Nike's Air Force 1: Stomping On Broken Glass, Bad Luck Be Damned
The interesting thing about a classic product is that rarely is it known at creation that it will, in fact, be a classic. Nor can one confidently estimate what turns its use and purpose will make in years to come. In 1982, Nike debuted its Air Force 1 shoes as a basketball sneaker. 35 years later, its triple white color way (color code 100 at Nike), has since become a fashion staple—still occasionally used for sport, but mostly for style. To mark its anniversary, Nike reached out to five designers, requesting their takes on this certified classic. The results were refreshing additions that stayed true to the AF-100’s origin.
Alternative Hip-Hop artist Travis Scott's Air Force 1 Low features Velcro removal Swooshes and his Cactus Jack logo over the laces. "I wanted to create a wear that looks different everyday," Scott, who's hard at work on a forthcoming LP, explains. "I looked at this shoe the same way I make an album. I want it to tell a story about me. I set the tone to go crazy at my shows. I’m the acid of rap."
We talked to the remaining four designers--Virgil Abloh, Errolson Hugh, Kareem "Biggs" Burke and Don “Don C.” Crawley--about what they brought to the table creatively, their love of the heralded sneaker and more.
Virgil Abloh, Off-White Designer
What’s your relationship with the Air Force 1?
In high school you’d see people wear and play basketball in them. And, like, JAY-Z wearing the Air Force 1 is probably one of the earliest memory of tying it to a culture.
What was your personal relationship with them?
I wore them, on and off. You know, I have a pair on now. To me, it was a shoe that had a particular vibe to it. I’m from Chicago. I was wearing Jordans. I was wearing skate shoes. I was probably wearing running shoes. The Air Force 1, it was one of those in the rotation. I probably wear it now more than I did back in the day.
What was your plan of attack with the Air Force 1?
For me, it was a celebration of the white-on-white. Within my Nike way of altering shoes, I’ve established a vocabulary of adding certain elements, underlying elements with the Air. Since I have the Nike Air Force 1 in The 10 Project—which was more about an X-ray, more experimental—this one is more of a true homage to the white-on-white, so I left its integrity instead of removing most of it. That’s all by choice.
It seems like a lot of your work is made with dual purposes. One is obviously to make an interesting product. But would it be accurate to say the other is to sort of reveal your blueprint for aspiring creatives?
Exactly. That was all by design. It’s more about allowing the kid that goes to his local Footlocker to look at a regular Air Force 1 sort of feel like they can do it at home, while still feeling like it has my signature. Those small details are there.
You’re really big on inclusion…
Yeah, that’s what the work is generally about. There are enough shoes in the world already. The ones that are left should be more educational. I think people seeing how they can edit the product is more profound than just the fact of that. It’s exciting. I’ve always been focused on making meaningful projects and it’s what I’m into.
Errolson Hugh, ACRONYM Designer
Is it at all daunting trying to remix such a classic?
Yes and no. Yes, because the Air Force 1 is obviously one of the most revered and most iconic sneakers of all-time. If you’re going to do something, you don’t want to mess it up. It better be good. And no, strangely enough, because as I told Nike when they first approached us with the project, we didn’t have a real strong personal connection to the shoe.
I’d never actually worn them before. Which turned out a positive thing because it really allowed us to sort of be a little more irreverent and more radical. Thanks to Nike open-mindedness, they were fully accepting of that and encouraging even. That’s how we ended up with the shoe that we have now, which is a super radical departure for sneakers in general but particularly for the Air Force 1. It’s such a classic. It’s been super satisfying to see the wave of DIY interventions into sneakers that sort of came out.
There are lots of things you’ve added. I wanted to break down some them, the first being the side zipper. What was the idea behind that?
We were free to pursue our usual Acronym approach, which is usually rooted in functionality and movement. The most obvious thing for that was donning and doffing of the shoe as a sort of action that you perform with the shoe the most. And also because I’m super lazy and I don’t like tying my shoelaces. And then the zipper seemed like the one to do because visually it’s cool.
