THE CULTURAL A-Z OF NIKE AIR MAX 27 March 2023
In celebration of Air Max Day 2023, END. takes a look at the A-Z of Air Max and the cultural references deeply embedded within the iconic sneaker line.
Nike's Air Max isn’t just a sneaker line; Air Max is a shapeshifter that moves between global cultures, resonating deeply with everyone from Milanese ravers to the vanguards of the hip-hop world. Each of these groups and individuals, despite their varying interests and traits, are all united through an unapologetic sensibility — the same one that has been central to the Air Max line since its very inception.
To celebrate Air Max Day 2023, END. shines a spotlight on the culture that’s ran throughout Air Max since day one, delving into the A-Zs that make up the ever-iconic sneaker line.
Amsterdam has represented a cornerstone in the sneaker sphere since its earlier days, with a slew of labels, artists and boutiques all sharing a deep appreciation for sneakers and the culture that runs parallel to them. There is, however, a particular lineage of sneakers that springs to mind when you think of Amsterdam, and that’s Air Max. From artists like Piet Parra and his slew of high-heat collaborations to native label’s like Patta – or both, in the case of 2010’s coveted AM1 “Cherrywood” – the city’s love for Air Max has been palpable for decades. In 2020, this was further established with the Air Max 1 City Pack which paid homage to the iconic, globally-renowned city and its cultural significance.
The 2002 World Cup Brazil team were legendary for many reasons – Ronaldo’s triangular hair, winning the highest number of matches by a team in a single tournament in the history of the World Cup and, of course, for the whole team and coaches being kitted out in Nike Air Max 95 OG Neon sneakers. Cementing their iconic World Cup win further with uniformity and aesthetic flair, the classic AM95 sneaker will be forever tied to this moment of sporting excellence.
C IS FOR COMME DES GARÇONS
Since its inception, Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons has represented a pioneering force in the avant-garde world of fashion, continuously pushing the envelope through an unwavering commitment to experimentalism. It’s a progressive sensibility shared by Nike and its Air Max line, with their collaborative partnerships representing a convergence of mirrored interests. From Air Max staples, like the 95 and the 97, to more niche silhouettes like the Air Max Sunder, Comme des Garçons and Nike have formed a momentous collaborative partnership under the Air Max line.
A day beloved by Air Max heads all over the world, the 26th March each year marks the annual celebration of all things Air Max. First celebrated nearly ten years ago in 2014, this year the festivities are marked with the release of the Air Max 1 OG 86 “Big Bubble” – a subtly transformed interpretation of the original Air Max 1 released all those years ago.
Originally releasing in 1987, the Air Max 1 kick started the craze for all things Air. Throughout the 90s and 00s, Nike continued to see the Air Max line evolve into the behemoth that it is today – a true footwear titan. From the Air Max 90 to the Air VaporMax in 2017, Nike continually transforms what Air Max can be with technological innovations and an uncompromising aesthetic vision. Where will Air Max go next? Only time will tell.
Adored within France, Air Max sneakers have been a subcultural staple in the Gallic country since they first appeared in 1987. Dropping in 1998, the Air Max Plus model was rapidly adopted by French suburban youths in Paris and Marseille, who nicknamed the sneaker ‘Le Requin’ (The Shark) because of its aggressive aesthetic approach and gill-like exoskeleton. With a bespoke model releasing in 2019 that paid homage to the Air Max Plus’ legacy in France, Air Max continues to remain ever-present within the country’s stylistic canon.
A subgenre of Hardcore dance music that originated in ‘90s Netherlands, Gabber music’s connection to Air Max is well documented. A style staple of the Gabber aesthetic, the Nike Air Max BW sneaker was the perfect choice for gabber-heads and Hardcore fans alike, offering durability and comfort when dancing the hakke for extended periods. Rare and collectable, Gabber’s affinity for the Air Max BW remains today, with the modern era of Hardcore continuing to look to the classic silhouette for style inspiration.
