 with a Hyperfuse design or even more futuristic, in the upcoming Flyknit design. But now let’s look back. Here is its history – the story of Air, told in the language of Force – illustrations by Conny Dreher.
1-bruce-tinker

1. The Creator: Bruce Kilgore is the designer of the AF1. While his name may not be as familiar as Tinker Hatfield’s, he has conjured quite a few classics himself – like the Air Flow (1989) or the Sock Racer (1985). Just like Hatfield originally being an architect, Kilgore came to sneaker design from a different occupation: He was a sculptor.

2

2. The Manual: Since a visible “Air System” would only arrive five years later with the Air Max 1, the first AF1s came with a manual which depicted a cross section of the shoe and explained the new technology and its advantages – 30% better cushioning – to the customer. Furthermore, the function of the “ankle strap” which was supposed to shield from twisting the ankles and the “eyelets”, offering stability as well as latitude, were laid out.

3

3. The Price: The Air Force 1 was the first basketball shoe equipped with an Air system. Besides other details, it was mainly this technical innovation which contributed to an unprecedented price point of $ 89.95.

4

4. 1-piece, 2-piece, 3-piece: From 1982 into the early 90s AF1s were “2-piece” variants (except for the Zeros). The big slab of leather on the upper aside, just the toebox area formed an extra layer. Only from the early 90s on the big area around the heel was sewn on as an extra layer – the shoe became a “3-piece”. In the new millennium Nike experimented with a “1-piece” variation which saw the whole upper out ouf one slice of material with the shoe’s lines signified by laser etchings.

5

5. The Successor: Even though there is a numbered Air Force series, the inofficial successor of the Air Force 1 is the Air Ship. It came out in 1984 and was the first shoe being worn by Michael Jordan in the NBA. Thus, it was the colorway of the Air Ship which was banned in the pre-season by the NBA and not – as told to us by Nike for about the last 30 years – the Air Force 1. So, the inofficial successor of the AF1 carries some fame – even though hardly anyone knows about it. Until now!

6

6. Low, Mid, High: Originally, the AF1 was designed as a pure high-top. But since many players at the time were used to low silhouettes, the low-top came right after. Until the mid-90s, it was only available in these two versions. By 1994 they were joined by a mid-cut.

7

7. NYC hype: Starting from Baltimore, the AF1 hype came over to Philadelphia and finally to New York. In the streetball mecca of NYC the AF1 quickly became a star, and not only thanks to the new cushioning which meant players could now forget about their three additional layers of socks. But it took a few seasons until the AF1 also became a lifestyle staple. In his Rap Pages column “Confessions of a Sneaker Addict” Bobbito wrote about this in 1997: “It wasn’t until 1986 that everyone realized what a classic it was”.

8

8. The Nicknames: The Air Force 1 has many names. Among the most common is “Uptowns” (“You had to go uptown to get them ones.”), “Harlems” or “Uppies”, as they were also called, because at first the shoes were only available in Northern NYC. In the beginning, people would also refer to them as “Airs” or “Ones”.

9

9. The Outsole: The sole of the AF1 was a revolution. For the first time the concept of concentric circles was applied, tailored specifically to the sport of basketball and its requirements. Rubber lips between the circles act as wiper blades, picking up the dust and grime so the circles can make constant and instant floor contact. At the same time, the circular design facilitate the typical and fast turning movements. For this purpose, there were special studies carried out in the Nike Research Laboratory.

10

10. Rasheed Wallace: His name is forever linked to the Air Force 1, because as the only NBA player “Sheed” rocks the AF1 High to this day – while wearing the ankle strap the other way round so that is almost dragged over the floor. Through the years, Nike has created countless PEs with his logo, of which only a few have made it into the shops. One of his most beautiful PEs was made for the All Star Game 2006 and – in only a slightly changed colorway – found its way into an outlet in the US. About a dozen pairs were available there in sizes between US11 and US15, and some pairs even found their way to Europe.

11

11. The Original Six: The famous Air Force 1 poster shows six legendary players of their time: Moses Malone, Jamaal Wilkes, Calvin Natt, Mychal Thompson, Bobby Jones and Michael Cooper. The photo was shot at Wayne Airport in Orange County at sunset. Adding to the awkwardness of the players wearing strange space suits was the fact that they hardly knew each other at all. They must have found it all a little weird – and little did they know at the time that this scenario would be material for a sneaker magazine some 30 years later.

