‘Air in a box’. That was Nike’s simple ad campaign slogan when they launched the Air Force 1 in 1982. The first basketball shoe that featured a pocket filled with air in the heel for cushioning and support.
Although the Nike Tailwind – the first shoe with ‘Air’ in the sole – debuted three years earlier, getting ‘Air’ into a basketball shoe was not an easy transfer. Nike was fairly new to basketball. Running was what the company was founded on and where they had the most experience. And of course those two sports are completely different from each other and demand different things from their athletic shoes. After all, running is a heel-toe, straight line activity, while in basketball there are more cuts, heavy landings, jumping and instant re-jumping.
When legendary Nike shoe designer Bruce Kilgore created the Air Force 1 he drew inspiration from the Nike Approach hiking boot, which slanted the shaft from front to back, so it angled lower towards the Achilles. This way the shoe provided the same support while gaining flexibility. For the outsole Kilgore wanted something completely different. Up to that point most basketball shoes, most shoes for that matter, stuck to a traditional herringbone traction pattern. Kilgore came up with a circular outsole pattern given basketball players’ use of the pivot move in the post. This made the Air Force 1 a true hoops shoe, which was then given to basketball playing wear testers.
Among the very first wear testers was a young man named Tinker Hatfield, who joined Nike in 1981 as a corporate architect. Amazed by the performance of the sneaker, Hatfield started thinking that his skills would be better suited to designing Nike’s athletic footwear as opposed to their buildings. A couple of years later Hatfield would design the Air Jordan 3 and become a sneaker legend in his own right.
Even though some wear testers did not like the ankle strap, they liked the shoe. So much that some even refused to return the samples they were given.
When the shoe went into production in ’82 it did so with a bang. Nike signed six NBA players to wear the AF1 on the hardwood. The “Original Six” were Moses Malone (Philadelphia 76ers), Michael Cooper (L.A. Lakers), Bobby Jones (Philadelphia 76ers), Calvin Natt (Portland Trail Blazers), Mychal Thompson (Portland Trail Blazers), and Jamal Wilkes (L.A. Lakers).
Although the shoe, which was originally meant as a homage to the President’s plane, was discontinued in 1984, demand remained high. People were asking distributors about the Air Force 1, often customizing used shoes to come up with new colorways. After a while distributors started asking Nike about the possibility of re-issuing the shoe. A proposal that was unheard of back then.
For Nike bringing back a shoe that was out of production made no sense. That was not how the business worked. Why would customers buy a pair of sneakers that was essentially ‘old’? Why should Nike spend money on something that was there before? Being in the business of making athletic shoes they were accustomed to look forward, not go back. Nike made something, then moved on and made something better. Nostalgia wasn’t a factor at all. But the Air Force 1 was different. Demand made Nike re-think the whole idea of discontinuing shoes. These were the very first steps towards Retro-ing.
In 1986 the Air Force 1 finally came back. One of the most iconic sneakers of all time returned because fans demanded it.
Today, there are nearly 2.000 versions of the Air Force 1 and it is still going strong.