The history of Nike Air Max goes back to 1987 when Tinker Hatfield introduced the first ever visible air design with the Nike Air Max 1 which literally revolutionised the sneaker world overnight.
In the words of Nike themselves; “Nike Air technology consists of pressurised air inside a tough yet flexible bag and provides more flexibility and spring without compromising structure. The Air-Sole units maintain their given form with elasticity, lower impact and keep the shoe snug and lightweight.” The Air Max line within Nike is, simply put, the greatest footwear line ever to be created. The history of Nike Air Max goes back to the mid 80s where the sneaker race was in full throttle and the competition to create the comfiest and the bounciest midsole technology was really hotting up. From becoming one of the most sought after styles on the UK’s streetwear scene to becoming a Banlieue necessity, in this feature we take a look at the complete history of Nike Air Max.
It all started with Air
At the inception of the Air line in 1978, the idea for ‘Air’ was to provide a more comfortable, cushioned sole which has massively changed the way we wear and design sneakers throughout the years. 1978 saw the first release in the Nike Air line with the Nike Air Tailwind. Interestingly, the idea of adding air to the sneakers was from a former NASA engineer Frank Ruby which explains the space like innovation behind the concept. The Air Tailwind story would later lead to the Nike Air Max Tailwind which was first introduced in 1996.
Following the success of the Air Tailwinds came what is possibly the most synonymous shoe within the Nike Air Max line, the Nike Air Max 1. Designed by Tinker Hatfield, the designer who also worked on the Jordan brand as well as various other silhouettes, the shoe initially was released in the OG University Red and White colourway. With a background in architecture, Tinker Hatfield actually worked on a building for Nike before he worked as a designer for their footwear department. He was the designer behind the brand’s Oregon campus in 1981. His background in architecture along with what he has called a ‘rebellious’ streak, Hatfield went against the design and marketing brief that Nike had given him. He decided to design a shoe that was unlike anything that anyone had seen before.
Nike Air Max 1 (1987)
This decision led to the visible air unit that was placed in the midsole of the shoe. This was an incredibly bold move that was seen as being controversial at the time. The design choice of the AM1 was inspired by the controversial Centre Georges Pompidou in France. The building is considered an eyesore by a lot of people as it has a lot of it’s structural elements on show. The Air Max 1 is a shoe that had a massive ripple effect on sneaker design and the sneaker community. So much so, that on March 26th 2014, the first Air Max day was created. 27 years after the initial release of the sneaker, fans of the shoe and the Air Max line-up come together to celebrate all things Air Max.
Nike Air Max 1 Light (1989)
This design carried throughout the Nike Air Max line and has never gone back. 1989 saw the release of the Air Max 1 Light, which was effectively the same silhouette as the Air Max 1 with a couple of the materials changed to create a lighter, comfier feel.
Nike Air Max 90 (1990)
1990 saw the release of a second landmark Nike Air Max release with the Air Max 90’s. The shoe that was originally called the Air Max 3 to begin with, took the original aesthetic of the AM1’s and reworked it to fit the new generation. With a slightly larger midsole, along with new ribbed plastic detailing to the midsole, heel and sides. The AM90 infrared colourway quickly became one of the most recognisable sneakers in Nike’s history going on to be reworked by Virgil Abloh in the off-White ‘The Ten’ collection released in January 2019.
Nike Air Max 180 (1991)
One year later in 1991, Tinker Hatfield and Bruce Kilgore introduced the Air Max 180 trainer which featured 180 degrees of visible Air running across the outsole as well as both sides of the midsole. The 180 originally dropped in classic colourways like Ultramarine and up until its recent revival in 2018 was a relatively unknown Air Max silhouette.
Nike Air Max Big Window (BW) 1991
Another early 90s release saw the introduction of the Nike Air Max Classic BW or ‘Big Window’ as it often referred to in 1991. Tinker Hatfield was drafted in once again to design the Classic which featured a similar sole unit to the AM90. The ‘Big Window’ reference came from the fact the midsole featured a larger window of visible air. The AM Classic BW was a big hit across Europe for its sporty aesthetic & bouncy Air Max cushioning. Classic colourways included the OG Persian Violet & Black version.
Nike Air Max 2 Light (1994)
The next instalment on the Air Max line saw the Nike Air Max 2 Light trainer which was introduced in 1994. A recent revival in 2019 has helped the relatively unknown AM silhouette gain a new audience. Features of the Air Max 2 Light included updated midsole technology with a four-chambered Air Max Unit that also boasted two different pressure systems. The Air Max Light weighed in a full ounce lighter than previous AM models.
