It’s easy to forget the Air Force 1 was designed as a cutting-edge basketball shoe. Back in ’82 Bruce Kilgore couldn’t have foreseen the lasting effect his shoe would have, even as it picked up steam on in the courts and was praised by Basketball royalty.
From the initial prototypes with steel shanks in the sole for extra spring, to lightweight Flyknit iterations, the silhouette holds an undisputed place in the Sneaker Hall of Fame.
Designing a Classic
Bruce Kilgore designed the K car. If you’re anything other than an American with excellent pop culture knowledge (or an extremely bland taste in automobiles), then you probably don’t have a clue what that is.
There she blows. Who’d have thought that would pave the way for the Air Force 1.
Based on the Nike Approach hiking boot, Bruce tasked himself with creating a high top sneaker that still provided athletes with mobility. Only 3 years after the first ever Nike air sneaker, the Tailwind, transferring the technology to basketball wasn’t easy. Running was a completely different sport whose athletes needed completely different nuances to compete at the highest level. Nike was new to the basketball game, too.
What’s more, the air unit made the sole much higher, so Kilgore had to figure out the best way to ensure stability – Nike Air’s court career would’ve died on its feet if Nike athletes had been getting their ankles broken left right and centre. Notre Dame Cathedral came to the rescue (of course), providing inspiration for the angled midsole, ensuring the sole had enough contact with the court for rock-solid steadfastness.
Air in a Box
Nike’s Marketing campaign for the shoe was simple and brilliant; ‘Air in a Box’. A lot of the imagery didn’t even show the shoe. The Air Force 1 was (and is) a marketers dream though – it’s performance and on-court popularity sold itself. Although some weren’t a fan of the high-top’s ankle strap, early play testers conveniently ‘forgot’ to return their prototypes.
One of these play testers, a young corporate architect, was very impressed. From the circular tread pattern to help players pivot, to the metal shank placed below the air cushion to provide a spring in every step (a cruder energy return system than today’s Boost technology, sure, but it shows Nike’s designers were innovating in this area decades before adi’s ground breaking technology hit the road), Tinker Hatfield was sold.
As a former all-state basketball player (as well as an all-American track and field athlete), Hatfield was well placed to feel the significance of the Air Force 1’s design, and seeing the impact it had on performance decided his architectural skills could be applied to sneakers. His enduring legacy will be for the footwear he designed, most notably the Jordan III and the Air Max 1, but he’s also published for the design of his own home in Portland, Oregon. Tinker literally put a roof over his family’s head, and shoes on their feet. All thanks to the Air Force 1.
A Blank Canvas
It’d pay the design a disservice to suggest it’s just a case of art imitating life, but Kilgore is still working at Nike to this day (according to a quick Linkedin search, anyway), 35 years on.They needed a little coaxing to bring the shoe back in 1986, though.
‘A little coaxing’ is an understatement: re-issuing the shoe was an unprecedented move at the time. Nike, and sportswear by extension, was about pushing the envelope. It was about giving athletes the edge. It’s about looking forwards to the podium, not over your shoulder, right?
The only people more important than athletes made themselves heard, though, and after years of requests from distributors and consumers, in 1986 Nike made their very first ‘retro’ release.
Since then, there have been over 2,000 iterations of the acclaimed silhouette as it became part of sneaker culture’s DNA, and one of the best-selling athletic shoes of all time. Released in low and mid-top versions It’s seen every colourway under the sun, and iterations from the likes of Supreme, Comme Des Garcons and Acronym. It’s been the muse of Hip-Hop stars, Grime artists and generations of sneakerheads.
The Nike Air Force 1 is more than just a basketball shoe. It’s more than just a retro classic. It stands as a vehicle of self-expression across music, sport and fashion.
Check out the full collection of Air Force 1s at Footasylum here.