Hip Hop, Refashion and the Cultural Legacy of Nike’s Air Force 1

Hip Hop, Refashion and the Cultural Legacy of Nike’s Air Force 1

Since their release in 1982, Nike’s AF1 has become one of the world’s most iconic shoes through a confluence of hip hop, Harlem’s “refashion” and sneaker cultures.
Since their release in 1982, Nike’s AF1 has become one of the world’s most iconic shoes through a confluence of hip hop, Harlem’s “refashion” and sneaker cultures.

N ike’s Air Force 1 is arguably their most iconic sneaker. In many regards, it’s also the first of its kind.

Nike originally realized its “Air” technology in running shoes, and its introduction into the midsole was a revolutionary concept for basketball sneakers. Tasked with bringing the concept to life, designer Bruce Kilgore and an aerospace engineer brought the project to fruition with a high top silhouette inspired by hiking boots and strapped at the ankles. That basketball sneaker, called the Air Force 1, was brought to market in 1982.

A year later, the silhouette was contracted to six NBA players: Jamaal Wilkes, Mychal Thompson, Moses Malone, Calvin Natt, Bobby Jones and Michael Cooper. Nicknamed the “Original Six,” the group saw success on the court, but Nike’s aptitude for innovation and new releases led to the model’s discontinuation in 1984.

In 1985, three sneaker boutiques in Baltimore saw the local popularity of the Air Force 1 and reportedly convinced Nike to reintroduce the silhouette exclusively to their stores. In a program dubbed the “Color of the Month Club,” Nike provided the Baltimore boutiques with a rotation of designs of the Air Force 1, drawing collectors from around the United States to Maryland. The exclusive re-release, atypical for Nike at the time, sold out almost immediately, laying the groundwork for the sales strategy that is now a mainstay in sneaker culture.

While sneaker culture as we know it was taking shape, a coinciding subculture was entering what many consider its “Golden Age” along Highway I-95. In 1988, DJ E-Z Rock was featured on the cover of the album It Takes Two, wearing a Nike Air Force 1 trainer altered by Harlem designer Dapper Dan with Louis Vuitton branding. The moment intertwined Harlem’s “refashion” culture, hip hop and the sneaker culture of the East Coast.

The relationship between hip hop and the Air Force 1 continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s. With the release of the white-on-white Air Force 1 in the late 1990s, the shoe’s reach began to widen, and the hip hop community quickly embraced the monochrome colorway.

By the 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the Air Force 1 mentioned in lyrics, like in Nelly’s 2002 hit “Air Force Ones,” an anthemic homage to Nike’s nearly discontinued silhouette. Recognizing the popularity of the model, Nike began producing limited-run exclusives in collaboration with some of the genre’s biggest names.

Rocafella Records (fronted by Jay Z), Eminem’s Shady Records and Terror Squad (founded by Fat Joe) were some of hip hop’s leading figures who saw their logos featured on the heels of exclusive AF1s.

In 2007, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the model, Nike introduced the luxury Air Force 1. Made in Italy with genuine crocodile skin, the pair bridged the gap between a basketball-turned-street sneaker and the luxury materials and craftsmanship of Italy.

Ten years later, for the 35th anniversary, Nike tapped five designers to rework the iconic white-on-white Air Force 1. Travis Scott, Don C, Virgil Abloh, Acronym and Kareem “Biggs” Burke of Rocafella were tasked with creating a shoe. According to Nike, “the design brief was to remain classic and recognizable to the Air Force 1 while connecting to each collaborator’s life personally and the fields they represent.”

The Louis Vuitton and Nike “Air Force 1” by Virgil Abloh

Abloh’s model was a fan favorite; his deconstructed take on the silhouette was released in a variety of colors over the years. In 2018, on the heels of his success with Nike and his own label, Off-White, Virgil Abloh was named the Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton Men’s.

In 2022, 40 years since the Air Force 1 was introduced, a culmination of the rich history of the silhouette was realized with the introduction of the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 by Virgil Abloh. Released posthumously, Abloh’s work seamlessly connected the decades of prominence of Nike’s famed sneaker.

With reference to the refashion method of Dapper Dan, the luxury manufacturing and materials first used on the Crocodile Air Force, and the core street and basketball elements of the silhouette, the Louis Vuitton Air Force 1 encapsulates the sneaker’s storied history.

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