Nike Air Max 95 (1995)
The next big release in the Nike Air Max line was the Air Max 95’s. A shoe that fights for the top spot in the best Air Max sneakers of all time with a completely new design and style. The first colourway of the Air Max 95 was released in 1995 (hence the numbering in the name)and came in a Neon Green, Grey and Black colourway. Nike brought the then ACG designer, Sergio Lozano, in to lead the design work on the shoe. Lozano had 4 years of design under his belt with a focus in tennis and training shoes which meant a completely fresh take on the Air Max. At the time the shoe was released, basketball was prevailing and sportswear was following this trend. Going against this, Lozano decided to create the Nike Air Max 95 to be a performance running shoe.
Whereas before, previous sneakers had been inspired by buildings, reworking past sneakers etc; the 95’s were inspired by human anatomy. When you look at the shoe, you can see where the designer looked at the formation of bones and muscles that went into the shape of the sneaker with the ribbed panels on the upper along with the midsole made to look like ribs and a spine. Lastly, the next big change that the Air Max 95 brought was the new air unit. Creating a completely new designed air unit that looked as if it completely supported the sole of the shoe, the sneaker was a huge step forward for Nike.
Nike Air Max 96 (1996)
A year later in 1996, Lozano was tasked with designing the Air Total Max, or better known as the Air Max 96. Utilising the same Air bag concept that featured in the AM95, the Air Max 96 took inspiration from the waves of the ocean which is evident on the design of the uppers. The AM96 appeared & disappeared pretty quickly, originally dropped in classic colourways like Scream Green.
Nike Air Max Triax (1996)
1996 also saw the birth of the Nike Air Max Triax trainer. In celebration of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Nike introduced the Nike Air Max Triax 96 USA trainer which featured colourway inspiration and detailing derived from the Team USA kit. Triax featured Zoom Air cushioning toward the front of the midsole as oppose to the full length visible Air Unit. The style was a popular choice for runners at the time thanks to a range of endorsements from pro USA athletes such Gwen Torrence. The Air Max Triax story would continue until 1998 with numerous iterations and colourways dropping from the Triax line.
Nike Air Max Tailwind (1996)
96′ was clearly a busy year for the design team at Nike as they also introduced the first Nike Air Max Tailwind trainer. Continuing the running heritage of the original Tailwind trainer from 1979, the Nike Air Max Tailwind 96 featured a chunky style upper with the addition of visible Air & embroidered swooshes. Following further Air Max Tailwind drops throughout the late 90s it was perhaps the Air Max Tailwind IV which was originally released in 1999 that received the best reception. Originally a big hit in Australia the Tailwind IV was re-released in 2019.
Nike Air Max 97 (1997)
In the 90s, it felt like Nike was on a roll and in 1997 they released the Nike Air Max 97. Another huge shoe in Nike’s history, designed by former football player Christian Tresser who had previously worked with Reebok on a variety of shoes including the Daytona DMXs. Lovingly coined the ‘Silver Bullets’, the original inspiration behind the shoes colourway was Tokyo’s super speedy Bullet train. When it came to the design of the sneaker, Tresser took notes from the way water ripples on the surface of a lake. With the new designer came a newly designed upper that, again, paved the way for upcoming performance sneakers to come in the late 90s & early noughties. With this new design came yet another iteration of the air unit on the midsole of the shoe.
Tresser managed to create an air unit that actually supported the entire shoe and went around the whole midsole. While nowadays there’s a vast amount of 97 colourways on the market, the original colourways are still hard to come by. However, after its re-release in 2017, there has been a number of takes on the shoe with the re-release of the OG Silver Bullet colourway, the Off-White ‘The Ten’ collection as well as the highly sought after Sean Wotherspoon 97’s released in 2018.
Nike Air Max 98 (1998)
1998 saw two releases in the Nike Air Max line. The Air Max 98 (obviously) and the Nike Air Max Plus (better known as the Nike TNs). Late 90s fashion was bold and brash with super vibrant colourways. The 98s captured this style perfectly with it’s OG ‘Gundam” colourway featuring a bright blue and white upper with red details throughout the shoe. Being a slightly less discussed release, the sneaker had a collaboration with Supreme in 2016 which gave a new audience an appreciation for the silhouette.
