A Brief History of the Nike Air Max 1

There hasn't been a sneaker as pivotal to Nike’s success as the Air Max 1. Its history has been well documented over its 30-plus years in circulation, and at times the story has been inflated with plenty of hot Air. However, here is the definitive brief history of the Nike Air Max 1. Think of it as crib notes for kicks!

Nike Air Tailwind 2012 Retro
Nike Air Tailwind (2012 Retro)

Origins of Air

Tribute must be paid to Frank Rudy, the man who made Nike Air possible. In 1978, the Air Tailwind introduced a newfangled pocket of Air encased in foam. This would provide the literal foundations for Air Max technology just a few years later, thanks to…

Tinker Hatfield Holding Nike Air Max 1
Tinker Hatfield

The Architect

It seemed like an organic pathway for University of Oregon architecture graduate Tinker Hatfield to join nearby sportswear company Nike in 1981 to pursue a career in interior design. However, within five years Hatfield swapped drawing up showroom interiors for fanciful footwear ideas, one of which was inspired by a fateful trip to Paris.

Centre Pompidou
Centre Pompidou

The Centre Pompidou

While travelling in Paris, Hatfield visited The Centre Pompidou, a high-tech architecture showcase that was built in the 1970s. As the designer recalls, ‘It was a building turned inside out, with a glass skin underneath. Coming back to Oregon, I had meetings with the technicians who were working on the larger Air-sole units and I relayed my thoughts: maybe we could also expose the Air-Sole technology and create a shoe that's like no other.’,

Nike Air Max Zero Sneaker Freaker
Nike Air Max Zero

Air Max Zero

For almost 30 years, the lore of Air Max’s debut was well established, perhaps even perpetuated. That story was retconned in 2015, when Nike ‘uncovered’ a prototypical version – one of many created during the development process – that preceded the familiar design. In his quest to reveal the hidden Air inside, Hatfield went for broke and introduced even wilder ideas to this pre-production sample, such as a floating heel strap and stretchy vamp. Ultimately it was shelved as ‘the technology and materials available to us at the time weren’t advanced enough to execute the original vision.’ As such, it only makes sense that the one before the 1 became known as the Air Max Zero.

Nike Air Max 1 Original Print Ad
Nike Air Max 1 (Big Bubble OG)


Another example of brand revisionism is the attribution of the AM1’s debut to March 26, 1987. Technically, that’s true, but also verifiable is the fact production for the model actually began in 1986. These earliest models rocked a considerably larger visible Air unit than MY1987 versions, but were quickly revised because of an inclination to cracking around the windows. This fact was circulated during the Web 2.0 days of Internet sneaker forums, and later verified by Nike themselves. Still don’t believe it? Check out the earliest print ads for the AM1 – or just look at the front cover of SOLED OUT!

Revolutionary Legal Trouble

Court stoushes and litigation may be a prickly topic these days in the footwear industry, but Nike appeared to relish the fact when they attracted the ire of Apple Records’ lawyers in 1987-88. Nike – or rather, their ad agency Wieden+Kennedy – used The Beatles song ‘Revolution’ to market the fitness revolution that would indeed follow with the launch of the Air Max. The infamy that ensued included an out-of-court settlement, the first and only time an original Beatles recording was ever used in an advertisement, and a lot of time (and money) spent on Air Max shoes.

atmos Nike Air Max 1 Safari 2002
atmos x Nike Air Max 1 'Safari' (2002) | via StockX

Going on Safari

In 2002, Japanese boutique atmos broke the seal and snagged the first-ever Air Max 1 collaboration, opening the floodgates for a new practice of sneaker marketing that is ever so ubiquitous today. Taking inspiration from the 1987 Air Safari – another monumental Hatfield design – atmos transplanted its eponymous Safari print onto the AM1’s mudguard, and borrowed the earthy orange palette too. This coincided with the design’s 15th anniversary, and it wouldn’t be the last time the AM1’s milestones would be a reason to celebrate…

Nike Air Max 1 Air Max Day 2014
Nike Air Max 1 (Air Max Day 2014)

Air Max Day

The AM1 would remain an integral part of Nike’s retro offering well into the 2000s, and it basked in the limelight for the ‘History of Air’ AKA ‘Powerwall’ pack of 2005-6 with a slew of very limited colourways. However, it wasn’t until 2014 that the Swoosh celebrated the AM1 properly, decreeing March 26 each year onwards to be Air Max Day. Thus, the brand had yet another reason to release limited edition colourways, which have generally done very well.

Patta Nike Air Max 1 The Wave Monarch
Patta x Nike Air Max 1 'Monarch'

One for the Ages

Almost 35 years on without a pause in production, it seems unimaginable that the Air Max 1 will ever fall out of Nike’s offering. If anything, 2021 has seen yet another spike in interest as well as more releases. Between multiple collaborations with Patta and Travis Scott are multiple strong inline colourways, limited editions, and even the ability to personalise pairs via Nike By You. The AM1 is the people’s shoe: Nike Air is for all!

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