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A Brief History Of Air Max & Visible Air Over The Last 30 Years

Justin Salhani

The ‘Visible Air’ sneaker phenomenon owes everything to the history of Air Max and a legacy of trainer technology that started over 30 years ago.

The history of Air Max started with the first ever Nike Air Max 1 which was released in 1987. Designed by Tinker Hatfield, most famous for his work on the industry-changing Jordan sneakers, the Air Max was a power house silhouette during the 90s. And while the aesthetic quality may be debatable, the cultural legacy of this hyped runner is indisputable. The transparent ‘visible air’ unit has made the Air Max one of the most recognisable sneaker designs in history. And it’s cultural legacy is continuing to grow and evolve, even today. A firm favourite among sneaker heads of all ages boasting a music connection that spans all the way back to early 90s hip hop to early noughties Grime to modern day Trap music.

History of Air Max Tinker Hatfield Air Max 1 Drawing

Above: The original Nike Air Max 1 design by Tinker Hatfield from 1986, the official release wasn’t until 1987.

Let’s first rewind to the early Air Max days. Twenty years ago, sneaker hunting wasn’t the common place occurrence we see today. Internet marketplaces and resellers weren’t a thing yet. Nonetheless, the chase for Air Max 95’s may have been a predictor to what the 2018 sneaker game has become. When the Air Max 95’s were released in Japan, they were such a big hit that a trend emerged that was called ‘Air Max Hunting’. Violent crime is low in Japan but the hype around the sneakers led to a series of unprecedented muggings after the prices for the shoes multiplied – an indicator of a common trend in sneaker culture 20 years later. Used and fake copies also infiltrated the market. Two years later though, the Air Max 97’s were modelled after Japanese Bullet Trains. This was a clear reference to the cultural relevance of Japan and sneaker culture.

History of Air Max 95 Boon Extra Sneaker Magazine

Above: Nike Air Max 95 on the cover of Boon Extra, a popular Japanese sneaker magazine throughout the 90s.

The Air Max 97’s were a global hit. So much so that 20 years after the initial release, Nike re-released them to possibly an even bigger fanfare. A whole series of colourways emerged. An array of celebrities – both major and lesser known – had personalised designs. Among them were popular colourways and hybrid models made in collaboration with the likes of Sean Wotherspoon, Skepta, and Cristiano Ronaldo. The popularity of the Air Max rose in hip hop and Gabbers culture. Rapper ‘The Game’ referenced the shoe in a song called ‘Hate it or love it’ while other famous rappers Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame have also referenced it in songs. Eminem even designed a limited edition pair that was sold for charity.

History of Air Max 1/97 Sean Wotherspoon

Above: The Sean Wotherspoon x Nike Air Max 1/97 has been arguably one of the most hyped sneaker releases of 2018.

Hip hop may have paved the way for the cultural prevalence of the Air Max but the first television commercial for the sneaker used the Beatles’ song ‘Revolution’. It was historic, considering it was the first televised ad to use a song from the Beatles’ catalogue. Outside of music, the cultural significance extends into politics. A pair of the Nike Air Max 90’s were specifically designed for then-American president George H.W. Bush. What other sneaker has a presidential legacy?

History of Nike Air Max 90 ‘Air Pres’ George Bush

Above: The Nike Air Max 90 ‘Air Pres’ trainer, designed for the 41st US President, George Bush Senior.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the history of Air Max is how closely it aligns with everything we know about Nike today. A year after the Air Max was released, Nike adopted its famous ‘Just Do It’ slogan. The Air Max’s growth and spread, along with the ‘Just Do It’ mantra, is synonymous with the growth and cultural power of Nike as a brand. Nike is now seen on every street corner in the world. From discount bargain track pants to high school football teams to multi-million dollar collaborations with Kim Jones, Virgil Abloh, and Samuel Ross – Nike is ubiquitous. And it’s clear that the history of Air Max and Visible Air Legacy has played a leading role in that growth and cultural domination. Now into 2018, we have seen the massive growth of new futuristic Air Max silhouettes like the VaporMax, the revival of early 90s silhouettes like the Air Max 93, OG colourways and an ever growing global sneaker admiration for the Air Max legacy. Who knows where the Air Max story will take us next?

History of Air Max Tinker Hatfield Air Max 1 Advert

Above: An original sneaker magazine advert for the Nike Air Max 1 trainer from 1987.


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