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Thirty Years Strong: Nike Air Max Remains Iconic Sports Fashion Piece

Nike revolutionized the running shoe with its launch of the Air Max 1.
Photo by Libby Roach

Dozens of people line up along Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto outside of a semi-operational fish market. It's clear that nobody is here to haul dead creatures, as no one would ever sully the shoes they were wearing by subjecting them to hard labour.

Sneakerheads have lined up for Nike's "Sneakeasy" event, which was to culminate with the unveiling of the Nike Air VaporMax at midnight. It's an invite-only event, mostly populated by artists, media, celebrities, and athletes, but a select number of tickets were released to the public (which were reportedly being resold surreptitiously for up to $500). People were not paying $500 for the chance to buy the shoes first. They were paying $500 for a chance to see the shoes first.


Mistakenly, I gave everyone in line that opportunity for free. Event organizers encouraged attendees to "wear their favourite Air Max," and since the advance pair of VaporMax were still in my living room as I was getting ready, I put those on.

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At some point in a middle of a conversation, a sneakerhead notices. "Hey, he's got the VaporMax on right there!"

Suddenly there's a small congregation around me asking me questions about the shoe. As a runner, I begin to describe their performance as, you know, a running shoe.

"It's really spongy when it hits the ground, but the shoe itself fits very similar to a track spike. It will take some getting used to, but it could definitely be a great shoe for speedwork," I answer.

Nobody is really concerned with its functional performance, though. The people in line may run, they may not, but they're sure not here to find the shoe they'll be training in for this spring's 10K. They just want the visual—to see how cool the transparent gel sole looks.

The new VaporMax shoe, via Nike

Thirty years ago, Nike revolutionized the running shoe with its launch of the Air Max 1, also known as the Air Max 87. Though Air technology had been implemented in previous shoes, this was the first time the air pockets were not only enlarged, but made visible through a partially transparent sole. Tinker Hatfield's design was mindblowing, an entirely backwards approach to the design of a shoe, building it from the bottom up and presenting it from the inside out.


For runners, it was one of the first shoes that offered the opportunity to make anything other than hard, flat contact with the pavement. Shoes had indeed evolved beyond the original waffle trainers and by then were offering offset heel-to-toe structure, but this was a different level of cushioning.

This is not information that is pertinent to most of the attendees around me, who are still mesmerized by the new shoes before them. I take some comfort in the fact that I can indeed run, and hope that I don't have to take the VaporMax on a trial sprint, as I consider the possibility of being robbed.

The Air Max 1's contribution now is not necessarily evaluated based on its importance in running history, even though it opened the doors for the stability shoes that Chris McDougall hates but the majority of the population without a perfect stride tend to rely upon. Instead, it is an iconic piece, and a monumental link between athletics and fashion.

It's not unusual for a functional piece of sporting attire to be worn in everyday life as fashion. Baseball caps and jerseys have become normalized as casual wear over the years. In terms of footwear, basketball shoes are worn casually off the court. But in terms of actual functional running shoes, it's tough to think of a shoe other than the Air Max that is still deemed cool fashion wear. If you were to wear your Mizuno Waves to the bar at night, it's unlikely you'd get props from anyone other than the guy who just ran 35K and is celebrating with a cider.


The Sneakeasy is indeed in the upper level of what used to be a fish market, now converted into an event space. The layout is that of an art gallery, with several of Toronto's top artists and fashion designers tasked with representing a specific historical model of the Air Max.

Bryan Espiritu, founder of the Legends League clothing company, chooses the original Air Max. He designs a space meant to draw a parallel between the changing social and political landscape of 1987 and the avant garde construction of the shoe.

Photo by Libby Roach

President Ronald Reagan's famous "tear down this wall" speech at Brandenburg Gate took place on June 12, and much of the space Espiritu designs is a nod to the phrase. There's a transparent wrecking ball with an Air Max 1 inside of it which has ostensibly broken the walls of his space, which are coated with political messaging.

There's even a cheeky poster that reads "One 87. By Any Means," which perhaps slipped by brand representatives.

"When it comes to day to day footwear that anyone can kind of wear, you see people today who wear running shoes or training shoes even if they don't train or run. When you look at an Air Max 1 versus an Air Force 1, it just looks like more of a day to day shoe for your everyday average person," said Espiritu. "I see young kids wearing Air Max 1s, I see fashion people wearing Air Max 1s, and I see professionals who don't give a fuck about sports or fashion wearing Air Max 1s. Across the board, it seems to fit every style. When I think of a shoe as a designer, it seems like the most versatile canvas to start with."


Photo by Libby Roach

Perhaps due to that versatility, the Air Max line has been a bridge for athletes to crossover into mainstream fame through the years. Both Bo Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr. have shoes that are offshoots of the Air Max lineage. Though they were built as cross training shoes, meant to help you smash home runs or score touchdowns perhaps, they wound up becoming sought after pieces for collectors who might not have cared about the Mariners or the Raiders or the Royals.

"I had this one uncle. He's like the young uncle. Not the young uncle that does drugs, but the cool uncle. I remember him coming to my house in Bo Jacksons. And I was like, holy fuck, and I kept trying to hint to him that he should give them to me, even though I was like ten, and he was a grown-ass man and they were never going to fit me," recalls Espiritu.

Espiritu's approach to owning the shoe is not unlike how most people have approached Air Max through the years. Just as he didn't care if they fit—because he just wanted to own them and have them on his feet however loosely—regular consumers, and even athletes, don't seem to care if they really work, either.

At one point, Air Max was even directly marketed to sprinters, with double gold medallist Quincy Watts as the focus of the Air Max 93 promotion following his brilliant performance in Barcelona. The commercial that followed is a classic example of a period piece that could never air today. Watts triumphantly runs through a group of opera-singing vikings, until he reaches the viking king, who makes an unusual offer for his sneakers—"the super-cushioned wife for your super-cushioned Air Max shoes."


"I will say that I don't know any pro track athlete that ever trained in them," says Perdita Felicien, world champion hurdler, who herself has a prodigious Nike collection.

Showing up at a race in Air Max shoes would be akin to Nick Young wearing a pair of Yeezy Boosts in an NBA game last year. It's something you can do—the shoes are built to perform—but people will wonder why you're ruining such a nice pair of sneakers by scraping them on the pavement.

"When I was younger, Air Maxes were attached to status. Yeah, I played basketball and I ran track, but it was more about owning them as an emblem. It was like a trophy. I can lose at every meet, I don't give a shit, because I have these," said Espiritu.

"When I started to actually grow my collection, I was like wait a minute, these are performance shoes. Tinker Hatfield has talked about Jordans as basketball shoes—the best basketball player of all-time was wearing them in games. So as years went on, I was like fuck it, I'm gonna start running in them. And I would run them, even if they were super sought after. You have to remember, they aren't designing performance sneakers strictly with fashion in mind. Yeah they wanna look good, but they have to hold up to an actual athlete utilizing them."

The original Air Max. Photo by Libby Roach

The latest edition to the line, the VaporMax, is being marketed heavily to runners, more so than previous additions to the line have in many years. In Toronto, Canadian Olympic 800m runner Melissa Bishop helped launch the shoe, and took them for a trial 5K run through the city.

If they're good enough for an Olympian, they're good enough for the weekend warriors, right?

Well, if the reaction to the shoes at the Sneakeasy is any indication, this incarnation may run into the same good problem its predecessors have. If you get them dirty on your morning run, what are you going to wear out at night?