Nike Air Max Plus (1999)
The Air Max Plus on the overhand was the brainchild of Nike designer, Sean McDowell. First released in 1999, the Air Max Plus, or TN as more commonly known, has gained a cult following across the streets of Europe. Originally designed by Sean McDowell, the Air Max Plus drew inspiration from a day trip to the beach in Florida with everything from palm trees and the waves incorporated into the late 90s Air Max classic. It was also the very first ‘Tuned Air’ release that came with the iconic hexagonal TN logo on the heel.
Nike Air Tuned Max (1999)
The Nike Air Tuned Max came next on the TN (Tuned Air) line, dropping in 1999 at the end of the decade & the start of the next of the Millennium. The Air Tuned Max really captured where Nike & the design team had got to as far as revolutionary sole technology were concerned. Featuring a full length Air sole unit, a multi panel upper and supportive cage overlays, the Air Tuned Max looked like more like something from the next century. A relatively unknown Air Max silhouette, the Air Tuned Max had more of a cult following on the streets of Europe. Iconic colourways included the celery version which has seen a recent release from the Oregon archives.
Nike Air Max Deluxe (2000)
Nike took colourways to the next level with the introduction of the Nike Air Max Deluxe trainer in 2000. Featuring lightweight neoprene uppers & full length Air Max sole cushioning, the Air Max was designed predominantly for runners’ needs. The crazy colourways featured everything from bright neon to bright orange with gradient uppers that take you straight back to the early noughties.
Nike Air Max 360 (2006)
Things went a bit quiet in the world of Air Max for a few years. To be fair Nike did go all in the 90s, but the legacy continued with the Air Max 360 in 2006. A relatively unknown Air Max silhouette, the Air Max 360 featured 360 degrees of Air Max sole cushioning. However, the Air Max 360 came on the Air Max scene just as quickly as it left it & was more recently revived as part of hybrid release with the VaporMax.
Nike Air VaporMax (2017)
It wasn’t then until 2017 that Nike released a new Air Max sneaker to it’s now huge fanbase. Taking a step in a completely new direction, the Nike VaporMax Flyknit was released. Coming in with comfort at the forefront, the shoes upper was made on a light Flyknit material that acted and felt like a sock complete with the sole of the shoe being made completely of air. Gone was the air unit placed into the midsole, making the wearer look as if they were floating.
The shoe was a big step forward in the technical side of performance running sneakers as well as the direction the Nike Air Max line is heading in. It took 7 years for the shoe to finally be created after it’s original idea was put onto paper but has since seen a variety of different colourways and designs including collaborations with Virgil Abloh’s OFF-WHITE, Acronym and Cactus Flea Market.
Nike Air Max 270 (2018)
The latest shoe in what is widely considered Nike’s most successful sneaker line, is the Nike Air Max 720, released in 2019. Following in the footsteps of the oversized air bubble design on the Air Max 270 which was released the year before, the 720 came on the scene during the ‘chunky sneaker’ trend. With the sneaker resting on an oversized air bubble and the materials used in the upper of the shoe, there is a strong futuristic feel here.
Nike Air Max 720 (2019)
Dylan Raasch and Jesi Small wanted to create an Air Max sneaker that had a focus on a more casual/lifestyle wearer. They hit the mark with this by releasing it in a variety of gradient colourways that took the mainstream sneaker market by storm at the time of release. While this shoe has got a futuristic feel that fits a more specific taste, the shoe stands for something more. Being made out of over 75% of recycled materials, the sneaker was released as a way to show the sustainable standpoint that Nike is taking in future releases.
Nike Air Max Scorpion (2022)
The Nike Air Max Scorpion marked the next generation of “Visible Air” technology drawing inspiration from the one-piece flyknit uppers of the VaporMax from 2017. Offering “tomorrow’s comfort today”, the Air Max Scorpion featured an oversized, full length Air Max sole unit with Flyknit uppers, stitched side swooshes & mini swooshes to the toe box. Arguably one of the most futuristic looking Air Max trainers of all time, the Air Max Scorpion has dropped in a range of classic Air Max colourways such as ‘triple black’ & ‘barely volt’
After all these different designs, it’s difficult to imagine where Nike will go next with the Air Max story. But as has been shown time and time again, there are always new and innovative ways to design sneakers. One thing is for sure, that Air Max will always have it’s stamp on the sneaker industry & the OG Air Max designs will always remain the kings of the playground.