We literally just took a pair of scissors to the original shoe and started cutting into it and seeing where the best position would be for it. Instead of drawing, we just did it to actual shoes right in the studio and tested them out. And once we established the right location, then we thought about we’d actually make it part of the shoe. But then we decided not to do that. Let’s make the break as clear as possible so you can really see the original shoe and this is what we added to it. That’s why it’s so aggressive. It’s more of a deconstructivist approach. Which is why the end of it sticks out, you know, both ends stick out, and the Swoosh isn’t even attached, it kind of floats.
It’s subtle, but you get some flap action.
Yeah, their exact term is bar-tech, and it’s probably from the denim industry. It’s a way to super-securely hold something down. It was just about being as blunt and direct as possible because rather than trying to design our way around the space, we were like, “What if we just leave it sticking off?” Luckily, Nike was like, “That’s cool.” Because they could have easily said, “No, don’t mess with the Swoosh.” I think it highlights it in a way because it makes it more three dimensional. It kind of jumps off the shoe. That’s one of my favorite parts of the design.
Speaking of that, I think there are a lot of things on your sneaker in particular that are noticeable. Another thing I like is the ribbing on the sole.
Yeah that’s actually a part of the original Lunar design. That’s from Nike. They approached us specifically with this. It’s not the traditional Air Force 1 outsole, and that’s actually why they asked us to do it. The other collaborators they were working with at the time, you know, having this deep personal history with the shoe, they all wanted to use a classic outsole and Nike was like, “Oh, if we’re going to get Acronoym to do it, let’s give them the new radical one.” That’s the one we got and we’re super happy about it because it looks cool, and we really appreciated the lightness and feel of the outsole.
That kind of speaks to the reputation you guys have built. What’s it like knowing that people come to Acronym to get a fresh, left-field take?
It’s great actually. It definitely makes what we do more fun. A lot of the times I feel guilty because we get all the really cool jobs. 9 of 10 times, “state of the art” is part of briefing. It’s very rare that anybody who approaches asks us to do something that has a price limit or has a restriction. They’re almost always like, “Oh, take it as far as you can.” We’re super fortunate for that.
Did you always come in with idea of being stark contrast from the conventional?
Yeah, absolutely. The reason we started Acronym in the first place was out of frustration. We were working for a lot of other brands and companies at the time and then had the idea to Acronym and actually pitched it to a bunch of people we were working with and they were all, “It’s too difficult and it’s too expensive or whatever.” Then we thought, “You know what, let’s do it ourselves and go for it.” It took a while but now that people have come around and now they see that, and I guess it worked because we seem to be known for that.
How do you achieve timelessness with your stuff? What’s the key to a timeless piece in general?
I mean I can only speak for our process and how we do it, but when I look at things that have become timeless, particularly in apparel, almost all of them start with solving a technical or functional problem. When you look at the Air Force 1 now it’s like this cultural icon. But it actually started as the most high-tech basketball shoe. That was the ultimate expression of what you could do with a shoe at that time. I think because of that, it has a certain honesty to its architecture and you know none of those [design] lines are there for the hell of it.
They all have a reason. They all have a purpose—the way the outsole is designed, same thing with the pivot point and the amount of cushioning and I think that’s probably what roots our design as well. And then because when we make something that way it often ends up being a lot more time consuming just in terms of development because you not only have to make sure it looks good; you have to make sure it works.
So you have double the work. And that obviously a lot of the time results in a more expensive product as well. Nobody wants to spend a lot of money on something that’s only going to look cool for a certain amount of time. We’re very aware of that when we design. We definitely want people to use and wear the stuff and feel good about it as long as possible, basically until the thing falls apart. In that respect I think it’s a good pairing with the shoe.
Kareem “Biggs” Burke, Co-Founder of Roc-A-Fella Records
How excited were you to kind of just get these back out into the world?
