A Brief History: Air Technology

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“They created the Air Max, and then of course everybody knew what Air was. You could see it, you could feel it, and it was obvious to everyone.”

– Ned Frederick, Footwear Biomechanist and Editor.

Fresh air, or a fresh pair of Airs – there’s not really anything better. Nike’s Air technology encapsulates the label’s knack for innovation. Whether that’s the feeling of wearing shoes, or the bold visuals the air-packed pods give off, this technology uses the air around it to work, and it conquers the spaces it steps into. Nike Air’s bubble certainly isn’t bursting anytime soon.

With Air Max Day landing once again on March 26th, we are looking to celebrate the heritage and community that Nike Air emanates. While all our UK stores are celebrating the event with the amazing Pot Gang and Sneaker Planter; we’ll also be tapping into the Air Max lineage and history on our app and blog. Any excuse to delve into this slew of immaculately put-together shoes – we’ll take it.

First, let’s look into what Air technology is and how it works. It all started with the genius of Frank Rudy, an aeronautical engineer who took his intergalactic NASA knowledge and brought it to the humble ground to create the first ever shock-absorbing tech in the trainer market. The Nike Archives talked about his time for NASA:

“While at Rocketdyne, Rudy worked closely with heads of NASA on the Saturn V rocket engine used in the Apollo missions that landed a man on the moon. Rudy left the aerospace industry in 1969 to pursue a career as an independent inventor who ended up with more than 250 patents, including one for what would become known as “Nike Air.”

The Air system was a selection of small air-filled membranes that were planted in the rubber soles of running shoes, hollowing out soles that would once be solid. This would create an energy-returning cushioning system, one that was first introduced to the Nike Air Tailwind in 1979. Equipped with unique style and a mix of elasticity, reduced impact and an effortlessly lightweight feel – it ran like a dream.

Nearly a decade later, the Air technology evolved into something that would take over the sneaker market, both on and off the tracks. The Air unit became a part of the style of the shoe in the Air Max lineage, opposed to just being a functional element. Frank Rudy ran, so Tinker Hatfield could – literally – sprint. After a trip to Paris, France, Tinker Hatfield felt inspired after seeing the inside-out aesthetic of the famous Pompidou Centre. This led to the manufacturing of the Nike Air Max 1 and the introduction of the iconic visible Air unit. Never seen before, this look added an outlandish character to the all-new Air Max family. It had nothing to hide, and the technology remained as comfortable as before.

Here is a quote from the Nike Archives that shines some light on this iconic Parisian voyage:

“Hatfield was on a design inspiration trip in Paris when he saw the Pompidou Center and noted its revolutionary architecture, which exposed the guts of the building. Hatfield had also read a piece called “Respect the Architects” by Thibaut de Longeville, a contractor with Nike. De Longeville had produced his own short movie about the inspiration of the building. It subsequently inspired Hatfield’s thoughts about exposing the Nike Air unit.”

The visible Air unit was also used to essentially explain what the Air bubble did, “My main contribution to Air, if you will,” said Hatfield, “was visualizing and sketching up the idea that if we actually cut away some of the midsole and exposed the airbag so you could see it, then people could understand it. It was difficult for anyone to grasp Air, what that means.”

Another additional element of the design process was the light passing through the Air bubble, instead of it being an opaque feature, “it was just a dark hole. We did a couple of versions of it where it was just on one side. You needed to have light passing through it, so it was truly like a window,” Hatfield explained.

After ’87, the classics just kept arriving. Following the Air Max Light was the Air Max III, or the Air Max 90 as it was rebranded to in the 2000 re-issue. The 90 was brash and bold, offering another Tinker Hatfield masterpiece that would inspire many to come. Dropping with legendary colour-ups like the ‘Infrared’ (1990), this shoe came equipped with thermoplastic lace ports, a duromesh upper, enlarged branding and subtle Swooshes. It also carried on the Parisian influences, with the visible Air unit embedded in the rubber sole unit. Heavily linked to subcultural style, the shoe is hailed as the archetypal silhouette of the garage and grime scenes in London, while it has featured in collabs with the likes of Virgil Abloh, atmos and Dave White.

The Nike Air Max Classic BW followed with its enlarged Air unit in ’91, while the 180 produced 50% more Air in the lead up to an undisputed grail – the Nike Air Max 95. Hailed the ‘110’ by many due to its original price tag, the design was handed over to Sergio Lozano, and the outcome was a work of sneaker art. This innovation nodded to different elements of the human anatomy, using a nod to the ribs on the nylon speed-lacing eyelets, while the sole unit has a spine aesthetic and the mixed material uppers resembled muscle fibres. Host to a plethora of collabs, and leaving behind a legacy that resonates around the many facets of global streetwear culture – the Air Max 95 is a grail.

We are sure you can guess what comes next; honourable mentions to the chunky, layered 96, but we want to shine a spotlight on the Nike Air Max 97. Designed by Christian Tresser, this streamlined silhouette was famously based on Japan’s bullet trains, but a lesser-known inspiration was the way that water ripples through a pond. Its legacy has rippled through the decades due to its futureproof design, sat upon a full-length Air sole unit. With connections to Italian youth culture – and collabs with the likes of UNDEFEATED and Sean Wotherspoon – the 97 stands alone in this catalogue of all-time greats.

It is without a doubt that the names of the late ‘80s and ‘90s stand proudly as the goats of the Air Max family. But this side of the century has had some great innovations too, both in style and technology. We can’t leave out any mention of the hailed Zoom Air series, featuring the likes of the Zoom Vaporfly, Air Zoom Pegasus, Zoom Fly Flyknit, Zoom Pegasus Turbo and loads more. Zoom Air technology works a bit differently too; it still uses pressurised air, while additionally tightly stretched fibres absorb impact and snap back into place for quicker movement – these really focus on performance like no other.

Not to forget innovations like the Nike Air Max 270 in 2018 and its sequel, the 720 in 2019. And more recent releases have shone a light on the label’s eagerness to evolve – the Air Max Scorpion represents this new energy. Combining 3D VR and Air Manufacturing Innovation, the Air technology is in its most cushioning, and sophisticated era ever.

As new technologies get added, the classics continue to stride forward alongside, showcasing the brand’s unwavering knack for innovation and infinite creations. What comes next? We can’t quite confirm, but we are strapping in for the ride. Shop our Nike Air Max collection today.

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