It has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and seeing Chris Aylen’s collection of Nike Air Max Plus’, Seismic and Kukini, it’s interesting to find out just what drew this Londoner to such an iconoclastic design direction. With the seeds of his obsession sown as a little chap, it was actually a throw-up from a famed graffiti artist that sent Chris on his quest to find the perfect sneaker, albeit with plastic mucus straps! Chris Aylen is the personification of a true sneaker collector, read on to find out why!
How do you define vintage in relation to sneakers?
Vintage is something I don’t find easy to define. Things that I might consider to be ‘vintage’ really couldn’t be categorised as such with many people. Maybe it’s things like Waffles or original Superstars or original Puma States – or just the original versions of something that’s been subsequently retroed. I’m more likely to categorise shoes from my own personal history rather than try and decide for everyone else what I think fits this genre. I started taking an element of pride in my sneakers from the age of eight or nine onwards, begging my mum for a pair of Nike Wimbledons to wear in sports lessons at school or Hi-Tec ‘Tecs’ to try B-Boying in. Even when I started skating, I was looking at the shoes that the Bones Brigade or Mark Gonzales were wearing: Air Jordans, adidas Decades or Converse All Stars. Looking back through my experiences, those are true vintage sneakers to me.
I know you dig on the Nike era with the plastic ‘exo-skeleton’ as a common design cue - what exactly draws you to the Air Max Plus, Kukini and Seismic?
The Air Max Plus drew me in from the moment I first saw them. In 1998, shoes were seemingly monotone or used solid colour blocking on their panels. The Plus utilised an eye-catching fade on the uppers that I hadn’t really noticed since the Omega Flame back in 1984 and the ‘hyper blue’ colourway on the first model seemed to stand out.
Once I’d decided that I wanted a pair, they’d dried up. I had to travel for a couple of hours to pick up a pair in my size, which was something I hadn’t really needed to do in the past – usually, anything I wanted was easily picked up from the local sport shop.
I was fully into my different colourways of the Air Max Plus by the time the Kukini and Seismic came out. I first saw the Kukinis when I was in New York in 1999. The bright blue upper with its ‘water’ pattern was interesting enough, but the securing system was something new altogether. Rubber webbing that looked like mucus? Hmmm. Once you’ve tried a pair on, you can look past the bizarre stylings for a minute; they’re as comfortable as a Presto.
The Seismic was another shoe that used an interesting fastening mechanism. The stretchy uppers meant that the laces were just a novelty: you certainly don’t need to do any securing once your foot is finally in the shoe! The Kukini and Seismic models seemed to pass most people by as they were too unconventional for everyday wear, but I think they represented an interesting time in sneaker design. I’ve seen the initial sketches and blueprints to the Seismic – lots of references to reptiles and Giger-esque pencil sketches that helped me appreciate the thought process behind these shoes.
Any other ghosts in your closet?
I was a big fan of the Nike Havens when they appeared. The first colourways were nothing too exciting – the black version looked like a football trainer at first – but the Japanese co.jp exclusives that came out a little later were extremely nice. I wore all of these to death, but I think I’ve still got a battered pair of the all-white colourway that are great beach/holiday shoes! I’ve got a bunch of other strange things kicking around, but all of this is balanced out with a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on what side of the fence you sit) selection of more standard fare. I’ve always loved adidas Superstars, so there’s a few of those in there… ZX, Air Max 90s, 180s and then a few more exclusive bits and pieces that I've been lucky enough to receive either as gifts from clients we’ve worked with at U-Dox or from ‘friends in high places’.
The blue fade on the nylon I remember, but did the Seismic ever have an orange to yellow fade?
I don’t think there has ever been a fading orange/yellow colourway on the Seismic… might be wrong, but I can’t picture it! The blue fade is what drew me in on the Plus. I was an active graffiti writer for many years and when I was younger particularly, I was always intrigued by the fading techniques that writers used on their fill-ins. The beautiful ‘Lee’ wholecar in the back of ‘Subway Art’ with the blue-to-pink fade always stuck in my memory when I was trying to learn to paint. The fade was something that was rarely seen in sneaker design. The Omega Flame became a much-wanted shoe in my personal childhood simply because of the hot red/yellow fade on the upper… That’s still one of my favourite running shoes of all time.
