A Brief History of the Nike Air Kukini
Nobody saw the Nike Air Kukini coming in the year 2000. Over 20 years on, most probably still don’t know what to make of the quirky sneaker. For some of the older heads, it’s time to indulge in a bit of Y2K nostalgia during this revision of one of the Swoosh’s most distinct shoes. It’s also an opportunity for a new generation of sneakerheads to be caught in its webbed upper. It seems Nike are so far making this comeback a bit of a sleeper story, so here’s the scoop.
At the turn of the millennium, Nike launched the Alpha Project, an ambitious category of products aimed to push the envelope of performance and shoe design. The Air Kukini was one of the models that exemplified this ethos, as its laceless construction and webbed upper offered a new approach to what shoes could look like. Launched in late 1999 before going wider in 2000, the futuristic aesthetic was nothing Nike had ever done before. Like all Alpha Project shoes, the Air Kukini is branded with a row of five dots.
Elastic Foot Web
The Air Kukini was designed by Sean McDowell, who was also responsible for the infamous Air Max Plus and, later on, the Mayfly. In a 2013 interview with the late Gary Warnett, McDowell cites the webbed overlay of the Kukini as inspired from a spiderweb graphic printed on the speed suit of Olympic skier Picabo Street. With further input from triathlete Mark Allen, the TPU overlay (something McDowell had already pioneered with the AMP) was tweaked to hold the foot down while not causing discomfort, as the entire fitting was dependent on stretchy textile working in tandem with the ‘elastic foot web’, as Eastbay catalogues referred to it as.
The designer also mentioned that an early prototype was heavily perforated in the outsole to help with water drainage during sports use. This was tested during prototyping but a combination of Phylon foam, Max Air cushioning and Duralon blown runner outsoles was preferred for running. However, the vented concept did reemerge a couple of years later on the 2003 edition of the Kukini, which was quite different to the debut version.
Irreverent commercials and cheeky print advertising heroed the Kukini for its ‘easy on, easy off’ fit that was ‘oh so snug’. The Japanese quickly took to the Kukini, with a slew of co.jp editions and also the cryptic ‘B’ designation on many shoe box labels. In fact, there was even an early collaboration with Comme des Garçons disciple Junya Watanabe. A more curious colab from that time was with Coca-Cola to coincide with the Summer Games in Sydney, Australia – of course, they were only available in Japan via a random draw entered by redeeming selected bottle caps.
The Kukini’s cultural grip in the Far East even reached Indonesian cinema, whereby the lead character of cult 2002 coming-of-age film Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? (What’s Up With Love?) wore an all-pink pair. The shoes were burnt into the retinas and memories of many viewers, who finally got a positive ID on the shoes in 2020.
The Air Kukini ran its course throughout the early 2000s before quietly phasing out of Nike’s assortment. A mysterious comeback in 2011 was on the cards – as reported on a now-archived SF post – but the lack of eBay listings means perhaps this was scrapped. Not long after, the model was subjected to a Free sole (as many popular retro Nikes were fused with at the time) and considered something of a forgettable footnote compared to its radical debut.
After almost a decade’s dormancy, Stussy and Nike devised a bespoke model in 2020 called the Air Zoom Spiridon Kukini, which combined a reworked Kukini upper with the midsole from the Zoom Spiridon 2 (renamed Spiridon Cage 2), sparking rumours of a return of the 2000 OG. Meanwhile, Japanese brand Hender Scheme even created a veg-tan homage to the model. However, it would be some time until an official confirmation of a retro came by way of e-comm images of this latest leopard pair among other colours.
With original 2000s examples now having well exceeded their use-by date, 2022 is a timely opportunity for OG fans to revisit their youth, while new adventurous sneakerheads can have a taste of a bygone era. Like the original Air Kukinis, the textile upper readily allows for graphics and patterns to be printed on, per the style of the time, and more colours are on the way. This leopard edition helps a ferocious comeback for the model, and hopefully it’s got teeth to ensnare some new prey.