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Nike Air Max: The Architecture of Pop

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The Centre Pompidou lets it all hang out. By putting many of its inner workings on full display—glass corridors for its external escalators, brightly-colored HVAC hardware, and an exoskeleton that still looks futuristic forty-some years later—its architects turned what would otherwise be a plain old rectilinear block into a landmark.

Image via Nike

Legend has it the designer of the original Nike Air Max, Tinker Hatfield, basically found his prime inspiration for the shoe in the Renzo Piano/Richard Rogers icon. Last year, Nike paid a not-so-subtle homage to the building by projecting a celebration of the shoe's illustrious 30-year life onto its facade. Just try to walk down the Rue Saint Martin without seeing a giant diagonal Air bubble on the Pompidou now...

So, Nike Air existed before the Air Max, but its magic was hidden inside opaque foam soles. Unless you ripped your shoes up, it was really only there in theory. Wearers could certainly feel the extra cushion, but was it maybe just extra foam? The Air Max breakthrough was giving the engineering magic a little window onto the world. It was a postmodernist power move that has resulted in one of the most beloved lineages in sneaker history.

Air Max evolution has been more circuitous than linear, as new versions usually complemented classic versions rather than superseded them. From the original Air Max 1, onto the bulked up and modernized 90 and 180, and onto the streamlined 93, the controversial 95 and its cultlike following, and the wavy feng shui 97 (which is definitely having a moment right now), the trend from the beginning was always toward more and more visible Air. What started with a small window on the original had grown to the encompass the rear and mid-sole with the Air Max 180, then basically the entire sole of the shoe with the 360. From that point forward, new versions have continued to push the Air envelope with new organic forms and debuting material innovations in the uppers. They're still sneakers to make an architect swoon.

 

Left to right: Obama, Levanthian (1989), Junior M.A.F.I.A., Hotline Bling by Drake, Shutdown by Skepta, Tupac, Loyalty by Kendrick Lamar, If You Had My Love by JLo, The One with the Football, Friends (1996), Space Jam (1996)

Though originally designed, and generally still intended as a running shoe, every generation of the Air Max has become something of a blank canvas for culture to project itself on. Obama's been known to play ball in fresh 93s, seemingly every rapper in the world wears 95s or 90s, and they've made cameos in comic books, graphic novels, and films as different as Space Jam and Lean On Me. They're accessible to everyone, yet are a status symbol that doesn't look out of place at fashion week. They've been the subject of massive heists and people queue for hours for new drops. More than 30 years after the original, they still make people feel energized, of-the-moment, and new.

The cherry on top of this Air Max month, is of course the Sean Wotherspoon 1/97. The highly sought-after shoe, which won 2017's Vote Forward competition, takes the signature wavy silhouette of the 97 and remixes it with some feel-good 70s vibes in corduroy, and uses the classic 1 sole in a new colorway as a nod to nascent 80s sneaker culture. It's also a homage of sorts to our two home cities, Richmond, Virginia and Los Angeles, so we're all about this Air Max icon.

Sources: Nike, Complex, Discogs, The Grey District, IMDB

Image via Complex

Video via Nike

 

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