H IS FOR HARDCORE CONTINUUM
Well known throughout the world of Hardcore dance music, Air Max sneakers have continually remained on the feet of ravers throughout the past three decades. A staple of Hardcore for their combination of instantly identifiable style and comfort, if the Hardcore Continuum had a uniform, it would surely include the Air Max.
When the Air Max 90 first debuted in 1990, the sneaker caused immediate fanfare, not only through its cutting-edge looks and technology, but its colourway: “Infrared”. The colourway immediately resonated with underground electronic music scenes that were burgeoning on its debut year, mirroring the electric hues that filled abandoned warehouses and dancefloors throughout the UK.
Popular upon release amongst streetwear aficionados in the Ura-hara, the Air Max 95 quickly became a sensation throughout Japan for its distinctive chunky aesthetic and futuristic design. Donned by celebrities and fans alike, the fervour around the Sergio Lozano-designed sneakers reached its apex with what became known as ‘Air Max-Gari’ (Air Max Hunting), where fans would seek out and steal pairs from lockers, shoe boxes at restaurants, and eventually from the feet of those lucky enough to own a pair.
K IS FOR (GHOSTFACE) KILLAH
Ghostface Killah, beyond just his razor-sharp lyricism and masterful storytelling, is renowned for his love of all things sneakers, with Air Max being no exception to that. It goes beyond just the image above of him donning Neon 95s, too, with the opening lines of verse two on Apollo Kids: “a pair of bright phat yellow Air Max, hit the racks, snatch 'em up, son, $20 off no tax”.
In the UK, Air Max has been deep rooted in subculture for decades, representing a go-to for a varying array of people and movements up and down the country. One city where the Air Max line has particularly resonated is Liverpool, especially when you look at the Air Max 95 — or 110s, as they’re more commonly known, a name derived from their original price tag that has stuck ever since. The sneaker has long represented a symbol of the city, a staple in the uniform of scousers from varying walks of life.
Since 1987, the Air Max line has risen to a global phenomenon, sweeping through different cities across the globe and permeating a near-endless list of subcultural pockets. Nowhere has the Air Max frenzy been quite as palpable as Milan, when in 1997 the AM 97 Silver Bullet became an unofficial mascot for the city and the cultures bubbling away in its underground. From graffiti artists to DJs, the Air Max 97 became a staple, connecting different walks of life through a shared love of its other-worldly design. So much did it resonate with Milanese residents, in fact, that it acquired the affectionate moniker “Le Silver”, which was further credited by the namesake publication dedicated to the shoe in 2017.
With many Air Max silhouettes, the OG colourways have grown to become synonymous with the sneaker and its cultural importance. The Air Max 95 “Neon” is one of those sneakers, representing a cultural significance that’s helped propel the sneaker into the legendary status it holds today. From US hip-hop to UK grime, the “Neon” has permeated multiple aspects of global culture, with Nike cementing it as arguably one of the most iconic Swoosh colour schemes of all time.
Virgil Abloh’s contribution to the world of sneakers is well-documented and undeniable, with the late designer’s inaugural collaboration with Nike – “The Ten” – heralding a new era of collaborative sneaker design and hype. With Air Max sneakers serving as the lynchpin of The Ten, Abloh’s Off-White continued to create further renditions of the inimitable Air Max 90 sneaker the pack’s OG Air Max 90, Air Max 97 and Air VaporMax.
As previously touched upon, Amsterdam and Air Max go together hand in hand. For decades, the city’s very own Patta has sat at the forefront of this, from selling Air Max in its formative boutique days to its list of coveted collaborations. Whether you’re looking at its 5th anniversary pack — which saw the release of the legendary Air Max 1 “Purple Denim” and “Chlorophyll”, to name just a few — to the much-loved “Waves” pack that commenced in 2021, Patta’s history and love for Air Max is one that’s arguably unparalleled.
Nike’s way of categorising high-heat sneaker releases, Quickstrike models are the most limited and exciting styles to be released to the general public. From Quickstrike classics like the Silver Bullet 97s to iconic collaborations like the atmos Safari Air Max 1, Nike’s exclusive line has the sturdy foundation of Air Max sneakers at its core.
