Dizzee Rascal had a customised pair, basketball star LeBron James an entire line, and clubbers, hip-hop stars and runners throughout the 1990s would rarely be seen without them. Now, on the 25th anniversary of the Air Max, Nike’s most famous cushioned trainer, the shoes are enjoying another surge in popularity.
Spotted on the feet of celebrities ranging from Rita Ora to Barack Obama, the bubble-soled shoes have transcended their origins to become a coveted wardrobe staple, embraced across the worlds offashion and music. “It’s not just about any old pair. Labels, styles and specific details are all-important,” said Hannah Almassi, fashion editor ofGrazia magazine, who said that owning a pair of 90s kicks had become an obsession for trainer fans.
Online retailer Asos reports a significant increase in sales for the latest spring/summer 2013 range. “We have seen a 320% growth on Nike Air Max trainers on the same period for the previous year, making them the casual wardrobe staple,” said Nichola Carroll, branded footwear buyer for Asos. “There has been an increase across all trainers. Key styles range from branded retro running styles, such as New Balance, to high- and low-tops, with bold colours proving popular.”
David Spencer, product and marketing director for footwear retailer Schuh, said the trend is part of a sports fashion revival: “Nineties sport is the footwear of choice and we have seen a massive uplift in sales for this type of footwear, especially on ladies – where we are seeing girls who aren’t traditionally sports customers buying into the trend too.”
The 80s was an era of big money, big hair and even bigger phones and Nike executives responded in 1987 with the Air Max shoe and its air bubble visible on the side of the midsole. The design dominated the 1990s and could be spotted in marathons, hip-hop videos and on LP sleeves. A UK forensic science service database study in 2007 found that the Air Max 95 was the favourite footwear for criminals as it was the most popular footprint at crime scenes.
But what has got today’s fashion-conscious running to JD Sports stores? Phoebe Philo, the British designer of Céline, has a lot to do with it. After a recent fashion week catwalk show, Philo took a bow in her trademark trainers – which happened to be Air Max – and the designer was even photographed in her Nike Vortexes for Vogue’s March issue.
“She’s long been the fashion insider’s inspiration for trainers and wears them all the time, with everything and anything,” said Almassi. “As the queen of all things understated, she’s redefined the idea of why and when you wear trainers by pairing them with something as chic as masculine tailoring. She’s a trendsetter through and through.”
Another explanation is found in the dance music revival. Clubbers are embracing the original dance music accessory – Air Max 90s – and the 90s deep house sound is very much back. It is defined not only by the music people are listening to, but by the way they are dancing and the clothes they are wearing. Adam Saville, clubs editor for the publicationDJ Mag, says that there is now a fascination with the original 90s sound and style as people have access on YouTube and the internet to the history of the genre. “When the future’s bleak, there’s a fetishisation of what came before. People are looking back as if it was some sort of golden age,” he said.
In the early 90s, as the house and rave scene developed, there was a practical element to the shoe. “People were dancing all night or awake 24 hours at a time,” said Ben Banks, co-founder of menswear and lifestyle website Oki-ni. “It wasn’t like going to a glamorous, luxury nightclub dressed up to the nines, it was very dressed down, people were wearing more comfortable footwear and baggy clothing.”
The Air Max creator, Tinker Hatfield, was hired by Nike in 1981 as a “corporate architect”. He spent his first four years designing shops and offices, before he was asked to look at shoes. He travelled to Paris searching for inspiration for his first project, and saw the innovative and controversial George Pompidou centre – a large, machine-like building that was “spilling its guts out to the world”.
In stark contrast to traditional Parisian architecture, it is an all-exposed construction: the steel structure is visible from the outside, as are giant external escalators, and the colour-coded pipes. Inspired by this, Hatfield began working on a shoe based on the Pompidou.
Not only did Hatfield and his team expose the inside of the structure and the mechanical systems of the shoe, they painted everything in bright colours, creating the hi-tech modern Air Max look.
“When I was growing up I was allowed three pairs of trainers a year. I started wearing Reebok classics because they were only £29.99 and they brought them out in lots of different colours. Then I moved on to Nike,” said Tory Turk, 29, curator of an exhibition on trainers in London last year – who was wearing a pair of white and blue Air Max 1s. “When you’re 11 or 12, and you’re forced to wear uniform at secondary school, your trainers can show your identity. We were allowed to wear black trainers and in gym you could wear any colour you liked. Our generation was wearing them then, and we’re wearing them now.”
Banks said the high demand was also partly explained by Air Max trainers being about the same price they were 20 years ago. “Air Maxes were £75, £85, £90 in the 90s – they were more expensive then. People see them reissued and look back with a sense of fondness or aspirations that were never fulfilled.”
Experts think the trend still has a long way to go. “It’s the rule of the 20-year cycle,” said Sarah Raphael, online editor at i-D magazine. “The 00s relived the 80s with Dr Martens; the 10s are reliving the 90s and sportswear is back.”
Sara Dal Monte
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