Yeah, let me change that, I think it was tuned air. Would you like to see ‘em retroed or left as memories?
I think that the success of the Air Max Plus with popular street culture, especially in London, will mean that this model is continually renewed. I stopped picking them up once the designers began getting into the patterned uppers – it was the fading colours that had made the shoe stand out initially for me. Plenty of colourways have been retroed already: the original ‘hyper blue’ was brought back a few years back (albeit with a black plastic toe guard and not the original transparent one). The same with the all-black and the all-white leather ones, the Olympic white/gold and black/gold – and the first black/silver colourways and several others too. Each time, something subtle has usually been changed or updated.
Were they mostly sold in Foot Locker?
Yep! This model was initially a Foot Locker exclusive – although I have found it in other shops over the years, you won’t find them in most other chain stores. All of my 50 pairs have come from Foot Locker or resellers, aside from one pair that I picked up in a Foot Action store in New York.
Is there a connection with music or fashion in London during this era? What else was going on?
When I bought my first pair, I remember Pete Rock being in London doing interviews and he was wearing the same shoes. If I ever needed approval, the fact that the Soul Brother Number One was rocking them was more than enough! Since those days, the shoe became closely connected with various music scenes in London. Garage, grime, whatever… It became a popular shoe, although not with collectors, and has been associated with various genres of music and sections of street culture ever since.
Have you thought about why you are you obsessed with models that many consider vulgar and ugly? Do you enjoy being an outcaste and a pariah from the current scene favourites? ah haha hahah...
I remember telling Karin and Phil at ‘Footage’ in Sydney (easily the best sneaker spot I found in Australia) about my Plus collection and they thought it was hilarious. The negative connotations with the model did nothing but fuel my fire in terms of collecting them. The assumption that you’re into certain music or a certain lifestyle is fine with me! That whole ‘judging a book by its cover’ attitude is always funny…
I have got a variety of other more ‘respectable’ or acceptable models in my wardrobe – original Huarache Lights, Footscapes, lots of adidas Gazelles and Puma Suedes, New Balances, some Asics, a few pairs of Dunks, blah blah blah – but I never bought shoes to try and get approval from people I haven’t met. I think sneakers are fantastic pieces of design and there are definitely a few pairs I just wanted to own for the aesthetics – but ultimately, they’re there to be worn. They’re shoes.
Amen brother. Do you think the current generation are as open minded in regards to footwear design and their sense of style?
I think people are more receptive of individuality today than maybe a few years back. A lot of the ‘sneaker snobbery’ has disappeared and people tend to live and let live. Some of the guys who were at the forefront of this last wave of sneaker culture have found things they particularly like and stuck with them, but there are equally lots of others who have massively varied collections. As a skater for the past 20 years, I’ve always been interested in skate shoe design as well. Some of the great things that have come from companies such as eS, DC and DVS have borrowed from mainstream sneaker culture but also vice-versa. It’s great to see an appreciation from some people for skate shoes of yesteryear: Airwalk Prototypes and NTS, Vision DV8s, Etnies SLBs… I could go on and on. The sneaker scene is full of diversity these days.
What shoes would you really love to see brought back from the grave?
I’m a big fan of some of the older ACG models. The Air Approach 150 is one of my favourite models and I’d love to see that brought back in both the mens and womens colourways. I picked a deadstock replacement pair up off eBay last year after four years of searching: my originals had been used for running, painting graf and even skating as they were durable, yet light and supportive. I think the ZX range that adidas are bringing back is fantastic – that’s gotta be one of the best ranges in running shoe history and it’s great to see them back on the shelves.
Random trivia: The name ‘Crooked Tongues’ comes directly from the Air Max Plus: once you start wearing them, it’s almost impossible to stop the tongue moving to the side of your foot. When we started featuring sneakers on the Spinemagazine website back in 1999 – some people may remember seeing my collection up there – the Plus, Kukini and Rift all featured heavily. // CHRIS AYLEN
This article appeared in Issue 12 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here