There are many sneakers that have stood the test of time. Converse’s Chuck Taylor All-star went from the original performing basketball shoe to the stylish modern staple. The Adidas Stan Smith is more known for being the go-to white plimsoll of street styles and teenagers alike, rather than the grail of one of the best tennis players to ever hit the courts. But the Nike Air Force 1 is in a class of its own. Beyond the myriad of athletes and celebrities that have endorsed it over the years, the Nelly song that pays homage to buying “white-on-white pairs”, and the collaborations with relevant brands like Supreme, Off-White, VLONE, and Acronym, it’s achieved a certain status based on its own merits.
Designed by Bruce Kilgore in 1982, the Air Force 1 is notable for being the first basketball shoe to implement Nike’s Air technology, and among the first basketball shoes to utilize durable cup soles. This process cradles the shoe’s upper with a taller sidewall that is then sewn around to reinforce its bond with the sneaker, making the shoe light, more flexible, and more prone to handle day-to-day wear and tear.
Considering Nike’s design legacy is built on the interdependent relationship between form and function, the Air Force 1 unites both in an ingenious, understated way. It’s sleek and pragmatic in the same way that the iPhone is. Comfortable and stylish, the clean lines of the shoe complement athletic gear, casual clothing, and in some cases, have even been worn with a suit.
During the early days of sneaker culture, the only place to buy Air Force 1s in Los Angeles were in mom-and-pop sports stores on Fairfax and La Brea. Venerable sneakerheads like Bobbito Garcia and DJ Clark Kent drop names of defunct sneaker retailers, like Nort and Forkspin in Los Angeles, as the go-to spot to cop the increasingly popular silhouette. Originally called “Nike Airs” by the fledgling sneaker cognoscenti, the AF1’s nickname soon evolved to reflect the area of Los Angeles that put it on the map – the uptowns.
It’s gone from mere silhouette to canvas, a symbol of Los Angeles style and the grey area where basketball culture spills over into the streets. In 2014, Supreme celebrated its 20th anniversary with a high-top pair that embodied the sneaker’s significance to skater culture. When A$AP Bari released his VLONE x Nike Air Force 1 Highs on the East Coast, he did it at a pop-up shop in Harlem, bringing the silhouette closer to its national fans.
The versatile sneaker has gone on to inspire several higher-end reinterpretations, most notably Nigo’s A Bathing Ape “BAPESTA” to Phoebe Philo’s pared-down take on the Air Force 1 Mid for Celine for the label’s Fall/Winter 2014 Collection. Philo eschewed the iconic Nike swoosh but kept the silhouette round toe and overall shape, then rendering the sneaker in luxe calf leather. In a case of the snake eating itself, Philo’s monotone uppers in tan and blue leather have since seeped into Nike’s in-line offerings.
But the future of Air Force 1 goes beyond simple retros and recolors. Designers like Errolson Hugh of ACRONYM and Nike designer Ben Kirshner have expanded its scope, taking it from casual style staple to utilitarian performance shoe. Silhouettes like the ACRONYM x Nike Air Force 1 Downtown and Kirschner’s Special Forces Air Force 1 use Bruce Kilgore’s foundation as a base point, updating the silhouette with modern materials and forward-thinking design details.
In doing so, the Air Force 1 becomes much more than a shoe, it becomes a medium for self expression. And that creativity extends to the people who wear the kicks in their own way. As more and more sneaker-heads and stylish citizens around the world get dressed from the feet up, the Air Force 1 continues to be the ideal foundation where sport, fashion, and timelessness meet in the middle.