The history behind the hype: Nike Air Force 1s

The year was 1982. Sony revolutionised the music experience with the release of its first CD player, and Britain was ecstatic with Prince William’s birth. It was also the year Nike unveiled the Air Force 1, a revolutionary basketball shoe that forever changed the footwear game, both on and off the court.

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You know a shoe has reached cult status when its ad doesn’t even feature it.

“Air in a box”. Nike’s campaign slogan when it first launched couldn’t have been simpler. There wasn’t any marketing fanfare like the sneakers of today enjoy; no teasers or fancy, dreamy videos. Neither were there sites like Hypebeast to tantalise sneakerheads or announce drops.

Those four words were really all that was needed to inform the world about the shoe’s biggest selling point: The air-filled pocket in the heel that provided cushioning and support for better play on the courts. Contrary to popular belief, the Air Force 1s weren’t retroactively named for being the first to have the Air Force sneaker. They were actually named after the POTUS’ plane, and an initial blue and white 1982 release with an embroidered Star Spangled Banner is testament to that.

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Bruce Kilgore, the brains behind the Air Force 1. Image: Sneaker Scholar

Owning the ball game

This year, the Air Force 1 celebrates its 35th birthday, a significant milestone considering Nike was a company founded on the sport of running, so basketball was an entirely new ball game (pun intended) for the sportswear giant. Both were worlds apart, and it wasn’t an easy transition. All of that changed, when designer Bruce Kilgore came along — the man behind the blueprint of one of the greatest basketball sneakers of all time.

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A pair of pre-1986 Nike Air Force 1 Highs.

Now a legend in the company for obvious reasons, Kilgore drew inspiration for the Nike Approach hiking boot to create a silhouette that angled lower towards the Achilles, so basketball players had maximum support for their ankles without compromising on flexibility.

Nike then took the ‘Air’ technology from the Nike Tailwind — a running shoe that debuted an ‘Air’ sole — and applied it to Kilgore’s design. The rest was history.

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The circular outsole pattern that aided in pivoting during the game.

It’s been three decades, and Bruce Kilgore’s iconic design is still groundbreaking. It’s funny to think that this is the same guy who was responsible for one of the blandest and most uninspiring cars in history — the K-car.

Obviously, Kilgore was more interested in designing shoes, because the Air Force 1 saw revolutionary updates that were missing in his car. Basketball involves lots of jumping and cuts, so instead of a traditional herringbone traction pattern, he came up with a circular outsole pattern that would allow for easy and safe pivoting during the game.

The moment of truth

The next challenge was to have people actually play basketball in them, so testing began. One of the early testers of Kilgore’s prototype was Tinker Hatfield, who had joined Nike as a corporate architect in 1981.

So impressed with the shoe he was, that it made him reconsider his profession in designing buildings in exchange for designing shoes. Years later, this man became a legend in his own right by creating the Air Jordan 3.

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The ‘Original Six’ of the Air Force 1s.

As soon as the shoes started production, Nike enlisted six NBA players to wear them on the court. The “Original Six” included Michael Cooper and Jamal Wilkes of the L.A. Lakers, Moses Malone and Bobby Jones of the Philadelphia 76ers, and Calvin Nato and Michael Thompson of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Easily one of the most iconic silhouettes of all time, what started off as a simple shoe made specifically for basketball has sparked off a global streetwear phenomenon. Two years after they were launched, the Air Force 1s were discontinued despite high demand. People had to resort to customising their current pair to freshen up the look while exploring new colourways, and distributors were being hounded. Nike had an unprecedented decision to make: Whether to resurrect an ‘old’ shoe or not.

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The Nike Air Force 3.

In 1986, Nike caved in and the Air Force 1s rose from the ashes. Variations appeared; the high-tops shrunk to become lows, and to fill the in-between gap, the mids were created. There were Air Force 2s in 1987, a flat-soled version made for casual wear.

The following year, Air Force 3s were introduced, the most popular variation that was made more durable and hence became its most popular amongst basketball players.

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The VLONE x ASAP Bari limited edition Air Force 1.

Now, the Air Force Ones are a guaranteed staple in every sneakerhead’s legion of collectibles. Some limited edition styles can also command way more than their retail value. VLONE and ASAP Bari’s collaboration’s 20-example collection last year saw tumbled leather, waxed laces and orange accents, and fetches US$91,600 (S$130,000) on eBay. Not bad for a sneaker that was designed by the K-car guy, and for a shoe that was only supposed to stay within the waxed basketball courts.