Material Matters: A Technological History of Air Jordan Sneakers
It’s impossible to talk about the evolution of sneakers without mentioning Jordan. Each and every Jordan release has pushed the envelope in the areas of design, style, versatility and technology. Created for one of the greatest athletes of all time, Jordans are coaxed from the minds of some of the world’s most innovative designers – people who know far more about basketball than most. We could go on forever about the Jumpman legacy, but without getting too carried away we’ve managed to boil it down to a highlight reel of innovation.
Compared to the technological beasts we see on-court today, the shoes of Jordan’s rookie year were utterly savage. The first Nike shoe MJ played in was the Air Ship, a simple high-cut design with a cup sole, which can be seen as having informed the Air Jordan 1's design. While the inaugural Jay's lacing system was more advanced than the Ship's, the design was ultimately recognised (and remembered) as a symbol of bravado. Thanks to a black and red colourway that went against the league's uniform policy, the shoe became a symbol of rebellion whenever it hit the court, earning MJ a $5000 fine each time. The made-in-Italy Jordan 2 continued the visual spectacle, with Nike’s first Swooshless. It was seen as the world’s first luxury basketball sneaker, was bursting with contemporary style and featured full-length Air cushioning. Then things got real in 1988 when Tinker Hatfield’s Jordan 3, the first of his many designs for the brand, landed with a visible Air unit – and of course, elephant print!
The Air Jordan 4 ushered in a new era for the brand as the first Jay to be launched on the global market, which pushed the designers to go bigger and better than ever. They began to break new ground, demonstrated best by the often-overlooked feature introduced by the 5th signature shoe – the translucent gum sole. Not only did it look amazing, it also offered ample grip on the parquet floor, although many complained that the rubber got slippery once it collected a bit of dust.
The next few releases began to distance the sub-brand from its big brother: the ‘Nike Air’ branding on the upper of the 7 was removed and designs became more radical. Take the Air Jordan 8 with its crossover straps for unparalleled lockdown. And the Jordan 9, a mid-90s masterpiece that came with a quick lacing system akin to the kinds of boots kids were wearing on the streets of snow-laden cities – and they almost weighed the same too.
Luckily Jay 10 had a solution to the issue of weight: a new phylon midsole that was not only lighter, but also a lot more comfortable. Then in came the black tie-styled Air Jordan 11 with a revelation: a carbon fibre sole shank that increased stability and was stronger than ever. Another big addition followed in the form of the Jordan 12 with its new Zoom Air technology. The low-profile cushioning system features a pressurised Air unit containing high-tensile fibres and was so effective that it was the go-to cushioning system for almost every game shoe that came after.
The Air Jordan 14 took more than just stylistic cues from its Ferrari 550 Maranello muse. Much like gaping vents on the car, the shoe's outsole was punctuated by mesh ducts to keep the foot fresh. Then the man himself retired from the game – for the second time, but not the last – and designers needed something strong to set the Jordan 15 apart from the rest. Their solution was to utilise a woven Kevlar fibre on the upper, but the shoe wasn’t all that well received due to quality issues with the first batch, as well as a straight-up ugly silhouette.
After the previous release's poor reception, the Jordan 16 sought to fix things with a new shrouded design, initially conceived as a way to increase lockdown and stability. It ended up being little more than visual statement, but people loved the magnetised shroud that could be removed to reveal a whole different perspective on the shoe. Number 17 corrected the dysfunctional shroud in 2002, while also introducing Tuned Air to the Jay line. On top of all that, it came with a CD-Rom, upon which you can find the cheesiest saxophone-driven, auto-tune enhanced theme song of all time!
The next innovation arrived in the Air Jordan 18, which contained double-stacked Zoom Air cushioning, which was more responsive and durable than previous versions. The 19 ditched the classic lacing system in favour of a flexible, breathable panel that was produced in partnership with Techflex – a company that manufactured braided sleeving for industrial uses. Visually, the 20th Jay is known for its bizarre ankle strap, but technologically we know it as the one with the Independent Podular Suspension system. The IPS cushioning was designed to offer a flexible range of movement, similar to the segmented Free sole, but filled with Air.
With the smooth suede 21 came a new era of interchangeable cushioning, whereby you could actually remove the Air pods in the heel and switch out a Zoom pillar for an encapsulated pillar. The Air Jordan 22 contained an updated interchangeable system, as well as a titanium shank and a new metallic mesh.
Next came the Air Jordan 23, a big number in the Jay stakes. Its nature was more symbolic with a design that featured MJ’s thumbprint for the tread and a stitched DNA style motif. Although as a nod to the lasting legacy of the brand, it was the first basketball shoe to be made under the ‘Nike Considered’ banner, a line of shoes committed to sustainability and responsible production.
The following years saw the introduction of the Air Jordan 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 – some of the more forgettable silhouettes the brand ever released. From the unusual high-heeled design of the ’09 to the interchangeable booties of the ’12, this was an era when the brand seemed to be selling gimmickry, rather than legit basketball tech. Thankfully, the ,Air Jordan 28 pulled things back on track.
Among things such as a fully shrouded upper and Dynamic Fit tech, the 28 was the first shoe to feature the Flight Plate – a Pebax carbon fibre sole plate designed to maximise the response of the Zoom Air sole while reducing bulk and lightening the shoe.
The following year, in 2014, innovation was running hot with the Air Jordan 29. This was the first-ever knitted basketball shoe and came complete with Flight Web, which offered enhanced lockdown. Then came the Jordan 30, which was rather uneventful from a technological standpoint. The brand revived a few old tricks, such as Dynamic Fit lacing, as well as changing the Flight Plate to a plastic construction – apparently to increase flexibility.
Then, in 2016 the Air Jordan 31 became a standout for many Jumpman fans, featuring a wild combination leather and Flyweave upper. As well as an advanced build, the 31 had a simple design that drew its inspiration from the classic Air Jordan 1 – what’s not to love?
Most recently, Jordan Brand unveiled number 32, a dramatic design that sits at the intersection of luxury style and basketball tech – a nod to the shoe’s Italian ancestor, the Air Jordan 2. The integrated lacing system, stylised collar and FlightSpeed Zoom Air sole are miles from what the young MJ could have envisioned way back when in his rookie year.
Just as Michael Jordan changed the game of basketball, so too has his signature shoe line redefined the way we look at footwear. Whether you prefer the classic Jays, or you get all warm and tingly thinking about the new stuff, there’s not denying that each and every one of the 32 designs has been revolutionary in its own way. And though the legendary player has long since retired, we’re happy to see the legacy of progression continue as the Jumpman leaps from one design to the next.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Hybrids, The Do's and Don'ts of Basketball Shoes and Big Baller Brand.
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