Nike’s Air Force 1 and Its Jump from Basketball Performance Sneaker to One of the Most Iconic Styles of All Time

Nike’s Air Force 1 and Its Jump from Basketball Performance Sneaker to One of the Most Iconic Styles of All Time

Undeniably one of Nike’s most iconic silhouettes, the Air Force 1 is a sneaker that has stood the test of time - something difficult to do in footwear and in fashion. Transcending styles and trends while still being functional and technologically advanced for its time, the Air Force 1 is a sneaker staple - if you don’t have a pair, what are you doing?

Nike AF1 Ad / 1982

Debuted in 1982 and designed by the legendary Bruce Kilgore (also the man behind the Air Jordan II), the Air Force 1 was the first basketball shoe that featured Nike’s Air cushioning technology. Named after the Air Force 1 - the plane that carries the US President - the shoe’s first iteration was in high-top form in a white and gray colorway. At the time, the sneakers were striking because of its chunky sole and and hiking boot-inspired design elements. Technologically, it wasn’t just groundbreaking because of its use of Nike Air technology - it was also the first Nike slip-lasted shoe - a construction method that sees the shoe’s upper pulled over the last, and then attached to the midsole.

Nike AF1 / 1982

Nike didn’t intend for the style to last, but the shoe was really popular in Baltimore, where retailers Charley Rudo, Downtown Locker room and Cinderella Shoes actually made orders for special colorways. In fact, Paul Blinken (buyer at Cinderella Shoes) and Harold Rudo (buyer at Rudo Sports) actually flew to Nike’s headquarters to pitch ideas to bring back the original AF1, convincing the Swoosh to let them sell brand new, exclusive colorways of the sneaker. It was so popular that these accounts ended up getting an exclusive colorway each month - and as word spread - people began making trips from other states just to cop a pair. Fast forward a few decades and Nike actually paid homage to these retailers that saved the AF1 in its 2015 “Color of the Month” release.

According to Kejuan Wilkins, a spokesperson for Nike at the time, “This is something that is now on a global level. People in Japan love the Air Force 1. People in Brazil love the Air Force 1. To think that it really started in Baltimore is kind of amazing. ... It has moved from being a performance shoe to a cultural icon.”

The shoe was also an icon in popular culture, with rappers often name-dropping the shoe. From JAY Z’s “Can I Live II” to Nelly’s “Air Force Ones,” these songs solidified the style’s jump from basketball performance sneaker into the lifestyle realm. Across the pond, the UK’s grime scene also loved the shoe. This just goes to show that the sneaker had lasting power - what’s more valuable than a rapper’s cosign for a sneaker that almost didn’t make it past its first year of life?

Its simplicity and timeless design made the Air Force 1 a go-to for new styles, colorways and of course, collaborations. Aside from collaborations, the seminal style also gave birth to rip-offs, such as NIGO’s Bapestas, which eventually became sought-after sneakers in their own right. Most recently, the Swoosh brought the AF1 into modern day by introducing the Special Field Air Force 1.

CLOT x Nike 1WORLD Air Force 1 / 2009

CLOT pays homage to the classic silhouette by giving it a CLOT-remix. Known for bridging the east and the west, the brand’s second AF1 is coming soon, following 2009’s “1WORLD” iteration. The 2009 style featured an upper that boasts the CLOT Silk Royale fabric, the shoe is all red and set atop an icy white sole. Learn more about the Silk Royale fabric and the Chinese woven silk fabric here, and anticipate the shoe to launch soon.

Words / Helena Yeung