How the Nike Air Max Plus Became the Kingpin Down Under
Stomping onto the sneaker scene in the late 1990s, designer Sean McDowell’s serene vision of Florida’s beaches was interpreted in Australia as a perfect spray-paint fade, or strange, alien-like ribs. Encasing the beating heart of burgeoning sub-cultures, the TN quickly leapt from its performance origins to arguably become the most notorious member of the Air Max dynasty, its popularity exploding most notably across enclaves in Western Sydney and Melbourne.
Leading the TN charge for over two decades, Foot Locker’s retina-burning Aussie-exclusives emblazoned the path for its extraordinary success, the beloved Air Max Plus quickly becoming a runaway success in the region.
With the rumoured release of Foot Locker's Air Max Plus ‘Lava’ retro bubbling on the horizon, we thought we’d revisit the inflammable legacy of the Nike TN Down Under: the wild child of Nike’s royal Air Max bloodline.
The Genealogy of a Transgressor: The Sky Air
The design ancestry of the baddest member of Nike’s Air Max family is, of course, anything but straight-forward. In 1997, Nike hired rookie designer Sean McDowell to work on the elusive ‘Sky Air’ project, a new running sneaker for Nike’s most important client: Foot Locker.
Little did McDowell know, his baptism was by fire.
Foot Locker had already rejected more than 15 proposals from Nike, the Manhattan footwear giant desperate to see Beaverton’s brand new cushioning system installed in an eye-catching silhouette. The technology was Tuned Air, a blow-moulded unit coupled with rubber hemispheres placed in the sole to provide support. A product of Nike’s moonshot design incubators in the 1990s, these ‘hemispheres’ allowed Nike to relieve the pressure on the heel, while also adding more cushioning to the forefoot.
The ‘Sky Air’ would utilise a trio of previously unseen manufacturing techniques, including McDowell’s lofty idea of a gradient fade – a central component to his ambitious vision.
‘As soon as I heard “sky”, I was like, oh my god, I just saw this amazing sky in Florida,’ McDowell recently told Nike. ‘I did a sunset. I did a blue one. I did a purple one. I tried a couple of different colours and sky versions, some palm trees were a little more tech-y and very geometric, and others were waving.’
For McDowell, the ‘Sky Air’ was almost a literal interpretation: you could lodge your foot right between the palm trees – as if you were walking on air. ‘It could make a quarter panel,’ McDowell remembers in his early sketches. ‘You could hold your foot down with those palm trees.’
The beachside doodles were a circuit-breaker for Nike. The Sky Air was finally signed off by Foot Locker, and would eventually become the Air Max Plus. But for the TN’s earliest adopters in Australia, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this tranquil breeze blowing from Florida’s beaches was felt very differently.
The ‘Whale Tail’ That Breached Australia’s Underground
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, so is the beast. In Australia, the TN’s postcard-perfect sunset was interpreted as a spray-paint fade (emblematic of Australia’s railway entrails in the late 1990s and early 2000s), while the swaying palm trees were perceived as ribs or swollen veins, ominously swelling across the mesh uppers.
‘I had no attraction to the TN when I first saw it in Sydney,’ says TN collector Raymond Ray. ‘I mean, it had spider-web looking veins running across the uppers.’ However, the pugnacious aesthetic appealed to Australia’s fringe and, when paired with the hefty $239.99 price tag (the highest ticketed item at Foot Locker at the time), the TN became a badge of honour for Australia’s defiant underground in the early 2000s.
‘It was the inherent “bad man” shoe’, says another devoted TN collector traQsuitMafia. ‘Searchers, lads. These were the types of characters originally wearing them. Honestly, they’d be taken from your feet if you crossed the wrong guy.’
Graffiti, rave, and eshay sub-cultures throughout Sydney’s Greater West and Melbourne all adopted the TN, Nike’s seven bubbles becoming part of a broader sartorial outfit usually featuring the likes of Polo, Nautica and, of course, the all-important bumbag.
For some early collectors, it was the TN’s connection to the badly-behaved Aussie underbelly that attracted them to the sneaker – not necessarily the design itself.
‘Members of that certain lifestyle loved to show off their “success” and keep fresh at the same time. Naturally, footwear is the go-to way,’ says Raymond. ‘The reputation from these sorts of characters that wore the shoe is what initially attracted me to the TN.’