Nike is a behemoth company and especially with Air Force 1 being a staple of that, to combine that with the iconic Roc-a-Fella logo? Man, it means everything to us. When you’re doing things and collabs with brands, you want to make sure that it’s something not outside of your realm and that one thing isn’t overshadowing the other.
The Air Force 1 and the Roc-a-Fella logo, it’s just a perfect match. We’ve both done things without compromising integrity, staying true to what a brand is and how a brand works, and the name. So that’s why it just made sense to just put it together. I mean, I got people reaching out to me from all over--“Let’s do this, let’s do that.” I’m turning things down every day but it just has to make sense for both parties.
What made the AF1 white-on-whites a go-to pair for you?
It was just ‘cause it went with every outfit that we had, so we didn’t have to think too much. You get a 100 of those and then we switched sneakers every day, we switched outfits, too. It made sense, you know? Super clean. Once you bring it out the box, you wouldn’t want to scratch anything on it. You just want to get through the day, because we knew that after that, we weren’t wearing them again.
How many pairs do you think you’ve been through in your lifetime?
Oh, man. I don’t know. It had to be between 3000 and 5000 for the white-on-whites.
The mission in a clean pair of 1s is to make it through the day without getting them dirty. How did you do that while walking on busy Harlem sidewalks?
Yeah, it’s that Harlem swag when your shoulders are movin’ big and you want everybody to get out your way. You've got to swing them shoulders, man.
That’s a perfect answer. How did Harlem take the mantle of the epicenter for the Air Force 1s? The AF1s are nicknamed the “Uptowns.”
I think because Harlem was just the mecca of fashion. So many things just exploded out of there. and as much as so many people talk about Harlem, you would think that it’s its own borough. Harlem is a small place located upper Manhattan, from 110th Street to 155th. 45 blocks. It’s not a huge area but there’s still so much culture, so much trends, so much freshness and things that came out of Harlem.
I think people just kind of went there and always wanted to see what’s next. So things always kind of popped out of there and exploded and then went global. So we’re seeing the impact that we can have by doing that because we were some of the younger guys to start to introduce new fashion and some things that people weren’t particularly on yet and the good thing is that we had the sounding board, right? So JAY-Z putting the Air Force 1 in songs, we were able to touch people globally and not just statewide.
Don “Don C.” Crawley, Just Don Designer
When did your relationship with the Air Force 1 begin?
Around 1990 I fell in love with the shoe. I felt like people whose style I was fond of were wearing it and that was my first introduction to what the shoe was. The Air Force 1 came out in ‘82, of course. It was prior to the Air Jordan, but I wasn’t up on it as a kid in ‘82. I had seen it around a couple of older kids around school had Forces and I was like, “Those are fresh.” But it wasn’t until one of the tastemakers at my school had it on and I was like, “Oh, I got to have a pair.” So it was 1990 that I had the first pair.
One of the things that I learned that you did with these Air 1s is that, technically, it’s more than just the 1; there are little hints of the 2 and the 3 in there. That correct?
Yeah, so it’s definitely an Air Force 1, but I just used the Air Force 1 platform and just a few elements from other members of its family. So I definitely look at it as an Air Force 1, but I look at it as the family Air Force 1. So it’s like when you’re looking at the father, this is the version that you can see elements of its son and its grandson, you know.
Where did that idea come from just to merge silhouettes?
I thought the Air Force 1 is always getting a lot of shine, so I thought let’s use that fly form and give some shine to its predecessors and still pay homage to the OG. So I tried to do that and I’m big on family, so I thought it was just a way to incorporate the family—the force family, to show that things are stronger when you incorporate elements of different family members and you involve the whole family. It’s like you’re making a stronger product so that’s sort of the story I’m trying to convey with the design.
From a design aspect you know obviously we talked about how there are elements of the 2 and the 3 in your AF1. But let’s talk about the snakeskin straps.
