Known and loved by many names – Forces, AF1s, Uptowns, Flaves and Harlems, to name a few – Air Force 1s are among Nike’s most iconic and best-selling sneakers. The first basketball shoe to feature Nike’s revolutionary Air technology, the Nike Air Force 1 made its debut in 1982. Since then, the versatile and effortlessly cool AF1 silhouette has served as a canvas for countless artists and designers, and remains a global fashion and street culture standard. This year, Nike celebrates the 40th Anniversary of the Air Force 1. To mark the occasion, we take a closer look at the AF1’s rich and storied history, with some help from our favorite pairs from Sotheby’s 40 for 40 | The Air Force 1 Collection.
History of the Nike Air Force 1
1982 - 1991: AF1s Hit the Courts and the Streets and Ignite Sneaker Culture
The Nike Air Force 1 debuted in 1982, and soon thereafter was contracted to six of the era’s best NBA players, known as the “Original Six.” Designer Bruce Kilgore’s first shot at a hoops shoe, the Air Force 1 also made history as the first basketball silhouette to bring soft, springy Nike Air cushioning to the courts. While originally conceived as a hiking boot-inspired, ankle-strapped high top, the shoe’s popularity exploded with the release of the Air Force 1 Low, which found a fervent fanbase in major cities from Baltimore to D.C. to New York.
Despite its cult following, with new and innovative Nike models taking over the game, the Air Force 1 was slated for retirement in 1984. Luckily, a trio of Baltimore sneaker boutiques interceded to bring AF1s back from the brink. The retailers teamed up with Nike to release exclusive Air Force 1 styles through a pioneering “Color of the Month” club, drawing collectors from around the states. The re-releases sold out almost immediately, laying the groundwork for sneaker culture as we know it – and proving that the people who sell Air Force 1s are as important to their story as those who make and buy them.
In the 1980s, the moniker ‘EKIN’ – ‘Nike’ backwards – was coined to symbolize the ‘back and forth’ knowledge of a select group of Nike brand sales reps. This Nike Air Force 1 Low EKIN from 2019 pays homage to Nike’s most knowledgeable employees, who represent the trusted voice of the Nike brand. Dressed in white with orange accents, the Nike Air Force 1 Low features distinctive EKIN detailing throughout. A mirrored Nike logo, the EKIN symbol, is embroidered on both lateral heels, while gray deubrés bear the inscription ‘E4L’, meaning ‘EKIN for Life.’ Inside the tongue reads ‘you are no longer uninformed,’ while ‘FOR EKIN FEET ONLY’ is printed in bold lettering on the interior lining. The insoles are finished with a description of the EKIN mission on the left, and an analysis of the Nike Air Force 1 Low EKIN on the right.
Late 1988 - 2000s: Air Force 1s Become Synonymous with Hip Hop
The Air Force 1 has long been a staple of Hip Hop culture. In 1988, as the genre entered its “golden age,” E-Z Rock appeared on the cover of the album It Takes Two wearing Nike Air Force 1 trainers customized by the legendary Harlem designer Dapper Dan. Nike’s introduction of all-white all-leather Lows – known as white on whites – only increased the shoe’s popularity in the Hip Hop community. The AF1’s status as a cultural emblem was further cemented with Nelly’s hit 2002 single ‘Air Force Ones,’ an anthemic homage to the classic shoe. Exclusive AF1 collabs with Hip Hop royalty, including Jay-Z’s Rocafella Records, Eminem’s Shady Records and Fat Joe’s Terror Squad, served to heighten the Air Force 1’s influence and appeal.
2000s: The AF1 Goes Global
While AF1 mania first took hold stateside, the shoe has long since become a global obsession.
Sneakerhead culture has particularly blossomed in Japan, where Nike released several hypeworthy Air Force 1s throughout the early 2000s through its co.jp project. This AF1 Ueno Sakura from 2005 is a rare sample rendition of the Nike Air Force 1 Low silhouette. Among the most coveted Japan-exclusive pairs, the limited run Ueno Sakura celebrates the beauty of cherry blossom season in Tokyo’s historic Ueno district. Light Bone suede uppers, featuring a laser-etched cherry blossom motif, are complemented by Watermelon Pink outsoles. This sample pair is especially distinctive, with no Nike Swoosh appearing on the unique single-panel upper.