Fuelled by Australia’s truculent outcasts and artists, McDowell’s ‘whale tail’ (the TN’s midfoot shank was originally modelled on a whale’s tail) soon breached the broader retail market at Foot Locker, and paved the way for over two decades of successful Aussie-exclusive colourways.
A Rogue Son Rises
Retina-blasting colourways have become fundamental to the TN’s enduring success in Australia. Originally ignited by the OG colourways – ‘Hyper Blue’, ‘Orange Tiger’, and ‘Grey Shark’– it didn’t take long for Foot Locker to start producing exclusive hits Down Under, including the ‘Tiffany’, ‘Fades’, ‘Sunburn’ and ‘Cactus’.
These bold Aussie-exclusives sparked the imagination of TN-heads. Around the same time, blogs and forums erupted in the digi-sphere, providing a place to debate, bemoan or blast all the latest releases. Those online spaces became a fiercely protected place for TN lovers. Debates routinely ignited over materials and shape, as well as manufacturing specifics around Made in Vietnam or Made in Indonesia models.
Foot Locker have been fundamental in shaping this dialogue and fuelling the TN's eye-watering success in Australia. 'You become an absolute sponge for what’s happening in sneaker culture,’ says one Foot Locker insider. ‘We’re monitoring tens, or hundreds of blogs constantly to see where the influences are coming from. The word that comes to mind is nurture. We want to do the TN justice. We want to stay authentic.’
One of the most passionate and incendiary sneaker fan bases in the world, there’s a lot of pressure surrounding every single Aussie-exclusive TN colourway.
‘The TN community is such an authentic, tight-knit community within Australia,’ says Foot Locker. ‘If we’re not in-tune (pardon the pun) with what’s in-line with customer sentiment on the blogs, then it makes it very difficult for our future aspirations.’
One of the more recent hits for the TN was undoubtedly the ‘Lava’ colourway. Originally arriving in 2015, the molten-hot TN hit shelves just months after Kanye West’s Nike Air Yeezy 2 ‘Red October’, and continues to be one of the more hallowed colourways in Nike’s vast Air Max Plus catalogue.
‘The Yeezy 2 Red October came out in 2014. It got me by nine months, so I’m wondering if that had a subliminal influence on me,’ our insider revealed. ‘But the objective with the “Lava” was to be really bold, premium and distinctive. I knew I had to disrupt the pattern of white mesh TNs.’
Outside of ‘Triple Black’ and ‘Triple White’ renditions, monotone colourways were scarcely seen during the TN’s fledgling years. Now, it’s one of the highest volume areas of the sneaker industry more broadly.
That shift has proven to be one of many evolutions we’ve seen from the TN over its 20-year history. From its early days as an OG Air Max agitator in ‘Orange Tiger’, to more recent iterations like the ‘Lava’, a whole new generation of sneakerheads are now eager to lace the seven-bubbled beast.
‘They’re more mainstream now,’ says traQsuitMafia. ‘They’ve become more accessible and trendy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think the shoe has finally gotten the recognition it deserves, and not shunned for its connotations.’
Gradually outgrowing its hard-edged heritage, the reputation of the Air Max Plus has certainly softened, and is now being embraced by a broader demographic in Australia. Still, that’s not to say that any of us forget how the Air Max Plus stomped its way to cultural prominence in the early 2000s. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, that indelible TN badge still pays homage to all the suburban backroads.
According to Raymond, ‘It’ll be a long time before we forget its history, or how the shoe built its notoriety’.
For Foot Locker, the Air of the future is still Tuned. The challenge lies in continuing to push the boundaries on a sneaker routinely shattering the status-quo.
‘What else can we do with it? What can we play around with?’ says our insider. ‘How can we press the boundaries? This is a silhouette that really allows us to do this.’
Yes, the TN continues to cast an interminable shadow across Australia’s sneaker culture. Whether these long silhouettes are palm trees blowing gently in the breeze, or protruding veins swelling from muscle tissue, we’ll let you be the judge.
The Nike Air Max Plus ‘Lava’ is rumoured to return to Foot Locker in August, 2021.
Keen to read more about the history of Air Max? Check out our recent feature, ‘Air Max and Alienation: The Sneakers That Defined UK Grime’.