Wonderfully Weird: Appreciating the Nike Air Rift

Nike Air Rift Kenya

Despite having been around for 25 years now, the Nike Air Rift remains one of the wackiest, weirdest, yet most wonderful sneakers of all time. Its idiosyncratic split-toed design and shoe-slash-sandal build are some of its more controversial features, and won’t stop catching stares any time soon.

Among all the excitement and commotion created by its bubble-bottomed brethren, the Rift has long had a cult following enhanced by left-field colourways, collaborations, and even matching socks! But beneath its hooved surface, the Rift’s design has been incredibly prescient in informing some of the sneaker industry’s most cutting-edge designs to this day. Happy 25th birthday!

Nike Air Rift 1995 Purple Sample
Early Air Rift Sample – note the handwritten midsole notes!
Nike Air Rift 1995 Kenya Sample
Another sample with different midsole tooling
,Nike Air Rift 1995 Outsoles
Some outsole variants before Nike settled on the left option

An Abridged History

The Air Rift’s origin story has been well-documented over the years, so here’s the crib notes version. It was originally released in 1995, and its name references the Great Rift Valley that runs through Kenya. Of course, its OG black, green and red colourway was a clear nod to the Kenyan flag.

For the sake of nerdery, the Air Rift was rendered in black and purple during its sampling stages, colours similar to the OG ‘Purple Punch’ Air Huarache, and its outsole was modified a number of times too. The madcap designer behind the Air Rift was Kip Buck, a keen ultra-distance runner and model maker at the Swoosh, who wanted to replicate the feeling of running barefoot. Like so many iconic 90s Nike shoes, it's said Tinker Hatfield also played a small part in this unique sneaker’s inception.

Nike Air Rift Split Toe
The infamous split toe of the Nike Air Rift
Jika-Tabi Japanese Work Boots
Jika-Tabi Japanese Work Boots
Maison Margiela Tabi Shoes
Margiela has been designing tabi shoes since 1989.

Tabi Toes and the Genealogy of Speed

That split-toe is undoubtedly the Air Rift’s signature design feature. However, Nike were far from the first to feature this decoupled toe structure. Martin Margiela made a splash from day dot with his tabi footwear in 1989 – iconic designs which live on over 30 years later. However, the split-toed origins actually date back to as early as 15th century Japan, where split-toe tabi socks were used in tandem with the rigid straps on geta sandals. By the mid-20th century, the industrialisation of rubber production bonded outsoles to tabi uppers, forming Jika-tabi, which were used primarily as functional, agile workwear.

Similarly, the Air Rift’s design was born out of a never-ending quest for runners to experience unrestricted motion. The sandal-like midfoot and heel Velcro straps allowed for immensely soft, stretchy uppers that hugged the foot with ease. It was innovations like these, and other experiments like the Sock Racer, Air Huarache, and Air Presto, that led to the creation of the game-changing Nike Free, later immortalised in the Genealogy of Speed collection.

J600 Nike Air Rift Website
J600 was at the forefront of the UK Air Rift scene

Turning Japanese, and Anarchy in the UK

It seems Japan had an almost spiritual kinship with tabi, and the Air Rift become a Harajuku sneaker staple as the world entered the 21st century. The fashionable youth of Tokyo and beyond pictured in the seminal FRUiTS street style magazine were more often than not pictured wearing the Air Rift. Plus, the fact that OG pairs were shipped with special Nike tabi socks may have helped this. Even with its sporting origins, it was quickly adopted as an easy-wearing and comfortable street shoe.

Across the pond, the Air Rift also took off in Europe and the UK, where websites devoted to the silhouette cropped up. Forums like fuk.co.uk (Fashion UK) and Crooked Tongues were depositories of information, filled with Web 1.0 artefacts and fake-spotting guides preserved since time immemorial. Even the Sneaker Freaker forum had devout Rift followers!

Patrick Grandin first fell in love with the Air Rift back in the late 1990s. The menswear designer, and long-time collector, is such a fan that he even got married in the eyeball searing ‘Turbo Pink’ from circa 2001–02!

grandin975 Nike Air Rift Turbo Pink
@grandin975 got married in the 'Turbo Pink' Air Rifts!
‘The Nike Air Rift was the first pair of trainers that I ever bought online, back in 1998. With dial-up Internet and a leap of faith, I finally got hold of the black/forest/atom red from Eastbay (on clearance too, as luck would have it). I had been obsessed with them after seeing an image in a fashion magazine back in 1996 or 1997, but had never seen them for sale anywhere up until that point in time. They were such a neck-snapping, divisive shoe back then, as no one had ever seen anything like them, but for me, it was love at first sight.’ Patrick Grandin, Air Rift collector
,Nike Air Rift Halle Berry
Halle Berry x Nike Air Rift | Image via j600
Nike Air Rift Cover Pony J600
(2002) Nike Air Rift Cover with Pony Hair Uppers! | Image via J600
Nike Air Rift Slip On eBay
Nike Air Rift Slip-On | Image via eBay
Nike Air Rift Cover Brown
Nike Air Rift Cover | Image via Depop

Halle Berry

Between the years 2002 and 2004, Nike’s Artist Series tapped creative types like artists, musicians and actors to collaborate on limited-edition sneakers. It included entries like the Stash x Air Classic BW and Eminem x Air Max Burst, which remain some of the rarest Nikes ever. However, it’s not as widely known that alongside the N.E.R.D. x Dunk and ESPO x Air Force 2 Low, there was a Halle Berry x Air Rift! This trio formed the third instalment of the Artist Series.

The Halle Berry Rifts were more likely to be found walking down Hollywood Boulevard than pounding the sandy savannah in Kenya – but by then, it was the early 2000s, and the Rift was definitely a casual shoe. However, there was something rather prescient about the Shale/Ceramic/Dark Blue/Grey colourway that would return in similar forms during the late-2010s trail revival.

And, as the dawn of the early 2000s brought on a renaissance period of sneaker culture, Nike laid the foundations with highly collectible colourways and limited editions that sneakerheads and adventurous normies snapped up, like the ‘Brazil’ Bs from 2000 and the glittery Milkfed collaboration from 2008. There were also some crazy variants, like strapless slip-ons and mid-cut pony hair versions!

NikeLab Rift Free Sandal
NikeLab Rift Free Sandal
Nike Aqua Rift
Nike Aqua Rift | Image via atmos
Nike Air Rift Breathe
Nike Air Rift Breathe

Modern Revival and the ISPA Connection

In spite of its underrated status, something at Nike’s been making sure the Air Rift returns every now and again. It’s made noise throughout the 2010s with both retro reissues and material variants. Its distinct design has proven antecedent to contemporary Swoosh silhouettes, like 2015’s NikeLab Free Rift Sandal, 2016’s Rift Wrap, and 2019’s Aqua Rift.

Nike ISPA Drifter
Nike ISPA Drifter
,Nike ISPA Road Warrior
Nike ISPA Road Warrior

Now, the Air Rift’s spirit lives on. Nike recently released the very Mad Max ISPA Road Warrior and ISPA Drifter. Both are absolutely chaotic sneakers in all the right ways – what’s that there? A decoupled toe, whose design DNA goes back 25 years.

With all this said and done, where’s the 2020 retro of the OG ‘Kenya’ and ‘Concord’ Air Rifts?

Check out even more detailed product deep dives in the Features section here.

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