In 1993, to mark the introduction of Air Suspension in the Range Rover County LWB, Land Rover paid tribute to equally as cutting edge technology, albeit a lot more affordable, found in the Air Max 93. “The very technology that created a revolution in running shoes is now creating one in Range Rovers. It’s called Air Suspension”. It was a clever way of displaying two brands from different ends of the spectrum, companies that may have been divided in terms of price tags, but were united through a shared dedication to innovation and leading their respective industries.
Air Max has long held deep subcultural ties in the UK, with Grime being one of the biggest appreciators of the line and its plethora of cutting-edge sneakers. Skepta, a luminary of the scene since its halcyon days, has been one of the key proponents in championing Air Max, not only through his wearing of the brand during his formative years, but also via his Sk Air line that commenced in 2017 with his Air Max 97. From there, Skepta would go on to bring a slew of grime favourites under the spotlight, with the BW 97 hybrid 2018, the Deluxe the same year and finally the Tailwind 5 in 2021.
In 1998, Nike debuted the Air Max Plus TN: a technical running shoe with innovative technology and hyper-progressive visuals. Its appearance was derived from Floridian sunsets, imagined up by its designer Sean McDowell, while its sole debuted the all-new Tuned Air technology, which utilised two hemispheres in the sole and the Air unit for increased stability. It was bold, in your face and packed a punch with its ground-breaking technology, ultimately leading the sneaker to become a go-to amongst a slew of subcultures from across the world, ranging from Parisian suburbs to underground club culture in the UK.
Throughout the United Kingdom, Air Max has continually been a dominant footwear choice, often deeply connected to subcultures and underground scenes. From Jungle, UK Garage and Grime to Techno and House, the Air Max sneaker is constantly spotted on foot, and offers a symbol of keeping the flame alive in the underground.
An icon of art-house cinema, French actor Vincent Cassel is an undeniable – if unofficial - Air Max advocate. Spotted throughout the years donning a variety of Nike’s bubble-centric sneakers, most commonly 90s and 95s, images of Cassel with his fellow actor and ex-wife Monica Bellucci at Cannes 2002 for Gaspar Noé’s controversial film Irréversible are mood board gold.
W IS FOR (SERENA) WILLIAMS
A renowned fan of Air Max sneakers, Tennis legend Serena Williams showed her love for the Nike line with a bespoke style in collaboration with the late Virgil Abloh in 2018 – a light pink Off-White x Nike Air Max 97 dubbed “Queen”. With a further Air Max Futura 90 designed in collaboration with Serena Williams Design Crew, it’s clear the tennis champ has a strong affinity for the Swoosh.
X IS FOR X... (COLLABORATIONS)
The Air Max line is legendary in its own right, though much like the sneaker industry in general, it wouldn’t be what it is today without collaborators. From streetwear boutiques like Japan’s Atmos to avant-garde fashion pioneers like Comme des Garçons, the collaborative world of Air Max is one that’s far reaching and multifaceted, representing a significant driving force in its cultural relevancy.
A renowned fan of all things Nike, Stockholm’s rap extraordinaire and outsider artist Yung Lean is no stranger to donning a pair of Air Max. Referencing Air Max in his track ‘Fantasy’ from the seminal 2016 album ‘Warlord’, Lean raps “Air Max, we got ten stacks, I be smokin’ tear gas”. An icon of the internet age, Yung Lean’s meta-modernist approach to hip-hop goes hand in hand with a love of Air Max sneakers.
Air Max and hip hop have been closely linked for decades, whether it’s been woven into the penmanship of rap greats or quite literally donned by MCs themselves. Throughout the decades that Jay Z has blazed trails in the hip-hop world, he hasn’t just been renowned for his lyrical prowess and meticulous production, but also his sense of style and taste in sneakers. Naturally, the Air Max 95 “Neon” fell under Hova’s radar following its launch — as the image captured in 1996 shows — given the worldwide fanfare the sneaker had caused.
writerChris Owen & Jack Grayson