NIKE AIR MAX III: 'MORE AIR CUSHIONING, MORE PLUSH PADDING, MORE SUPPORT'
In an industry big on hyperbole, words like ‘classic’ or ‘legendary’ are thrown around fairly loosely, but every now and again something comes along worthy of such grand titles. The Air Max 90 is most definitely worthy. First released as the Air Max III back in 1990 (the ‘90’ name only came when it was reissued in 2000 as a way to highlight the fact it was a vintage design), this singular running sneaker sits alongside the original AM1, the AM95 and the AM97 as a true footwear classic which has far outgrown its original purpose.
With the sneaker celebrating its 30th anniversary, and faithful reissues of both the ‘Laser Blue’ and ‘Infrared’ OG colourways on the horizon which come closer to the original shape than ever before, here’s a brief potted history of what might just be one of Nike’s most recognisable shapes…
It’s hard to talk about the Air Max 90 without talking about the sneakers that came before it. Whilst Nike had been pushing forward-thinking footwear design since right back in the Blue-Ribbon Sports days, the initial seeds for the AM90 were sown in 1978 with the limited release of a fairly unassuming running sneaker called the Tailwind. At face value, these subtle leather and mesh running sneakers shared little in common with the amped-up space-age design of the AM90, but hidden in that midsole was one key similarity… good ol’ fashioned air.
The story goes that whilst working as an aeronautical engineer for NASA, a man named Frank Rudy had sussed out a way of encasing gases into rubber, and quickly saw the potential of using air-cushions in running sneaker as a way to dampen impact and raise comfort levels. Frank peddled this idea to countless shoe companies with zero success, until he finally made the trip to Nike’s Beaverton HQ. The Tailwind was the first sneaker to harness this ingenious concept, setting the Swoosh on a track it still runs heavily on today.
Another major leap towards the AM90 was made in 1987, with the launch of the original Air Max. Now known as the Air Max I (for fairly obvious reasons), this was a truly unique design which, like the Tailwind, took inspiration from far beyond the traditional sportswear realm. Created by architect-turned-footwear-maestro Tinker Hatfield (the man behind countless Air Jordans, the Air Trainer and the MAG featured in Back to the Future Part II), the signature ‘exposed air’ design which finally highlighted Nike’s ace in the hole for all to see took cues from the transparent, ‘inside-out’ design of the Centre Pompidou in the heart of Paris.
A masterpiece of high-tech architecture, built to house countless seminal works of modern art, the Pompidou’s exposed skeleton of metal support-rods, brightly-coloured plumbing and glass panels caught Hatfield’s roving eye during a trip to Europe, lighting the spark for his first sneaker to carry the Air Max moniker. Not only was the visible air unit a direct homage to the Pompidou’s ground-breaking use of glass, but that bright red mudguard was a tip of the hat to its primary-hued pipe-work... and like the building that inspired it, the Nike Air Max was instantly controversial. Nothing else looked like this at the running track, and although some footwear luddites were quick to scoff at the avant-garde design, they were soon silenced once they slipped them on their feet.
Undeterred by early detractors, Nike forged forth with the Air Max concept. In ‘88 came the Air Walker Max, a stout, seldom-seen leather sneaker not designed for running, but for walking, and in ‘89, there was the Air Max II (or Air Max Light as it was later known)—a semi-skimmed version of the Air Max I featuring a lightweight Phylon midsole and thermoplastic support straps. Both were intriguing designs, but neither packed the punch of the original… or what was to come.
In 1990, just as people were starting to get their heads around the original Air Max, the Air Max III was released. Designed by Hatfield from the ground up, this was effectively a souped-up caricature of the Air Max I, with an aggressive, sweeping shape, a prominent angled mudguard and even more air pumped into the midsole. A million miles from anything else on the shelves, it was a masterpiece of maximalist design which fit perfectly with the in-your-face nature of the new decade. As an advert from long-time Nike advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy stated, the sneakers offered, “more Nike Air Cushioning, more plush padding and more support.” Originally unsure how to develop his already ground-breaking Air Max shape, Hatfield had struck upon a simple idea… give the customer more.
Far from a mere exercise in aesthetics, it performed too—and although it’s sometimes easy to forget that sneakers like this were designed as functional items with a very specific purpose in mind, it was a firm favourite with a lot of runners straight out the gate. Antipodean marathon-master Steve Moneghetti was a fan, as was six-times ironman triathlete world champion Mark Allen, who featured in an early advert for the sneaker in which he was quoted at a trophy ceremony thanking not just his parents and coach, but Nike for giving him his running sneakers.
Another early advocate was none other than Mr George H. W. Bush, who wore his own, highly-limited ‘Air Pres’ edition for his morning jogs around the parks of Washington DC. Made as a fairly lavish gift to the 41st US President, the Air Pres came in a blue and off-white colourway and swapped out the usual Nike branding on the tongue for a particularly ornate presidential logo. As far as collaborations go, not many come as rare as this.
Thanks to the fitness craze of the early 80’s which had sent thousands of ‘regular folk’ in search of high-tech sneakers (as well as the slow shift towards casual clothing which happened in the second half of the 20th century), the Air Max 90 was a ready-made hit outside of the running world. Iggy Pop wore them, as did Jim Carrey & Gary Cole, and unlike earlier sportswear designs which often took decades to weevil their way into sub-cultural uniforms, they were quickly appropriated by both hip-hop and hardcore scenes.
For hip hop, which was moving out of the era of gaudy Dapper Dan tracksuits and Bally shoes and into a more utilitarian style mixing military gear, work-wear and sportswear, the chunky, wedged shape of the Air Max 90 meant it worked perfectly alongside the ever-widening jeans worn from Harlem to Houston. The relatively costly price tag only added to the appeal, and references to the Air Max range made their way into tracks by Nas, Redman and Ghostface Killah. Meanwhile, the high-speed hardcore bands of New York adopted the sneaker alongside Champion hoodies and crewcuts as a way to distance themselves from the leather boots and mohawks of the earlier punk scene.
The rise of loose-fitting sportswear off the back of acid house meant the Air Max was also highly coveted over here in Britain—after all, dancing ‘til morning in the packed-out superclubs which sprouted up in the early 90’s required comfortable footwear.
And what now? 30 years after it first landed, the Air Max 90 has been the subject of numerous high-profile reissues and collaborations, and everyone from Virgil Abloh to Eminem has added their own spin on the classic shape (with Slim’s ultra-limited, autographed AM90s reportedly changing hands for no less than $8,000 on the resale market). But above all this, the sneaker itself is still a key part of countless cultural movements, worn not as a piece of ironic nostalgia, but as something that fits seamlessly into modern life. A timeless design indeed.
The Nike Air Max III will be available through a raffle via SEVENSTORE Launches.