After debuting back in 1991, the legendary Nike Air Huarache celebrates its big 3-0 in 2021. Originally designed to dominate footraces, the quirky and distinctive silhouette has been a perennial mainstay in the Nike lineup, transcending its pavement-pounding roots to become a favourite among collectors and casual footwear enthusiasts alike. With a number of OG and fan-favourite colourways poised to make a commemorative comeback, there’s no better time to look back at the Air Huarache’s intriguing origin story.
Inspired by water-skiing, designer Tinker Hatfield put pen to paper on a shoe concept that would incorporate a sock-like neoprene look and feel. Wanting to create a running shoe ‘stripped to the bare essentials’, he envisioned a lightweight, somewhat minimal silhouette, which let the tech do the talking, not the Swoosh logos.
As Hatfield explained, ‘I remember popping my feet into a slalom ski, which has a neoprene bootie. Just as I got yanked out of the water, I had a vision about how it would be great for a shoe. The next morning, I did this sketch.’
Upon its release in 1991, the Air Huarache was – even to Nike’s admission – met with mixed feelings. This boiled down to the divergent design which, aesthetically, was unlike any other sneaker Nike had released to that point. Devoid of the famed Swoosh branding, you either loved it or you hated it, but it’s performance and comfort could not be denied.
The neoprene upper snugly ‘hugged’ the foot, leading the debut advertisements for the shoe to spruik a catchy ‘Have you hugged your foot today?’ tagline. Additionally, Tinker also incorporated an exoskeleton-like saddle to support the bootie housed beneath.
The first 5000 pairs of Air Huaraches were sold to marathon runners, who provided overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially regarding the comfortable fit. The shoe was named after a traditional Mexican sandal of the same name, so it’s no wonder wearers wanted to keep ‘em on all day.
‘There’s this freedom of movement when you feel insulated, contained and protected,’ says Tinker, referring to the shoe’s popularity with the running crowd.
It wasn’t long before the Air Huarache began to gain notoriety in the pop culture scene, thanks largely to two of the biggest TV stars of that era: Jerry Seinfeld and Will Smith. That famous duo rocked pairs of the sneaker on Seinfeld and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, respectively, firmly establishing a strong street cred reputation for the Huarache. Meanwhile, sprint legend Michael Johnson starred in Nike’s most famous advertisement campaigns of all-time to market the sneaker.
The momentum continued with Nike cashing in on the Air Huarache hype via the basketball court. In 1992, the Air Flight Huarache was released, quickly becoming the go-to gamer for the famed ‘Michigan Fab Five’ – a college team that boasted future NBA stars such as Chris Webber and Jalen Rose.
Dozens of Air Huarache variants would follow throughout the 90s, and we’d have to wait almost a decade before the OG made a comeback via a special collaboration with iconic sportwear label Stussy. And that project made a commemorative comeback in 2021, a testament to the Air Huarache’s longevity.
Have you hugged your foot today? There’s no better time to bust out those Huas, sneakerheads.