In 2008, Nike leaned into the Air Force 1’s global appeal. The 1World series reimagined the AF1 through innovative collabs with 18 creatives from around the world, including famed graffiti artist KAWS. Known for his Pop-inflected “subvertising,” spoofing political and corporate advertisements, KAWS rose to prominence in the New York graffiti scene of the 1990s. For the KAWS Air Force 1 – the first Nike KAWS collab – the artist designed a simple yet striking update to the classic design. Featuring the signature 'XX' stitching and coordinating neon details throughout, the Nike KAWS Air Force 1 is widely considered to be one of the top AF1 designs by collectors.
2007: Forces Get a Luxe New Look
To celebrate the AF1’s 25th anniversary, Nike took the iconic sneaker to the next level with the luxury Air Force 1.
Handcrafted in Italy with premium materials, the Nike Air Force 1 Low Lux marked the first Nike sneaker release with a four-digit price tag. Unveiled in January of 2007, crocodile and anaconda editions of the rare Air Force 1s bridged the gap between the AF1’s basketball-turned-street sneaker DNA and the luxurious materials and craftsmanship of Italy. An even more exclusive iteration of the Low Lux, these Alligator Air Force 1s feature full alligator skin uppers, leather linings and leather midsoles. Like the other reptilian renditions, the Alligator Air Force 1 is finished with 24K gold-plated lace tip aglets and deubrés. This pair of exceptionally rare Air Force 1s is considered to be 1 of only 25 produced.
2017: White on Whites, Reimagined
Ten years later, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Air Force 1, Nike tapped 5 creatives to rework the iconic white on white. Travis Scott, Don C, Acronym, Kareem ‘Biggs’ Burke, and perhaps most notably, Off White designer Virgil Abloh, each created a shoe.
Virgil Abloh’s deconstructed take on the silhouette, the Off White Air Force 1 Low became an instant fan favorite. Over the years to come, the distinctive Air Force 1 Off Whites would continue to drop in a variety of colorways. The release of this edition, in University Gold and Metallic Silver, was synchronized with Abloh’s ‘Figures of Speech’ exhibit at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. The Off White Air Force 1s feature chrome Swooshes, exposed foam linings, ‘Air’ on the midsoles and Abloh’s signature quotation marks. This exclusive pair of Air Force 1 Off Whites is signed by Virgil Abloh, made out to Bobbito Garcia aka ‘Kool Bob Love.’ An influential DJ, author, TV host and tastemaker, Garcia is a self-proclaimed sneaker addict and a noted inspiration for Abloh.
2022: The Nike Air Force 1 Hits 40
In celebration of the AF1’s 40th, Abloh, who was named Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton in 2018, collaborated with Nike to send 47 pairs of bespoke Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1s down the Spring/Summer 2022 runway. The result? Designs that seamlessly connect decades of the famed sneaker’s rich history, honoring the silhouette’s core basketball and street elements while referencing the ‘re-fashion’ method of Dapper Dan and the luxury materials of the Nike Air Force 1 Low Lux.
Abloh’s design fuses the AF1’s classic codes with the insignia and materials of Louis Vuitton. Made with materials used in Abloh’s Louis Vuitton men’s collections, the Air Force 1 Louis Vuitton collab sneakers are distinctively styled with the designer’s signature quotation marks. These Louis Vuitton Air Force 1s, dressed entirely in leather, are embellished with the brand’s emblematic Monogram and Damier patterns and accented with natural cowhide piping. Limited to 200 pairs in total, each Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 came with a Louis Vuitton pilot case made of Monogram Taurillon leather in an orange colorway. Further nodding to the historic collab, the case includes a luggage tag in the shape of the Nike Swoosh. In this size – 9 – only 26 pairs were produced by Louis Vuitton at its shoe manufacturer in Fiesso d’Artico, Italy.