Heavy Hitters: Nike’s Air Max Plus the World Over
Originally released in 1998, the 20-year-old runners hold a special place in Air Max lore. Designed by industry vet Sean McDowell, the AM Plus took cues from Florida’s swaying palm trees and gorgeous evening skies for one of the boldest looks to ever be offered up by the Swoosh. The shoe’s distinctive OG dusk-inspired blue fade and moulded palm trunk-like overlays remain some of the most eye-catching design elements to grace the storied Air Max lineup.
Just as important to the story of the Plus, however, is the technological innovation of the Air Max cushioning itself. Whereas previous Air Maxes had gone the route of making the Air unit as big as possible, the Swoosh took the Plus in a new direction by refining the cushioning that had previously been employed by the line. By adding solid hemisphere-shaped physical structures to the medial side of the heel’s Air unit, Nike was able to augment the stability of the cushioning while reducing the pressure on the heel. With that, Tuned Air was born, and the Swoosh had the technological innovation necessary to justify the shoe’s steep price tag — the Plus was marked with an MSRP of $240 AUD at its time of release, making it (at the time) the most expensive Air Max to date.
Gradient fades, moulded overlays, and steep MSRP aside (to say nothing of its whale tail—inspired shank and eye-catching reflectivity), the Plus offered up what has ultimately become its single most defining characteristic: the ‘Tn’ logo. The Swoosh’s nod to the silhouette’s signature tech has even earned it an unofficial rebrand — outside North America, the Plus has been (and always will be) better known as the ‘TN’.
Coveted From the Get-Go
Ultimately, the distinct aesthetic and lofty price point made it highly sought-after from the moment it debuted, but McDowell and Nike originally weren’t so sure how it would fare when it came to market. Before it saw the light of day, the Air Max Plus was a long-gestating partnership alongside Foot Locker known as Sky Air. More than 15 potential sketches had previously been submitted to the retailer, but none had received a nod from Foot Locker before McDowell presented what would become the Plus.
Even future Swoosh president and CEO Mark Parker was skeptical, so a Foot Locker exec suggested a little bit of impromptu market research to see just how the kicks would fare: Why not put the shoe on a shelf at a store right when school gets out and see what the kids think?
As McDowell recalls, ‘Five or 10 minutes later, there were like 10 kids flocking to the shoe asking, “What is this? How do I get it?” The associates were looking around like, “I’ve never seen that thing before, I don’t know how much it costs, I don’t know where it came from,” while the kids were running around like, “I want to buy this thing.” They were almost frantic. I was beaming.’
Naturally, the Plus got the nod, received its exclusive Foot Locker release, and officially introduced the world to Tuned Air. The TN would go on to be an instant classic in some parts of the world — especially in Europe, the UK, and Australia.
But just who exactly was rocking the unmistakable and expensive kicks?
Celebrated in Europe and The UK
Europe and the UK were arguably the first to recognise the greatness of Tuned Air.
Like other Air Maxes and, perhaps most notably, the Deluxe, the Plus was immediately adopted by street culture, quickly becoming synonymous with the garage, grime and rave cultures of the early 2000s. Naturally, the bolder the colourway the better, as those within the music scene looked to turn heads. Skepta even paid homage to the Tuned legacy with his debut Nike colab, changing the notorious Tn logo to Sk and nodding to an OG Tuned Max colourway for his Air Max 97.
Lately, the kicks have been adopted by the fashion and goth crowds, not to mention footballers. In France, the Plus has long been a staple of racaille style — much like the roadman in Britain — in Paris and Marseille. As French international Ousmane Dembélé recalls, ‘The first time I saw the Tn, it was worn by my big brother and his friends in my neighbourhood… Like many, me and my friends called the TN, “La Requin”.’
Thus, the Swoosh crafted a ‘French Derby’ pack inspired by perennial rivals Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille, and even gave it a Mercurial-tinged update to celebrate last year's World Cup.
Beloved in Australia
Like their cohorts in Europe, Australians have always loved the Tn. And, as in France, it’s become standard issue for street culture’s underbelly. Long associated with Australia’s graffiti scene and eshay culture, TNs are the foundation of the lad uniform. Just like wearing Nautica and Polo, or a Dri-FIT cap, stunting in the seven bubbles became a marker of belonging, and came with a tacit don’t-mess-with-me vibe. Its adoption by the lads of Western Sydney (and beyond) was a perfect storm: not only was its aesthetic undeniably aggressive, but its hefty price tag meant that you either had cash to splash or the balls to steal them. Either way, the effect on one’s street cred was unquestionable.
There’s even a predominance of the kicks in Australian prisons. As one VICE interviewee recalled in 2017, ‘It’s hard to stand out inside because you all wear the standard issued greens. It’s your shoes that set you apart, and TNs left an impression in everyone’s heads about where you stood in the system.’
Sneakerheads are a devoted bunch, and Australian TN fans are no different. Whether it’s comparing Made in Vietnam and Made in Indonesia iterations, or bemoaning the quality and shape of newer releases, online chatter routinely gets heated. Australian forums also see TN resell prices reach heights you’d expect for OG Yeezys or Off-White Nikes, and it’s usually the wilder colours that fetch the big bucks. Five hundred dollars for ‘Tides’? No worries. Six hundred for ‘Fireberries’? Sure.
Just as it has in Europe, the Plus has been accepted by the fashion crowd as of late thanks to the shoe’s association with some of the more edgy and unsavoury types out there. As you might expect, though, Nike has never really acknowledged many of the shoe’s main consumers, instead chalking up the TN’s popularity Down Under to ‘a steady stream of regional exclusive colourways’.
Underrated in North America
Oddly enough, the Air Max Plus has long been underrated in North America, and lacks the cultural cachet enjoyed by many of its Air Max counterparts — this despite the fact that even the Swoosh itself considers the Plus to be the single most important Air Max innovation before the Air Max 360 debuted in 2006.
So why didn’t the Air Max Plus originally catch on at home? Was it the aggressive look? High price? Nobody really seems to know, but the United States and the rest of North America have finally caught on to the hidden gem. Everyone from Drake to Frank Ocean to A$AP Ferg and Playboi Carti have been seen in the silhouette. On his most recent tour, Drizzy even rocked his own modified ‘Stage Use’ versions of the Plus on stage.
An Epic Comeback
Thanks to its cultural cachet Down Under and across Europe and the UK, the Air Max Plus has remained relevant long after its debut over 20 years ago. The silhouette’s importance to a variety of subcultures across the globe has driven Nike to bring back the beloved classics, and they’re finally getting the shine they deserve in North America, too. Best of all? The Swoosh is bringing back a bevy of OGs to go along with brand new executions, giving everyone a chance to cop what may be the best and most underrated Air Maxes to ever hit shelves.