Nike Air Max: How a sneaker saved Nike

It is nowadays one of the most iconic Nike sneakers, so it might surprise you to know that at the time of their release many thought they were going to be a failure. This is the story of how two designers dared to turn the world of running footwear upside down.

Nike, at a turning point.

In order to understand what the Nike Air Max meant, we need to travel back to the situation of Nike in 1987. The company was stuck in a rut: they had highly technical footwear, but its style was in the old-fashioned side. They had no innovation projects in sight, sales were dropping and the only really successful line was the Air Jordan. To solve this, there were two opposed visions: To keep releasing products with low risk that most people could like (which would likely involve stabler sales) or try a more transgressive path which would make the brand stand out (which in turn involved a higher risk).

The Air Jordan was what passed for imaginative in Nike those days.

From architecture to running

Tinker Hatfield, who is currently Vice President of Desing and Special Projets, had just joined the footwear design team after 5 years as corporate architect. It was clear to him that the company needed major changes, and it was precisely his interest in architecture which inspired him to take the “Air” concept to the next level. During a visit to Paris, he had the chance to admire the Pompidou Centre, which exposed the inner parts of the building such as piping and staircases.

Front view of the Pompidou Centre in Paris

As we have already mentioned, technology was one of the biggest assets for Nike. They had been pioneers in using air cushioning in the Nike Air Tailwind. The conection is pretty straightforward, right? Hatfield decided that the best way to communicate Air technology to the public was precisely to make it visible. On his own words, “I’m convinced that if I hadn’t seen that building, I would have never proposed the idea of leaving the air cushioning visible and letting people see what was inside”.

The Air Tailwind already included air cushioning.

The beginning of an era.

Keeping this concept in mind, Hatfield put his mind to work and started sketching the Nike Air Max. In order to express power, he added the red stripes surrounding the sneaker, thus creating the appearence we all have come to love. However, marketing and product managers were not so psyched. Many inside the company were mind-set to keep things the way they were. They were worried that red was too agressive, or the visible air cuchioning downright outrageous.

1987 Air Max

Luckily for us, Tinker Hatfield and Mark Parker (current CEO at Nike) didn’t give up on their personal revolution. And they used precisely the concept “revolution” for the whole marketing campaing to launch the Nike Air Max. They used the world-famous Beatles song “Revolution”. Even this dind’t escape controversy, as even though the rights to use the song had been dutifully paid for, Apple Records sued Nike. In any case, the campaing was a huge success: the Air max star had been born.

A success that doesn’t age.

26 years have gone by since then, and the Air Max are still on. Hundreds of models have hit the market to continue with the “Air” phenomenon. From sneakers strictly for running all the way to fashion-focused designs, there is no doubt that Tinker Hatfield’s legacy is more alive than ever. Which is your favourite?

Nike Air Max 95                                        Nike Air Max 97

Nike Air Max Safari                                           Nike Air Max 2012 Vintage