Culture

PROGRESSIVE PERMANENCE: The Story of Nike’s Air Max 97 “Silver Bullet”

9 November 2022

END. takes a look back at the origins of the legendary Air Max 97 "Silver Bullet", delving into its design inspiration and everlasting cultural importance.

THE AIR MAX 97 SILVER BULLET: Forms, Culture & Cross-Disciplinary Exchange
Exchange between different disciplines is a crucial tool for expanding horizons in the world of design, especially when it comes to fashion. The industrial and Matthew Williams. Sculptural forms and Craig Green. Architecture and Samuel Ross. What these represent are the fusion of two things — disciplines that may have perhaps once been contrasting — coming together to move forward into unchartered territory.

It's a design sensibility that’s long been championed in the sneaker world, too, especially when the focal point is Nike and its ever-iconic Air Max line. After all, when Air Max made its debut in 1987, it did so in the form of the Air Max 1: the Tinker Hatfield-designed sneaker with exposed Air Cushioning, a design cue inspired by the controversial Centre Pompidou in Paris.  

Fast-forward to a decade later and this boundary-shifting, cross-disciplinary design approach had grown to be synonymous with the Air Max line, something which was encapsulated perfectly by Christian Tresser with the Air Max 97 and its much-loved debut release: the Silver Bullet. It represented the convergence of multiple different forms and disciplines, with everything from the natural world to bike engineering underpinning it. It’s a sneaker that still remains progressive and futuristic now, ultimately existing in a place that’s impervious to time and trends.  

THE AIR MAX 97 SILVER BULLET: Forms, Culture & Cross-Disciplinary Exchange
THE AIR MAX 97 SILVER BULLET: Forms, Culture & Cross-Disciplinary Exchange

When designing the shoe, Tresser took inspiration from water droplets and the manner in which they rippled outwards, referenced in the undulating, wave-like appearance of the Air Max 97’s uppers. According to Nike and Tresser himself, “the water would drop and radiate out to the Air unit” — a striking feature in and of itself, but only served to accentuate another of its distinctive features: the exposed, full-length Air Max cushioning. Speaking of which, it was the first sneaker to debut this pioneering heel-to-toe technology, laying the foundations for a slew of Swoosh sneakers that would follow.

THE AIR MAX 97 SILVER BULLET: Forms, Culture & Cross-Disciplinary Exchange

But it wasn’t just the natural world that served as inspiration to the Air Max 97, but also other — arguably equally as unlikely — forms and technologies. The first, and perhaps the most famous to the 97 and the Silver Bullet story, is the iconic Japanese bullet train. Though this is a common misconception recently debunked by Tresser himself, you can see the parallels drawn between the two, ultimately becoming an integral, although unofficial, element of the Silver Bullet story. One of the main sources of inspiration for the Silver Bullet was something close to the heart of Tresser: mountain biking. At the time, Mountain bikes and their components had titanium, metal-on-metal finishes that gave a futuristic appearance, something which was mirrored in the Silver Bullet and its progressive, almost-mechanical aesthetic. The materials used only served to further this industrial appearance, with a heady combination of mesh, reflective panelling and synthetics enhancing the metallic other-worldliness. A concealed lacing system furthered the sneaker’s progressive visuals, streamlining its appearance in a way fitting of the name it was given.

THE AIR MAX 97 SILVER BULLET: Forms, Culture & Cross-Disciplinary Exchange
THE AIR MAX 97 SILVER BULLET: Forms, Culture & Cross-Disciplinary Exchange

What you had was a sneaker at the intersection of multiple design disciplines, forms and sources — an uncompromising, hyper-futuristic creation that represented, and still represents, the cutting-edge. Unsurprisingly, when the Silver Bullet arrived in 1997, it sent shockwaves across the globe; the fact it still looks futuristic today gives an indication of how striking it would have resembled 25 years ago: an otherworldly artefact that had just crash landed to earth. In Milan, the Silver Bullet found its spiritual home, swiftly becoming adopted by a variety of individuals, from club goers to graffiti writers, in a pervasive, malleable way. So strong was the love for the Silver Bullet that it was even given its own nickname, “Le Silver”: an affectionate moniker that spread far and wide throughout Milan, bubbling over from the underground into the wider fashion sphere. The Milanese love for Silver Bullets was so strong, in fact, that it led to a book being published in 2017 by KALEIDOSCOPE, “Le Silver: An Italian Oral History of the Nike Air Max 97”, which delves into the cultural phenomenon the sneaker represents. What this story shows is the rise through the Italian underground to mainstream notoriety, one where the Silver Bullet went from being a favourite amongst ravers and DJs to appearing on Italian runways and the feet of celebrities. As the Silver Bullet approached its 20th anniversary, it only seemed fitting that the sneaker was reworked with an Italian exclusive, which saw the country’s flag worked into its tongue and heel tabs.

In the UK, meanwhile, the Silver Bullet continued a similar path, representing an affinity with a wide array of subcultures. Grime had already fully adopted Air Max as its own — the 95 was a staple amongst MCs and enthusiasts by this point — so the 97 was quickly subsumed, like the ubiquitous, metallic shapeshifter it was. Likewise with rave music throughout the UK, the other-worldly aesthetic of the Silver Bullet reflected the genres sweeping throughout the underground. Acid house, jungle, drum and bass, hardcore — all of these were centred around non-conformity, something which few shoes epitomised better than the Silver Bullet.

Now, 25 years after its initial debut, the Air Max 97 Silver Bullet continues to be a cultural phenomenon, representing two-and-a-half decades spent sat at the cutting-edge. Even now — where the sneaker world represents an ever-increasing sea of experimental creations —the Silver Bullet is synonymous with progressiveness, a testimony to its cutting-edge technology, striking visual codes and everlasting cultural relevance.    

THE AIR MAX 97 SILVER BULLET: Forms, Culture & Cross-Disciplinary Exchange

Release information

Nike Air Max 97 OG

Metallic Silver, Varsity Red & Black

DM0028-002

11/11/2022

Release information

Nike Air Max 97 OG

Metallic Silver, Varsity Red & Black

DQ9131-002

11/11/2022

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