How the Nike Air Max 97 ‘Silver Bullet’ Shot Through the Heart of Italy
This article was originally published on August 15, 2021.
Designed by a young Christian Tresser in 1997, the Nike Air Max 97 ‘Silver Bullet’ shot right through the heart of Italy. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Le Silver’ by locals, the AM97 was shaped like industrial liquid, Tresser’s metallic, bicycle-inspired design firing up the fever dreams of Italian futurism. Pedalling relentlessly into the future, the AM97 was lovingly laced by Italians from all walks of life, from dealers to DJs, models to street artists – it was love at first sight.
This is the story of how the supersonic Air Max 97 found a place in the heart of Italy’s burgeoning sneaker scene.
When Christian Tresser first started work on the Air Max 97, the pressure was mounting. ‘This shoe is going to make your career,’ he was advised, ‘Don’t blow it.’
‘[The 97] had already been through two designers before me,’ Tresser remembers in Lodovico Morano’s seminal book, Le Silver. ‘Being an avid competitive cyclist, I had my eye on the mountain bike world. I thought mountain bikes looked very futuristic ... I headed into the materials room and just plonked down the sample books and started cutting stuff out: metallic fabrics, 3M and, again, meshes. These combinations of materials felt really good to me, really right.’
For Tresser, the image of the bicycle was the perfect articulation of speed and futuristic aesthetics. Pairing the industrial dynamics of bicycles with the image of a water droplet radiating outwards from a puddle, Tresser conceived the Air Max 97. The very first sneaker to introduce a full-length Air unit, the silhouette was emblazoned by the industrial ‘Metallic Silver,’ colourway, a high-speed, mechanised silver and titanium palette that had particular appeal for those in Milan – the manufacturing heartland of Italy.
In many ways, Tresser’s original blueprints echoed the rattling, raucous voices of the Italian futurists of the early 20th century. In the minds of the futurists, the bicycle embodied ideas of machine devotion, speed and youth. In the words of F.T. Marinetti in The Manifesto of Futurism from 1909, ‘We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.’
The Air Max 97 ‘Silver Bullet’ struck a chord in Milan. When it first released in 1997, the sneaker was glowing on the shelves like remnants of an alien spaceship.
‘They looked like they were from another planet,’ says Sha Ribeiro, a member of the graffiti group Lords of Vetra. ‘I mean, wearing them, you look like a fucking alien from another planet entirely.’
In the bowels of Milan, the Lords of Vetra bombed the city’s entrails, simultaneously lighting up the underground with the Air Max 97’s polyurethane midsoles and supersonic 3M reflective details. Named after the park Casa Vetra in the middle of Milan, the Lords of Vetra dedicated their youth to graffiti and everything that came along with it – tagging, bombing, drinking and stealing.
As a child, Ribeiro would fly with his father, a flight attendant, to New York City, where he would buy Nikes (still not readily available in Europe at the time). Ribeiro still remembers the first time he saw the Air Max 97. It was Christmas Day, 1997.
‘They cost around 150 euros, which was a shit-load of money at the time. My birthday was around Christmas time too, so I asked my mum if I could have them for my birthday and Christmas. We went into the store, and they didn’t have my size. I ended up wearing a size lower, and my feet hurt like hell for an entire week. After that, they stretched and it was fine.’
Ribeiro’s experience didn’t exist in a vacuum. Italians in the 1990s were becoming more and more conscious of American and English brands – usually through family and friends travelling to style meccas like New York City and London.
Sabrina Ciofi, the fashion editor of Sport & Street Collezioni in the 90s, grew up in Florence. Like Ribeiro, she was also exposed to the American and English zeitgeist through her father, who travelled for work.
‘He brought us incredible stories, photographs, music, but above all, clothes and sneakers by brands that did not exist yet in Italy,’ says Ciofi. ‘I started to get passionate about English and American clothing and sportswear brands. Their aesthetic expressions later became the basis of my professional choices. We made zines, exhibitions of graffiti artists, imported brands such as Stüssy, Carhartt and Supreme, and tried to explain what their origins were.’
Before the AM97, Italy’s matrix of subcultures largely adhered to their strict aesthetic parameters. Rich kids wore Stan Smiths. Scenesters at the club wore Buffalo. Graffiti kids wore PUMA or adidas. But when the AM97 arrived, it evaded any one monolithic cultural definition.
‘Honestly, to me, they seemed ugly and tacky, but they were the perfect sneaker to introduce to the Italian mainstream,’ says Ciofi. ‘The 97 allowed Nike to become ‘The Brand’ in Italy, and form the basis of the new wardrobe for anyone aged 0 to 100.’
The fact that the AM97 had no strong ties to any sport or subculture allowed the sneaker to become the ultimate chameleon, a sneaker with an enviable clean sheet, if you will – which is more than can be said of Italian parliament at the time.
In fact, the Air Max 97 arrived at a historical period of social and economic upheaval in Italy. The Mani Pulite (the so-called ‘Clean Hands’ operation) had uncovered rampant corruption in politics that shook the nation to its core, and Italy was struggling to heal from the economic and moral implications.
In a way, arriving like Riberia’s blazing AM97s in the underground, the sneaker lit-up Italy in a loud, unapologetically lurid glow that radiated collective pride. The return of the Italian La Bella Figura.
As is often the case, it was the burgeoning club culture that best captured the spirit of Italy in the late 1990s, and the Air Max 97 was playing a huge role in that sphere. Bringing together Italians from all walks of life, the AM97 became one of the sartorial hallmarks of this new era.
‘The 97 felt like proper gold fever,’ says Luca Benini, who founded Slam Jam in Ferrara in 1989. ‘Really. It was the first sneaker to allow people into the clubs at the time.’
Of course, Italy is now recognised as a forefront of sneaker culture and streetwear (thanks largely to bricks-and-mortar storefronts like Benini’s Slam Jam), but it wasn’t always the case.
‘Back in the days before the AM97, you weren’t dressed well if you wore sneakers,’ says Ciofi.
For a country literally shaped like a designer boot, the idea of wearing sneakers to a club was sacrilege. But in the following years, the Air Max 97 would infiltrate Milan’s high-fashion circles, paraded down the runway by legendary figures like Giorgio Armani, and lauded by Italian street culture.
For those in Italy, ‘Le Silver’ forged deep-rooted emotional connections that remain to this day.
According to Ciofi, ‘The AM97 was a unique and absolutely all-Italian phenomenon linked to a time when street life in Italy was particularly fervent. That has not yet been repeated.’
The ‘Silver Bullet’ pierced the affections of a nation uniquely sensitive to the amorous contours of the heart. And while you never forget your first love, if anyone is going to fall head-over-heels for a boisterous, bawdy brutto-bello again, it is, of course, the Italians.