Yeah that’s from like the Buck 50 hat from Chicago. I know you know that that’s the snake pattern from what I have on my hat. I wanted to incorporate that with the strap and I just wanted point out that the Swoosh is tucked on one side and it’s visible on the other. The scales on the Swoosh and the strap are one type of scale and the other is one type of scale. Those are small details that I want the person to recognize after they buy the shoes.
The initial white-on-white and the quality is what I want people to delve into. But when they cop it I want them to discover different things every day of the first week they’re rocking it like, “Oh, I didn’t even notice this. I didn’t even pay attention to this.” So those are some of the elements, but definitely, the snakeskin came from the Buck 50. That was like the introduction to my brand. I wanted to give something to that, to my first Nike commercial release.
I see you choose the high tops, too. Why highs instead of lows?
‘Cause like I figured everyone else was going to pick lows. I was like, “Oh ain’t nobody going to want to do high, revered as the low is.” And that’s one of the things I want to change in the game.
I’m the dude that wears jerseys. I wear basketball jerseys, football jerseys, baseball jerseys, to like formal events. And I try to sometimes dress them up, or try to say like this is my style but I want to make it appropriate. That’s what I’m trying to do with that shoe. It’s for the people that feel like, “I don’t do high tops; that’s too sporty.” What are some things that I can do to a high top to get low top wearers to wear them? That’s the same approach when I look at jerseys or shorts.
I hope that what I do with this shoe is it helps the low top—the person that just is a go-to low top guy. I want him to give a high top a chance and be like “You know what? I like this.” That’s why I made it where you can take the strap off that shoe if you don’t like a strap so it looks fresh or you can rock the strap on either side I wanted to make it as versatile as possible.
It’s funny that you say that ‘cause with me, I’m kind of hit or miss with straps. If I don’t like the strap of a shoe I typically still like if there’s a way to reverse it, so I can let it dangle from the heel.
Yeah, that’s how most people want to get their swag on, but some people I talked to don’t really like straps. It still looks like a good shoe without the straps. That’s what we tried to accomplish with that
As we wrap up, I was talking to Biggs from Roc-a-Fella and he told me that they wore AF1s once and then gave them away. How many pairs have you gone through?
Yeah, me too. I’m about to tell you what’s going to make Don C the most famous person you’ve ever talked to ever: I own more sneakers than anyone. Nobody has more sneakers than me. Nobody. Not even Nike Inc! No, I’m just kidding; they have more than me!
But yeah, that’s how I got known in the game. See, I haven’t even counted my sneakers but I had over 5000 in 2002. That was 15 years ago that I had over 5000. I have no idea how many I have now. Ask anyone who’s been to any of my storages and they will vouch. “Oh, he has more shoes than anybody.” I did AF1s off and on heavy between, I would say, ’94 and ’14.
So between them 20 years, I’d have been through so many Air Force 1s. Definitely in the thousands, ‘cause I used to go to Japan. I used to go to Europe. I used to find people on eBay on different sites and Nike Talk and I would trade with them. All I can say is that before I got serious about sneakers in ’02, I went and inventoried what I had and I have over 5000 sneakers, and I haven’t counted in the past 15 years.
The most baller thing I’ve heard you say is “storages.” Not one. Several.
Every city I’ve lived in I have storage. Like, okay, perfect example: I would love to call one of my storage people and ask, “Hey man, I’m talking to this guy for this interview. How many shoes you think are in there?” It’s funny, I tell everyone I want to open up a museum. I have so many sneakers. It’s like I dedicated my life to sneakers before that was a cool thing to do. All men are sneakerheads now, but I’ve been a sneakerhead since ’89.
When that word didn’t exist, I was a sneakerhead. So I’ve just been living this my whole life. My mother used to be like, “I don’t know why my boy is into these shoes.” Everywhere I lived I had shoes stacked up to the ceiling. Everywhere I worked, I had shoes stacked up to the ceiling.
My kids don’t know anything other than their dad’s closet looking like a storage room. They’ve been seeing that their whole life. They think that’s normal.
Written by Brad Weté
Photographed by Ian Morrison