Reissues of older styles– or ‘retros’, as they are known in the sneaker community — have been a staple of Nike’s release calendar for decades. As with many aspects of the scene, the Air Force 1 was the trailblazer: originally released in 1982, fans’ demand for the return of the style caused the brand to rethink their approach to discontinuing shoes, and the Air Force 1 was reissued in 1986.
With a timeless design like the Air Force 1 or the original Air Max 1, these reissues make immediate sense — there will always be demand for these cultural touchstones, designs so influential that it is difficult to imagine what sneakers today might look like without the originals, and myriad versions of these styles can be found throughout Nike‘s range. But sometimes Nike takes a more unusual approach to its retro selection process. Sometimes it’s a one-off reissue of a rarely-seen, cult favourite running shoe; others, it resurrects older styles that sit well with the prevailing aesthetic of the current day. But with the recent resurgence of the Air Max 97, it almost feels like a fated occurrence. Not only is 2017 the shoe’s 20th anniversary — often a cue for a retro release, especially during Air Max Month in March — but the cultural zeitgeist has shifted in such a way that the shoe itself makes perfect sense in today’s climate. Clothing inspired by the sportswear of that era is hugely popular, with striped track pants and voluminous nylon windbreakers having a particular moment, and the 97, naturally, fits in perfectly. From the wide range of colourways both neutral and outlandish, to the much-hyped collaboration with grime superstar Skepta, it all just seems to make perfect sense.
This wouldn’t have necessarily been the case even a year ago. While undeniably an attractive shoe and a forward-thinking design masterpiece — the iconic undulating wave-patterned uppers supposedly being inspired by Japanese bullet trains — the Air Max 97 absolutely feels like a product of its time. In 1997, the world was on the verge of entering a new millennium, and was looking ahead in both technology and design terms to the decidedly futuristic-sounding ‘two thousands’. This optimistic futurism pervaded both industrial and fashion design, with sleek curves and metallic chrome accents dominating everything from cars to CD players, mountain bikes to sneakers.
Christian Tresser, the Air Max 97’s designer, took all of these influences on board and combined them with natural imagery, like the ripple of waves on a pond, to create a shoe that resonated with everyone from rappers like Big Pun to the Spice Girls’ Mel C. But despite the 97’s cultural cachet around the time, by the time the millennium had been and gone the shoe had been relegated to a cult favourite, with a smattering of reissues for its OG ‘Silver Bullet’ colourway, particularly in Italy. Which makes its reappearance and phenomenal resurgence in popularity one of Nike’s greatest success stories of recent times — whether by design or by accident.
So what comes next? Naturally, by the time Air Max Day 2018 comes around it’ll be the turn of the Air Max 98 to get the 20th anniversary treatment — a shoe that has never seen the level of cult enthusiasm as its older siblings. Keeping the same full-length Air sole as its predecessor, the sleek undulating wave uppers were ditched in favour of synthetic leather overlays, ribbed side panels and an overall bulkier silhouette; visually, the two shoes couldn’t look much different. However, as with the 97, the winds of change seem to be blowing in Nike’s favour: chunky, maximalist sneakers have been all over the fashion radar for the coming seasons. From the Balenciaga Triple S sneaker to Kanye West’s Yeezy Wave Runner 700, everyone seems to be wanting in on the ‘ugly sneaker’ trend. This comes on the heels of a recent collaboration with streetwear powerhouse Supreme, which decked the 98 out in shiny patent leather and snakeskin print last year to predictably massive hype. Since then, the silhouette has slowly been gaining traction on social media among sneakerheads, some of whom prefer to show off underappreciated or ‘slept on’ shoes rather than the latest hype. Could the Air Max 98 replicate the runaway success of the Air Max 97’s reissue? Time will tell, but if the stars align once more, Nike could have yet another retro hit on its hands.