12

12. The Zero: The real original – the first Air Force 1 from 1982 – in retrospect is seen as the “Air Force Zero”. This original version had a mesh panel on the side and the leather toe box had no perforation, which was only added later for better ventilation of the foot. A first “wear test sample” even had a mesh toe box. However, it was feared that the customers would not see the very high price as justified if the shoe wasn’t completely made of leather.

10-1pe

13. TYPS: Until the end of the 80s, this marking in the ankle area lining indicated so-called “Player Exclusive”(in short “PE”) models – special designs for college or NBA players which were not available in the shops. Mostly canoe-sized, these shoes were color-coordinated with the players’ teams and are mostly impossible to obtain today, since there are hardly any pairs which did not make it onto the court. Later on, players like Lebron James, Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony got their own personal PE Forces – though not for the court but for showing them off in their leisure time.

14

14. The Jewel Swoosh: Hated by many, celebrated by me. It is much smaller than the regular swoosh, but its sparkle in the sunshine makes up for the size and created its nickname as well. “Jewels” were introduced in the mid-90s as low and mid cut models, while there was never a high cut available. They were made until the early 2000s. In 2012 a retro of the “Jewels” appeared – unfortunately not with the buttery leather look and feel of the old days. Besides, when they originally came out they didn’t sell and ended up in the sale catalogues of Eastbay or others and sometimes went for $ 30.

15-retro2

15. The Retros: The AF1 was the first shoe reissued as a retro by Nike. It all began with the owners of three stores in Baltimore, who – as the result of strong demand but empty shelves – went to Nike and ordered 2400 pairs of two new colourways. So the AF1 started what today lets you barely keep up with the new releases: the retro wave. Over the years, there were more AF1 retros than of any other Nike shoe model. The years between 1996 and 2001 are seen as the golden age for the AF1 retro, with many now unaffordable classics in a quality and shape that is rarely found with today’s AF1s.The history of the Air Force 1 symbolizes the history of the sneaker itself. As a performance flagship and the first basketball shoe with the Air system it stepped up to the journey that would make it an icon of the street. That’s what it was made out to be – but not by a global marketing campaign, rather by the people who showed their affection for the shoe on the courts and in the hoods. Later on it disappeared for a while, only to come back in more variants and even more colors. And still it remains instantly recognizable, even today launched into the future as the Lunar Force 1 with a Hyperfuse design or even more futuristic, in the upcoming Flyknit design. But now let’s look back. Here is its history – the story of Air, told in the language of Force – illustrations by Conny Dreher.

1-bruce-tinker

1. The Creator: Bruce Kilgore is the designer of the AF1. While his name may not be as familiar as Tinker Hatfield’s, he has conjured quite a few classics himself – like the Air Flow (1989) or the Sock Racer (1985). Just like Hatfield originally being an architect, Kilgore came to sneaker design from a different occupation: He was a sculptor.

2

2. The Manual: Since a visible “Air System” would only arrive five years later with the Air Max 1, the first AF1s came with a manual which depicted a cross section of the shoe and explained the new technology and its advantages – 30% better cushioning – to the customer. Furthermore, the function of the “ankle strap” which was supposed to shield from twisting the ankles and the “eyelets”, offering stability as well as latitude, were laid out.

3

3. The Price: The Air Force 1 was the first basketball shoe equipped with an Air system. Besides other details, it was mainly this technical innovation which contributed to an unprecedented price point of $ 89.95.

4

4. 1-piece, 2-piece, 3-piece: From 1982 into the early 90s AF1s were “2-piece” variants (except for the Zeros). The big slab of leather on the upper aside, just the toebox area formed an extra layer. Only from the early 90s on the big area around the heel was sewn on as an extra layer – the shoe became a “3-piece”. In the new millennium Nike experimented with a “1-piece” variation which saw the whole upper out ouf one slice of material with the shoe’s lines signified by laser etchings.

5

5. The Successor: Even though there is a numbered Air Force series, the inofficial successor of the Air Force 1 is the Air Ship. It came out in 1984 and was the first shoe being worn by Michael Jordan in the NBA. Thus, it was the colorway of the Air Ship which was banned in the pre-season by the NBA and not – as told to us by Nike for about the last 30 years – the Air Force 1. So, the inofficial successor of the AF1 carries some fame – even though hardly anyone knows about it. Until now!

