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A Brief History Of Nike Air Max Sneakers

Featured, Sneaker Picks  /   /  By Jacques Slade

This year the Nike Air Max 1 celebrates its 30th Anniversary. To kick off the year-long celebration, Nike has turned Air Max Day—which began back in 2014 with Quickstrike “3.26” version of the Air Max 1 and usually takes place on March 26th—into Air Max Month. Before we get into the Air Max releases for this year, let’s take a quick look back at the history of Air Max sneakers.

The Nike Air Max 1 was designed by legendary sneaker designer, Tinker Hatfield, way back in 1987. Tinker was asked to design the ultimate new running shoe along with two other sneakers that year, the Nike Air Safari and the Nike Air Trainer 1. But clearly, Tinker was up for the challenge.

The Nike Air Max 1 was the very first sneaker to feature a visible Air cushioning unit in the heel. While today we see “Air” on a majority of Nike’s sneaker designs, the concept was not well-received back in ‘87. In fact, people thought the Air bubble would pop with normal wear. The concern was so great that, at the time, Nike’s marketing department didn’t even think that they could sell the shoe. But thankfully, the concept moved forward, and as you know, the Air Max has become one of the most important sneakers in the history of footwear.

Its groundbreaking design was inspired by the Pompidou Center in Paris, which features an “inside out” concept. The Visible Air was a head-turner but to further make the Air Max 1 recognizable from any distance, Mr. Hatfield chose the bold color combination of red, gray, and white. While it was originally only available in suede and mesh, leather variations and new color choices appeared in 1988.

The Air Max 1 helped inspire a running trend when it was released, but Nike followed up in 1990 with another game-changing sneaker design, the Nike Air Max 90. Like its predecessor, the Air Max 90 featured a Visible Air unit in the heel, but this one had the biggest bubble yet. To complement the oversized cushioning unit, the Nike Air Max 90 was released in the popular “Infrared” colorway, and it quickly became the next must-have sneaker of the new decade.

Nike continued to create Air Max running shoes through the years, including the Air BW, Air 180, Air Max 93 and Air Burst, which all saw increases in the size of the Air bubble. However, the biggest innovation in the Air Max line came in 1995, with the release of the Air Max 95. The Air Max 95 featured a gradient colorway and layered upper that was inspired by the human body. More importantly, the gray-to-black gradient color was accented with neon yellow (or green depending on whom you ask) lace loops at the top of the shoe and throughout the Air cushioning that now ran the full length of the shoe. The original Nike Air Max 95 was neck-breakingly cool. If you had a pair, everyone was in awe of them. If you didn’t have a pair, you were probably drooling over a friend’s pair. It was that serious. Rumor has it the shoes were so popular in Japan when they originally released that people were paying anywhere from $1000-$2000 just to get a pair.

The 10th Anniversary of Nike’s Air Max running shoe took things to the next level once again. How do you top classic after classic? By going even bolder with the Air Max 97 design. The silver and red colorway launched the Air Max 97, and once again, Nike had the most noticeable sneaker on the shoe wall. The Silver Air Max 97 even had reflective 3M detailing that added some extra safety for those running at night and anyone who just wanted to have the coolest sneakers on the block.

While Nike continued to improve Air Max technology year after year, the decline in the popularity of running, plus tough competition caused a drop in sales around the turn of the century. In 2002, Nike collaborated with atmos, a footwear retailer in Japan, to recreate the Air Max 1 in a new design. The colorway would later become known as the “atmos Safari” Air Max 1 colorway, and it would spark a trend in footwear that would spread like wildfire. Collaborations between footwear brands and boutiques resulted in some of the most sought-after Air Max sneakers between 2002 and 2006, and they continue to drive huge demand to this day.

And, while the collabs were resulting in casual wearers and “lifestyle” releases, in 2006 Nike released the Air Max 360, the first sneaker with a midsole comprised of fully Visible Air cushioning all the way around the bottom of the shoe. The design was so unbelievable that you just had to see it in person.

Nike has continuously improved upon Air Max designs over the years with the addition of elements like fully Visible midsole units and technologies like Flywire and Flyknit, but the nostalgic aspect of revisiting the classics has been a constant as well. For this year’s “Air Max Month” celebration, Nike has re-released the University Red and Sport Blue Air Max 1 colorways, new colors of the Air Max 97, a new Ultra Flyknit 2.0 variation of the Air Max 90 and a handful of others. That’s not even taking into account the rest of the month, and the releases scheduled for Air Max Day on March 26th, which include the Air Max 1 Master and the atmos x Nike Air Max 1 Retro “Elephant” colorway that originally released in 2007.

Now that you’ve learned a little bit about the history of Air Max and have some insight into the upcoming releases, shop Nike Air Max styles right here.

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One Comment
  1. Carl April 20, 2017 at 11:13 PM

    Nice article! I love sneakers with some history behind. Check out Puma Suede story as well:

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