“I like the all white high top strap with the gum bottom/there’s something ’bout them that’s dirty why I got ’em/I leave um strapped and laced and come up out um.”
That’s Nelly talking about Nike’s Air Force 1. Not current, ‘please stream me out of IRS-induced prison bid’ Nelly, but ‘top of his game, Nellyville rock star’ Nelly, when his name check was analogous to Run DMC’s immortal ‘My Adidas’ three stripe pop-off.
The AF1 is the ultimate sneaker icon. You can have your Jordans, your Yeezys, your shell toes (or, if you’re OG, your HTM Wovens, your Oki-Ni Cross Country pythons, your V1 Bapestas). The AF1 is just better; purer; somehow more. Je ne sais quoi game strong af.
This year marks its 35th anniversary, as the original Bruce Kilgore-designed Air Force was released in ’82, before being re-released as the Air Force 1 with that swoosh-bedecked gum sole in ’86. Good luck counting the iterations. More than 1700 colourways have been produced. It’s the best-selling sneaker of all time, and brings Nike nearly a billion dollars a year.
The AF1 embodies the best of proto-minimalist design. There’s not much going on, but, somehow, there’s sooooo much to play with. Bobbito Garcia, the true OG Bobby Johnson of the sneaker game, used to hand paint details on his, creating entirely original colourways (full story in his must-read book ‘Where’d You Get Those: New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987’), which ultimately gave rise to the Nike iD program, that started out with just the Air Force 1.
It comes in three versions, the low (which wraps just under the ankle), the mid (which is the most popular, and features a velcro strap that is removable on some versions, and strapped to the shoe on others), and the high (or high-top, also with a velcro strap).
Marketing people have analyzed this shoe for decades. Ditto designers.
“People want to analyze it death, but it’s really just that it looks great on your foot,” Bobbito says.
Without question, this is a seminal example of the enthusiastic usage (read: exploitation) of inner-city North Eastern culture for broader (read: suburban-cum-international) audiences. New York kids have been rocking this kick to death, especially up in Harlem (which is why old-school sneakerpimps call the AF1 ‘uptowns’ to this day). Ditto Baltimore and Philly.
Rappers played a big part of this, as did basketball players. Jay-Z wore them non-stop, in dozens of colours. So did Pharrell, Nas, Biggie, 50 Cent (this list could go on forever). Fat Joe bragged about wearing white-on-whites (the most popular version, which has white uppers and midsoles though still with the inevitable gum sole) a single time, then throwing them away, which was rooted in uptown NYC drug dealer culture, where wearing a fresh pair of white-on-whites each day showed that you were truly balling.
The AF1 also single-handedly gave rise to the (now overwhelming and ridiculously over the top) Limited Edition sneaker craze. Quick Strike’s, sometimes limited to as little as 15 pairs, popped up all over, often only at a single shop, on a single day. The 2007 Anaconda-skin edition sell for 5 figures and others, if you can even find them, at shops like Flight Club in LA or NYC.
A host of special editions will be released throughout the year, beginning with the NikeLab Citron, a lemon fresh AF1 low, the NikeLab Purple Stardust, the same in a rich mauve with white midsole, and a China-only Nai Ke (Nike in Chinese) Jade Collection, featuring ‘Jade’ trimmed white-on-whites.
35 years strong, and no end in sight. The cultural significance of the AF1 will shift, morph, re-identify, but trust that it will continue to be at the forefront. It was originally the premier NBA shoe (much like the Chuck Taylor, before it became more closely linked to the Ramon’s), then that must-have on the N train.
Next? Who knows. But there will be a next. The AF1 is forever.