50 Years of Nike Sneakers

50 Years of Nike Sneakers

Sotheby’s fifty auction presents footwear throughout five decades of the titanic Oregon-based athletic company.
Sotheby’s fifty auction presents footwear throughout five decades of the titanic Oregon-based athletic company.

I s there a more iconic brand than Nike?

The focus of fifty – a curated sneakers auction taking place at Sotheby from 29 November through 13 December – the uncontested giant of the field has built itself up through consistent high-profile endorsements, innovative product design and iconic press campaigns successful enough to cement itself deep into our collective subconscious and global pop-culture history. It transcends sport and touches our lives in almost every way.

The company’s origin story is well known. Launched as Blue Ribbon Sports, the brand was founded by University of Oregon track athlete Phil Knight and his coach, Bill Bowerman, in 1964. In 1965, Bowerman proposed a new shoe design to the Onitsuka Tiger shoe company, with the goal of providing the right support for runners. The model was called the Tiger Cortez and was released in 1967 – it was an instant classic and inadvertently birthed Nike as we know it today. After some legal tangling, Tiger and Blue Ribbon formally broke up, and Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory, was officially formed. The swoosh logo was drawn by a Portland State University student named Carolyn Davis, who was paid $35 and later given shares in the company.

You’re probably familiar with how the rest of the story plays out: “Just Do It” became the brand’s slogan and a cross-generational rallying cry. They struck big deals, signing top-tier athletes like Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter and Lebron James to long-term contracts, producing countless sought after collaborations.

Left: Nike Co-Founder Bill Bowerman 1960s Pre-Nike Handmade Black and Blue Track Spikes (Estimate: $100,000–200,000). Right: 1972 Nike Moon Shoe (Estimate: $80,000–120,000)

But Nike’s products are what keep it relevant. Each lot offered in fifty is a milestone in the brand’s history, starting with the Bowerman Handmade Track Spike. Crafted by Bowerman in the early 1960s, this black and blue mismatched pair features their original white laces along with four long metal spikes on each sole as they were designed for use on a cinder track. But Bowerman’s most significant invention is arguably the Moon Shoe, a rubber-sole shoe featuring a waffle pattern providing better grip and cushion. Only a handful of pairs remain, making the appearance of this pair from 1972 at auction a significant event.

A shoe that has crossed over into every facet of culture is the Air Jordan 1. This pair of Michael Jordan TYPS Player Exclusive Air Jordan 1 produced in 1985 and designed by Peter Moore are a true collectible. Jordan is definitely the most famous athlete signed by Nike, and these early-run Air Jordan 1s are unmatched when it comes to quality, craftsmanship, materials, innovation, performance and of course style.

Left: Michael Jordan Signed 1985 'Player Sample' Air Jordan 1s (Estimate: $100–200,000). Center: Nike SB Dunk Low Pro 'Paris' Bernard Buffet Promo Sample (Estimate: $75,000–95,000). Right: NikeCraft Mars Yard Set Tom Sachs (1.0, 2.0, Overshoe) (Estimate: $12,000–18,000).

The Dunk helped bring Nike off the court and onto the street, as the basketball sneaker was released in skateboarding versions – with added features like a padded mesh “fat” tongue, elastic straps and extra padding – while the “Be True to Your School” colorway campaign set off a veritable craze that culminated in the 2005 release of the New York Pigeon Dunk, often considered the introduction of sneakers into pop culture zeitgeist. The Paris SB Dunk is as rare as they get. This sample is one of about two hundred pairs made for Nike’s traveling White Dunk Exhibition in 2003, which pay tribute to the exhibit’s host cities. This pair represents Paris and features canvas overlays depicting the artwork of French painter Bernard Buffet.

The auction also features a Nike SB Hoodie Stussy, which was released alongside the iconic SB “Cherry” Dunks and is significant for marking the first clothing brand to collaborate with Nike. And Buffet is far from the only artist to see their work grace a pair of sneakers – a set of Mars Yard sneakers and overshoe features high-concept athletic shoes designed for missions on Mars by the artist Tom Sachs.

Nike x Louis Vuitton "Air Force 1" & Pilot Case (Estimate: $150,000–200,000)

But perhaps the brand’s most iconic sneaker is the Air Force 1, created by legendary designer Bruce Kilgore in 1982. This pair of Nike x Louis Vuitton Air Force 1s, with its accompanying Pilot Case, celebrates the silhouette’s 40th anniversary and was limited to only two hundred pairs. Designed by Virgil Abloh, the shoes pair the classic timelessness of the Air Force 1 with Abloh’s unmistakable design language. The sneakers were made with materials employed in Abloh’s Louis Vuitton men’s collections and styled with his signature quotation marks. The individual styles designed for the show were made by Louis Vuitton in its shoe manufacture in Fiesso d’Artico, Italy.

Needless to say these lots comprise an impressive collection of Nike silhouettes representing multiple eras of the storied brands deep history.

Sneakers, Sports Memorabilia & Modern Collectibles

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