Celebrating 40 Years of The Nike Air Force 1

Celebrating 40 Years of The Nike Air Force 1

Haven Neiman

Celebrating 40 Years of The Nike Air Force 1

A Timeless Classic Since 1982.

Powerhouse brand Nike is perhaps most well-known for instilling a legendary and diverse lineup of sneakers. When Nike was first founded in 1964, its name was 'Blue Ribbon Sports'  and was no more than a small shoe outlet. Although they are now known for their vital role in the world of sneakers, that reputation took over a decade to build, and it all started with none other than the Nike Air Force 1. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Nike Air Force 1, we have compiled the sneaker's history and evolution of becoming one of the most reputable sneakers to exist.


First launched in 1982 as Nike's first-ever basketball shoe, the Air Force 1 was designed by legendary sneaker designer Bruce Kilgore. This sneaker designer veteran has also been responsible for sneakers such as the Sock Racer, Air Jordan 2, and the Nike Shox. With a history just as impressive as the Nike Air Force 1, before designing sneakers, Bruce Kilgroe created everything from household appliances to American automobiles, including the Pontiac Fiero and Chrysler K-Car. Embodying a minimalist approach to design, he was tasked with implementing Nike's new Air technology into a basketball shoe sole shortly after joining Nike. Kilgore's aptitude for minimalism is evident in the construction of the Air Force 1.


The original Nike Air Force 1 from 1982 in "White/Neutral Gray," Image via Nike


Bruce Kilgore used the research done by Bill Bowerman's research of x-rays of the feet of athletes in motion, which provided a firm understanding of what was necessary to give the best-known performance shoe of a basketball player at the time. Working alongside Nike's team of biochemists, podiatrists, and aerospace engineers, Bruce aimed for perfection, which he ended up achieving. Nike took on a hiking boot approach which inspired the Nike Air Force 1's slanted low-top design, which provided increased flexibility with the same support as a traditional high-top sneaker. The combination of the cupsole and circular outsole tread was perfect for playing basketball, as it improved the overall grip and provided players the opportunity to pivot seamlessly. After receiving the prototype for the shoe, Kilgore went out to obtain feedback from college basketball players, one of whom was Tinker Hatfield. Hatfield was mesmerized by the shoe, so much so that he took an interest in sneaker design himself, which resulted in him leaving his position at Nike as an architect and shifting over to designing sneakers.


The revolutionary design of the Nike Air Force 1 was a turning point within the connection of sports and sneaker culture, and the remarkable feature of Nike's Air Technology was at the forefront of this revolution. Aeronautical engineer Frank Rudy from NASA approached Nike with the idea of a cushioning system that used inert gas encapsulated inside a plastic 'bubble,' which in return resulted in what we now know and love—Nike Air. Pressurized air in a rigid and flexible bag placed within the shoe added to the design's flexibility, elasticity, and durability. At the same time, the lightweight and distinct shape offered an elevated and minimalist aesthetic that still offered protection during intense movement during basketball. The sneaker's namesake refers to the plane Air Force One, the plane in which the President of the United States travels. Since its origin, few variations have been made to the original design, while the silhouette itself offers the perfect canvas for creatives and designers alike.


Nike Air Force 1 Visual History, Image via Nike


Officially launched in 1982, although the first image of the Nike Air Force 1 that comes to mind is most likely the Nike Air Force 1 Low, the sneaker was initially introduced as a mid-top sneaker with an ankle strap. The slogan for the sneaker was "Air in a box." The sneaker was only available as a mid-top, slightly resembled a hiking boot, and contained a uniquely chunky sole. It was the first basketball shoe to incorporate Nike's new Air Technology. A year after its release, six of Nike's most popular NBA players participated in an iconic photoshoot and sported the Nike Air Force 1 paired with iconic white suits. The players included Michael Cooper, Moses Malone, Calvin Natt, Jammal Wikes, Bobby Jones, Mychal Thompson, and they all wore the shoes on the court. This legendary shoot was recreated in 2007 for Nike's 25th anniversary by Steve Nash, Rasheed Wallace, Paul Price, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul. 

"Air In A Box." 

