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History of the Nike Air Force 1

History of the Nike Air Force 1

clock-circular-outline Posted August 10, 2023

The history of the shoe that shaped the Beaverton brand

Air Force 1

 

Introduction

1982 was a year that created many firsts for the sneaker industry. It was the year that New Balance saw the humble beginnings of the 990 model - unfolding what would yet to be a thriving 99x series. ASICS continued to set the benchmark for performance innovation with the release of the ASICS X - Caliber and somewhere in the depths of Herzogenaurach (adidas’ headquarters) the adidas Oregon was born.

So the question that is left tantalising everyone’s lips is, what was Nike doing? …

Only creating one of the best-selling sneakers of all time of course- behold the Nike Air Force 1.

Masterminded by Bruce Kilgore in 1982, the Nike Air Force 1 was one of those pinch-me moments from the Beaverton brand. A basketball shoe that oozes lifestyle appeal, the Air Force 1 first landed in the laps ( or feet) of many aspiring b-ball players in the ‘80s and then quickly cultivated our city streets with its minimalist, understated design. From court domination to cultural phenomenon, we take a look at the history behind one of the most popular silhouettes to date - one that has transformed the sneaker game we know and love today.


The Early Days

The makings of the Air Force 1 were less clear-cut than its design. With Nike having its feet deeply burrowed in the running scene, the newly established basketball fit wasn’t exactly the brand’s forte. With the workload weighing heavy on Nike’s lead designer at the time Bruce Kilgore, meant that he had to come up with a design that would seamlessly blend court functionality with aesthetic appeal.

After one unsuccessful attempt of moulding the Air Force 1 in their Stateside, New Hampshire factory, meant that the Nike team resorted to a factory in Spain where they were taught to make multicoloured midsoles and cupsoles.

Unlike any other of Nike’s early predecessors, Bruce Kilgore opted for a premium high-top leather design, taking on a ‘white’ and ‘neutral grey’ build that offered a relatively simple approach to design. Perforations were emblazoned on the toe to offer on-court breeziness and a Proprioceptor belt (aka ‘The strap) was incorporated into its high-rise design for increased flexibility and protection of the Achilles Tendon.

Nike Air Force 1 sketch of the original design

Kilgore also included Nike’s groundbreaking Air technology which aided court-focused comfort with every transition and takeoff and added concentric circle tread patterns ( inspired by the Notre Dame) to the outsole, providing players with a pivot point for sudden movements and explosive direction changes.

This meticulously crafted icon was also the shoe that got future Nike designer Tinker Hatfield into sneaker design.

The Air Force 1 Low followed in 1983, which removed the strap and offered the same chunky, leather build but was upscaled with an array of striking colour renditions, hitting the mass market with its undeniable lifestyle appeal.


Nike Air Force 1

 

The ‘Original Six’ Endorsement

For the marketing of the Air Force 1, Nike turned to some of the most revered NBA players of all time. Trademarked as the ‘Original Six’ Nike’s campaign, which saw Nike’s first generation of athletes (Michael Cooper, Moses Malone, Calvin Natt, Jamaal Wilkes, Bobby Jones, and Mychal Thompson) fashioned on an Airline runway.

The 'Original Six' Nike Endorsement

A campaign that would be later recreated in 2007 for the model’s 25 anniversary. Billed ‘The Second Coming’ that pictured the NBA’s top ten athletes at the time ( LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O'Neal, Tony Parker, Paul Pierce, Shawn Marion, and Chris Paul).

Nike Second Coming Campaign

A Short Departure

Despite the unprecedented success of the Nike Air Force 1 as a performance and lifestyle shoe, Nike discontinued the shoe two years after its initial debut. This actioned a trio of retailers in Baltimore (Charley Rudo, Cinderella Shoes, and Downtown Locker Room) to reach out to Nike, proposing their own bespoke range of colourways for each shop, which was named ‘Colour of the Month’.

With Nike distributing limited drops all across the East coastline, meant that many sneaker purists were eager to grab as many of those colourways as they could get their hands on. Following the Harlem success of the Pro-keds 69ers, Nike Air Force 1 would now also secure its inner-city nickname as the ‘Uptowns’.


A Cultural Phenomenon

The new millennial meant new prospects for the Air Force 1s, with the silhouette becoming heavily ingrained into the rap scene and tying in with the notions of inner street life. JAY-Z's hard rap spits on his ‘Can I Live II’ soundtrack positioned the Air Force 1’s as an East side fashion entity. Rap sensation Nelly's eclectic rhymes on his 2002 ‘Air Force Ones’ track transcended the fit outside its East Coast and offered a new lease of sneaker style to the South in his hometown Austen, Texas. After the fit’s popular stint within the rap scene, Nike started to gift many of the household rappers with their own limited-edition Air Force 1 including the likes of the Bronx legend Fat Joe, Young Jeezy, and many more.

The hype of the Nike Air Force 1 which inundated every corner of the US street life, also dominated the tarmacs of the London streets, encapsulating its avid design into the grime scene. With East London’s very own Dizzee Rascal being one of the first to rock the AF1 kicks in his ‘ Fix up, look sharp’ music video. Giggs and Nines have also been enveloped in the shoe’s cultural appeal, pairing its everyday design for an even simpler white T-shirt and jeans combo.

Now the cultural phenomenon has reached worldwide acclaim, becoming one of the best-selling shoes Nike has ever made with an estimated 10 million pairs sold each year.

The Bottom Line

The Nike Air Force 1 isn't just a sneaker – it's a time capsule of style and culture. Back in '82, it broke the mould, taking Nike from running to basketball with flair. Bruce Kilgore's genius design gave us a high-top leather dream with cushioned Air, perfect for both the court and the streets. After a brief break, it made a colourful comeback, earning the nickname "Uptowns." Then it grooved to the rhythm of rap, becoming a symbol of street cool. From Jay-Z to Nelly, it was everywhere, even across the pond in London's grime scene. The Air Force 1 is more than just a shoe; it's a beat that never stops.

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