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On Air, On Fire

How the resurgence of Max was fueled by the people

By John Kim
Nike Air is not a shoe. It’s the genesis of my footwear obsession. It’s my Air Jordan. It didn’t really catch my attention until 1993/1994 when the walls of shoe stores were lined with the super-bulbous heel units of the Air Max 93 and Air Burst. It always looked like it was about to pop. It didn’t. Nearly three decades later and the bubble hasn’t popped. In fact, it’s only gotten stronger.
Air Max footwear, particularly the Air Max 1, is hugely responsible for sneaker culture. That culture is still alive despite arguments from older enthusiasts who scoff at reselling, larger production numbers, and the overall mainstream nature of something that was once a really weird hobby. It’s the people, the stories, and the memories that keep culture alive and as long as that tradition remains and brands recognize its value, culture ain’t going anywhere.
The Nike: On Air experience that launched in Year 5 of Air Max Day is just one of the many reasons why Nike is firmly on the driver seat when it comes to the cultivating the cultural aspect of sneakers. We get that innovation is a big part of what moves Nike forward and clearly Air Max continues to be a major point of concentration for the brand. While the curiosity of what’s next is what keeps us interested, it’s the classics that keep us coming back for more because most of us can tie back some moment in life to an Air Max.
Air Max Day was an absolutely genius marketing tool that, like many other ideas that have come out of Beaverton, has been copied by the industry. This day continued to evolve over the years, opening doors to unprecedented experiences like Nike: On Air. However wacky and wild, Nike has committed to working with the winners of the competition to produce six shoes to hit the market while providing a taste of what it’s like to work with one of the most influential brands in history. Best of all, each of the six winners and the the 10,000+ applicants had the opportunity to reveal themselves through sneakers, and the hundreds of thousands of voters who helped decide the outcome got to connect with these stories in a creative way.
Air Max is in demand by both old and young, and the outlook on future iterations is as bright as ever. It’s back to the point where I felt like rushing back to shops (or Instagram) to see what was new, or like strolling into mom-and-pops in hopes of finding deadstock pairs sitting idly in stock rooms. Right now, Air Max is absolutely on fire.

Nike Air Max 97

  Cash Ru

We’ll start with my absolute favorite of the bunch – the Air Max 97 designed by Cash Ru of Shanghai. His inspiration comes from the ever-changing and infinitely unique nature of clouds, and its shapelessness is a reason why Cash’s workspace had the most sample iterations (five total). There were several different applications of materials and an even more eclectic mix of blue shades, with both patent leather and nylon options at the mudguard and the floating mesh protruding in various manners from the upper.

Flat out the most eye-catching shoe of the room was a sample that featured an array of lightweight mesh film arranged in a way as if a foot was stomping through a dense cloud. Certainly not a fit for a masses, but you can easily see this float down on a Fashion Week runway.

Cash is not a “sneakerhead” by any means so some of the materials and colors selection were done by the guidance of Nike designers. Even the tongue features five different pull-tabs, while the touch of red could be seen as a nod to the first-ever colorway of the Air Max 97. The final product could easily be the best-selling of the bunch, but that distinction might be reserved for another one of the six.

Nike Air Max 97

  Gwang Shin

Shin was the quietest of the bunch. Had nothing to do with a language barrier – he was just generally reserved on all fronts and appeared to be the overwhelmed at times. I approached him during the lunch break in the best broken Korean an NYC native could muster and what resulted was a sheepish giggle on both sides. I congratulated him on his design – an Air Max 97 (the trendiest Air Max model at the moment) in a bang-up colorway inspired by the Korean flag with an over-sized Swoosh that would make sneakerheads go absolutely nuts.

That all said, the Air Max 97 “Seoul” will be the most coveted of the bunch. Not to take away from the other designs, but when it comes to delivering what the public would be into, this creation hits on all cylinders. The 97 thrives with neon tones, and this one doesn’t hold back. The oversized Swoosh is something new to the model and a seamless fit among the quirkier trends. There wasn’t too much to see in terms of sampling because his design concept was very straightforward and simple; most of the time, that’s the recipe for success.

Nike Vapormax Plus

  Lou Matheron

Lou looked like she didn’t really give a shit and she didn’t appear entirely too happy with her first sample. But that’s just the Parisian in her – indifferent on the outside, but somewhat obsessive on the inside. Her design was inspired by her observation of how France as a whole is undergoing a cultural injection, with industrial and rather rural areas of the country getting that flair. Her home country is going through border-to-border facelift of sorts, and thus her “Paris Works in Progress” is set to represent how the city is the beating heart of the country, but certainly not the only vital organ.

As a kid, all she would see on the feet of adults was the Air Max TN, but because that particular model was not available for customization, she went with the Vapormax Plus. Ironically, the updated hybrid version reflected her design concept a bit more accurately. Additionally, her design nods to a time when she was allowed to photograph inside a highly guarded monument – a bonafide highlight of her young career.

Nike Air Max 98

  Gabriel Serrano

Gabby knows she has to live up to some expectations. There’s been a never-ending stream of NYC-inspired sneakers and she knows very well that whatever idea comes to mind has probably been done before. The only choice was to look within and deliver a personal story that everyone could relate to, but couldn’t tell on their own. At the forefront of her design is what makes NYC so great – the people. The diversity of race and cultural background is portrayed by the skin-toned gradient on the upper, while the grey mudguard represents the hardened streets of the city – both literally and figuratively. Still she added some touches she couldn’t ignore, like the mint green to represent Lady Liberty.

Serrano is probably the most active of “sneakerheads” of the bunch, but it didn’t necessarily give her an advantage given the tough task of representing such a prideful part of the world. Beyond sneakers, what the Nike: On Air experience has taught her is to “embrace social media and connect with people from everywhere”.

Nike Air Max 97

  Jasmine Lasode

Jasmine’s chill vibes set the tone of the room. While the other five On Air participants seemed a bit nervous, the Londoner was pretty relaxed from beginning to end while casually sharing her heartfelt story behind her Air Max 97 design. Her ode to her significant other, the season that sprouted their love, and Primrose Hill was the backbone of this colorful concoction, complete with some of the funkiest details we’ve ever seen on the 97 silhouette.

Again, the 97 silhouette absolutely thrives on neon colors, the mix of orange, yellow, blue, and green was clearly a standout as it was select as the best in London – a city known for its devotion to Air Max trainers.

Nike Air Max 1

  Yuta Takuman

Tokyo and the Air Max 1 have had quite a love affair for over decades. The country’s most respected shops have produced some of the best AM1 collaborations of all-time, and it’s no surprise that this model was the winning canvas for the On Air vote. So, Yuta returned the respect by honoring the city’s maze-like nature with a graphic of embossed labyrinths on the upper, red accents that represent the Tokyo Tower, and colorful laces that nod to the underground subway system.

Unsurprisingly, this was the only Air Max 1 of the bunch; the current wave of Air Max trends has leaned toward the latter end of the spectrum in the 97, 98, and TN-inspired Vapormax Plus, but the original is where the heart of the innovation as well as the culture boom lies.

All six On Air finalists will continue to work with Nike to fine-tune their designs. All six will see a retail release during the Air Max Day celebrations in 2019. A big thank you to Nike for inviting us to the Blue Ribbon Studio at the Nike WHQ in Beaverton, OR.