After only two short years of being on the market, Nike discontinued the Air Force 1. But, the shoes' time on the bench was destined to be short-lived, as Nike began to cave to the public's ever-mounting pressure and reversed course on discontinuing the sneaker. The Nike shoe was brought back into production just one year later, and re-releasing began back up in 1985. The Nike Air Force 1's reintroduction to the public sector can be attributed to three Baltimore, Maryland businessmen who met with Nike and expressed their demand for producing exclusive Air Force 1s for them, more specifically, the sneaker shops they own: Charley Rudo, Downtown Locker Room, and Cinderella Shoes. Nike's initial intent was to shelve the Nike Air Force 1 in favor of the following style and new Nike Air Cushioning Technology. Still, this model's lifetime was lengthened thanks to a collection of different colors, a result of the 'Color of the Month' initiative put in place by Nike for these specific Baltimore retailers.


These exclusive sneakers could only be found at Charley Rudo, Downtown Locker Room, and Cinderella Shoes turned Baltimore into a hot destination for Air Force 1s and their committed fans. When the 'Color of the Month' initiative first began, Nike distributed three different colorways of the Air Force 1 to this trio of retailers. Within a few days, all 3,000 pairs of these newly-released shoes were out of stock. This viral initiative encouraged Nike to release new colorways regularly. The ever-popular Air Force 1's design was taken to a new level during this re-release with the all-white Air Force 1 Low.


Nike knew how to continue building the hype among loyal Air Force 1 fan, and the sneaker grew to become a mandatory street staple. Before the early 2000s, Nike introduced the Nike Air Force 1 Mid Hits and the Nike Air Force 1 Jewel. By the early 2000s, Nike introduced women's sizing. Customers discovered the shoe's easily customizable aesthetic and began to be re-envisioned by Nike designers and major fashion houses. Nike was starting to notice the cultural importance of the Air Force 1 in hip-hop after rappers such as Jay-Z, Juelz Santana, and Cam'ron of The Diplomats started repping the sneaker. Rapper Nelly even made a song dedicated to the sneaker. We will see this relationship between hip-hop and the Nike Air Force 1 continue to grow with extensive collaborations being done with rappers in the future.


Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1s, Image via GQ


Rapper Jay Z and Roc-A-Fella Records may be considered the two entities to establish the blueprint of Air Force 1 collaborations. It all started with their first-ever sneaker collaboration, the Roc-A-Fella Air Force 1, which was proudly displayed on the 'White/White' Air Force 1 Low. Since then, other brand collaborations have continued the iconic collaboration legacy, including Supreme, Stussy, Off-White, ACRONYM, A-COLD-WALL, and even rappers such as Drake and Travis Scott. 


While the '80s and '90s were all about making the sneaker into a household name, the early 2000s took the shoe to a whole new level. Throughout the Nike Air Force 1's strong emergence into fashion culture, the design has maintained an exceptional quality of being open to interpretation. New iterations began to arise within this versatile silhouette, such as the introduction of the Nike Air Force 1 High, Air Force 1 Crater Flyknit, Air Force 1 Fontanka, Nike Air Force 1 Pixel, and many more different variations, which all stay true to the original minimalist canvas and structure of the beloved sneaker but while implementing different aesthetics and designs.

 "Flying High Since 1982."

By the 2010s, Nike began to introduce high-tech upper with various proprietary materials such as Foamposite and Flyknit within the Nike Air Force 1 silhouettes. The comfortable outsole provided additional comfort, further accentuating the sleek design's comfortable components. Shortly after, Nike also introduced Lunarlon cushioning, which is intended to be similar to 'walking on the moon.' This technology was featured in the iconic collaboration with ACRONYM in the ACRONYM x Nike Lunar Force 1 Low. For the silhouette's 35th anniversary in 2017, Nike and five collaborators created five greatly admired white-on-white Nike Air Force 1 designs, while the late Off-White founder Virgil Abloh released an interaction of the Air Force 1 in 'The Ten Collection,' in which the variations of the sneaker included translucent uppers with a deconstructed Swoosh, nodding to the signature motifs of the iconic streetwear label Off-White. These designs explored themes of revealing and ghosting, symbolizing the technological age the shoes were currently residing in.


Since its origin in 1982, the Nike Air Force 1 has gone through and long and tumultuous history. There have been very few styles that have lasted as long in the world of sneakers, and those that do are a true classic. The Air Force 1 has graduated from a trend to a closet staple, being worn by both footwear enthusiasts and the general public. By crossing into both worlds, the sneaker has become one of the best-selling shoes of all time, similar to the Nike Dunk and the Air Jordan 1. With a mysterious and exciting back story and an extended repertoire of variations and twists, the Air Force 1 remains a true classic and will continue to pave the way for future generations of sneaker enthusiasts and collections alike. 


To shop the latest Nike Air Force 1 arrivals, click here.

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