A BRIEF HISTORY OF NIKE AIR EVOLUTION

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The word Nike ‘Air’ precedes many of the greatest sneakers in history. From the Air Max 90 and Air Trainer 2 to the Air Jordan 3 and Air Force 1 – and the hundreds of other sneakers in between – those three little letters at the start almost always serve as a badge of honour and a signifier of greatness.

 

Nike AIR the ‘Revolution’

As we looked at recently, with the return of the OG Air Tailwind, Nike Air was born from the mind of Marion ‘Frank’ Rudy, an aeronautical engineer with absolutely no connection to Nike at the time of its inception. Rudy had been experimenting with new ways to contain inert gases inside rubber membranes when he came up with an idea to pitch his latest innovations to the footwear market. He met with a number of sportswear brands and was greeted with almost unanimous rejection, before finally meeting with the heads of Nike. Once Phil Knight put the new cushioning technology to the test – by literally lacing up in a prototype – he knew it was an idea too good to pass up. Nike quickly introduced the tech into the runner that we now know as the original Air Tailwind. 

While it would be easy for consumers to brush Nike Air off as mere marketing hype, it wasn’t without its merit in performance. Researchers at Knoxville’s University of Tennessee tested the Tailwind on its arrival and determined that runners exerted less energy when wearing the new technology than they did in the conventional running shoes of the time.

“AIR” in the 80s

After a successful introduction with the Tailwind in the late 70s, Nike’s design team got to work, introducing the new technology into almost every stream of footwear throughout the 80s. For much of its first decade on the scene, Nike Air referred exclusively to cushioning you could feel but not see. Air bubbles came in all shapes and sizes, but were always hidden within the midsole. It was only in 1987, with the release of the Air Max 1, that the concept of Visible Air was born. Tinker Hatfield, inspired by the exposed design of the Centre Georges Pompidou, chose to cut away a portion of the midsole to show the revolutionary cushioning in action. Such a bold idea raised concerns of durability from designers and consumers alike, but, as we know now, Tinker proved them all wrong. Curiously, the very first run of AM1s did actually sport a larger Air window, but it was shrunk down to ensure smooth sailing for the technology’s debut.

The introduction of Visible Air was, in many ways, even more, significant than that of Nike Air itself. It was a drastic design decision that injected a new level of freshness into the then-aging innovation, which made it feel like almost entirely new technology in and of itself. As with the introduction of Nike Air before it, Visible Air quickly began turning up in every type of footwear under the Nike umbrella. The Air Jordan 3 was another early adopter of Visible Air cushioning and, aided by Michael Jordan’s rising star profile, only served to further thrust the new type of cushioning into the spotlight.

“AIR” in the 90s

In the years following the release of the Air Max 1, with the idea of contained cushioning shattered, Nike’s talented designers quickly began to raise the stakes and the airbags only got bigger. The Air 180, Air Max BW and Air Max 93 all built on – and improved upon – the idea of heel-based Visible Air. Arriving in 1994, Air Max2 was a subtle twist in this concept that featured two different pressure systems in the one Air unit.

The Air Max 95 took Nike Air to the next level with the addition of forefoot visible Air in 1995, but it wasn’t the only significant Air innovation of the time. Nike also debuted Zoom Air that same year, which added tensile fibers within the standard Nike Air unit design for significantly improved responsiveness. While Zoom Air lacked the aesthetic knockout of Visible Air, due to it being concealed within the midsole once again, it was included in some of the wildest designs of the late 90s, including the Spiridon and Talaria.

In 1997, Nike’s design team would achieve the seemingly impossible with the introduction of full-foot Visible Air in the Air Max 97, setting a new standard for the Air Max line in the process. 1999 would see the release of the Air Max Plus and, with it, the introduction of Tuned Air. Building on the concept of the Air Stab before it, Tuned Air sought to combine Air cushioning with stability, in this case, provided by it’s signature hemisphere-based thermal plastic pods. The technology was further signified by the now-iconic bright yellow ‘TN’ branding – designed by Derek Welch – on the heels. Similar branding would appear for other Air innovations of the period.

“AIR” in the ’00s

The mid-2000s would bring us Air Max 360, an expansion on the concept of full-foot Visible Air introduced by the Air Max 97. While it lacked the initial visual shock of the AM97, the AM360 seriously raised the bar in terms of performance and engineering, earning it the nickname Engineered Max internally during development. The Air Max 360 sole unit featured thermoform Airbags encased by injection thermoplastic for structure and stability.

Nike Air would see a number of minor improvements and innovations over the next decade, as identified by the annual Air Max releases, but it wouldn’t be until the release of the Air VaporMax in the lead up to Air Max Day 2017 that Nike Air would truly stun once again. The VaporMax and its successors built on the concept of full-foot Visible Air to the highest degree, by removing the need for a secondary rubber layer and introducing a new level of flexibility.

The Nike “AIR” Today

In recent years, as performance focus has shifted to lightweight foams, Nike has capitalized on the aesthetic intrigue of Air with big-bubble lifestyle models like the Air Max 270 and, most recently, the Air Max 720. Both models shattered records upon their introduction for the sheer size of their colossal bubbles.

Nike Air has had a tremendous effect on the sneaker scene these past 40 years and Nike owes much of its success as a brand to the technology’s introduction. So, on behalf of sneakerheads the world over, thank you, Marion ‘Frank’ Rudy, for giving it to us.