6

6. Low, Mid, High: Originally, the AF1 was designed as a pure high-top. But since many players at the time were used to low silhouettes, the low-top came right after. Until the mid-90s, it was only available in these two versions. By 1994 they were joined by a mid-cut.

7

7. NYC hype: Starting from Baltimore, the AF1 hype came over to Philadelphia and finally to New York. In the streetball mecca of NYC the AF1 quickly became a star, and not only thanks to the new cushioning which meant players could now forget about their three additional layers of socks. But it took a few seasons until the AF1 also became a lifestyle staple. In his Rap Pages column “Confessions of a Sneaker Addict” Bobbito wrote about this in 1997: “It wasn’t until 1986 that everyone realized what a classic it was”.

8

8. The Nicknames: The Air Force 1 has many names. Among the most common is “Uptowns” (“You had to go uptown to get them ones.”), “Harlems” or “Uppies”, as they were also called, because at first the shoes were only available in Northern NYC. In the beginning, people would also refer to them as “Airs” or “Ones”.

9

9. The Outsole: The sole of the AF1 was a revolution. For the first time the concept of concentric circles was applied, tailored specifically to the sport of basketball and its requirements. Rubber lips between the circles act as wiper blades, picking up the dust and grime so the circles can make constant and instant floor contact. At the same time, the circular design facilitate the typical and fast turning movements. For this purpose, there were special studies carried out in the Nike Research Laboratory.

10

10. Rasheed Wallace: His name is forever linked to the Air Force 1, because as the only NBA player “Sheed” rocks the AF1 High to this day – while wearing the ankle strap the other way round so that is almost dragged over the floor. Through the years, Nike has created countless PEs with his logo, of which only a few have made it into the shops. One of his most beautiful PEs was made for the All Star Game 2006 and – in only a slightly changed colorway – found its way into an outlet in the US. About a dozen pairs were available there in sizes between US11 and US15, and some pairs even found their way to Europe.

11

11. The Original Six: The famous Air Force 1 poster shows six legendary players of their time: Moses Malone, Jamaal Wilkes, Calvin Natt, Mychal Thompson, Bobby Jones and Michael Cooper. The photo was shot at Wayne Airport in Orange County at sunset. Adding to the awkwardness of the players wearing strange space suits was the fact that they hardly knew each other at all. They must have found it all a little weird – and little did they know at the time that this scenario would be material for a sneaker magazine some 30 years later.

12

12. The Zero: The real original – the first Air Force 1 from 1982 – in retrospect is seen as the “Air Force Zero”. This original version had a mesh panel on the side and the leather toe box had no perforation, which was only added later for better ventilation of the foot. A first “wear test sample” even had a mesh toe box. However, it was feared that the customers would not see the very high price as justified if the shoe wasn’t completely made of leather.

10-1pe

13. TYPS: Until the end of the 80s, this marking in the ankle area lining indicated so-called “Player Exclusive”(in short “PE”) models – special designs for college or NBA players which were not available in the shops. Mostly canoe-sized, these shoes were color-coordinated with the players’ teams and are mostly impossible to obtain today, since there are hardly any pairs which did not make it onto the court. Later on, players like Lebron James, Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony got their own personal PE Forces – though not for the court but for showing them off in their leisure time.

14

14. The Jewel Swoosh: Hated by many, celebrated by me. It is much smaller than the regular swoosh, but its sparkle in the sunshine makes up for the size and created its nickname as well. “Jewels” were introduced in the mid-90s as low and mid cut models, while there was never a high cut available. They were made until the early 2000s. In 2012 a retro of the “Jewels” appeared – unfortunately not with the buttery leather look and feel of the old days. Besides, when they originally came out they didn’t sell and ended up in the sale catalogues of Eastbay or others and sometimes went for $ 30.

15-retro2

15. The Retros: The AF1 was the first shoe reissued as a retro by Nike. It all began with the owners of three stores in Baltimore, who – as the result of strong demand but empty shelves – went to Nike and ordered 2400 pairs of two new colourways. So the AF1 started what today lets you barely keep up with the new releases: the retro wave. Over the years, there were more AF1 retros than of any other Nike shoe model. The years between 1996 and 2001 are seen as the golden age for the AF1 retro, with many now unaffordable classics in a quality and shape that is rarely found with today’s AF1s.

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