T he Air Force 1, arguably Nike’s most iconic sneaker, is in many regards, the first of its kind.
Previously realized in running shoes, the introduction of Nike’s ‘Air’ technology in 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 hiking boot inspired, ankle strapped, high top. Kilgore’s first basketball sneaker, 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. While the group, nicknamed the ‘Original Six’ had seen success sporting the Air Force 1 on the court, Nike’s aptitude for innovation and new releases ultimately led to Nike’s discontinuation of the model in 1984.
In 1985, three sneaker boutiques in Baltimore, Maryland, that saw the popularity of the Air Force 1 locally, reportedly convinced Nike to re-introduce the silhouette exclusively to their stores. Dubbed the ‘Color of the Month Club’, Nike would provide the Baltimore boutiques with a rotation of designs of the Air Force 1, drawing collectors from around the states to the Baltimore sneaker hub. The exclusive re-release, atypical for Nike at the time, almost immediately sold out, laying the groundwork for the sales strategy that is now a mainstay in sneaker culture.
While sneaker culture as we know it, was beginning to take shape, along Highway I-95 a coinciding subculture was entering what many consider its ‘golden age’. A notable moment came in 1988, when 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 ‘re-fashion’ 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.
Nelly - Air Force Ones ft. Kyjuan, Ali, Murphy Lee (Official Music Video)
By the 2000’s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the Air Force 1 mentioned in lyrics. Most notably, Nelly's 2002 hit single ‘Air Force Ones’ was an anthemic homage to Nike’s nearly discontinued silhouette. Recognizing the popularity of the model within the hip hop community, 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.
10 years later, for the 35th anniversary, Nike tapped 5 designers to re-work 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.”
Abloh’s model was a fan favorite. A deconstructed take on the silhouette, the reworked model would continue to be released in a variety of colors in the years to come. 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 ‘re-fashion’ 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.