A Sneaker Story: The History of the Nike Air Max

The Swoosh's popular sneaker silhouette is over 40 years old.

(SPOT.ph) Like luxury cars or designer handbags, sneakers are a commodity cemented into cultural consciousness, birthing styles that have become instantly recognizable even to the casual shopper. Nike is just one of many sneaker brands that have achieved such ubiquity. Popular silhouettes like the Cortez or the Air Force 1 are etched into our collective memory, at once representing a fashion statement, a cultural history, and an entire community. But for all of The Swoosh’s popular styles, perhaps none have quite as storied a history as the Air Max.

The famed sneaker gets its name from the air cushioning in its sole. It uses pressurized airbags underneath the shoe to soften impact on the foot while providing spring and support without the need for heavy cushioning. The technology was pioneered by former aerospace engineer Marion Franklin Rudy, who left his career in NASA to pursue creative endeavors back in the 1960s. He presented his airbag innovation to 23 different companies, and all of them rejected him. That is, until 1977 when he introduced the technology to Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Upon giving Rudy’s prototype a test run, Knight found that the construction gave the shoe a distinctly smooth ride and was immediately intrigued by the technology's potential.

Origins of the Nike Air Max

The first Nike shoe to use the technology was the Tailwind, released in '78 and built specifically for running, due to its weightless design and ample support. Only 250 pairs were made on the Tailwind’s first release, which were then distributed among running stores in Hawaii for the Honolulu Marathon. The U.S. $50 shoe sold out within 24 hours.

Marion Franklin Rudy created the air-bag technology used by Nike Air Max.

The first ever Nike Air Max was released later that year, designed by Tinker Hatfield. To die-hard sneakerheads, Hatfield’s name rings as powerfully as Steve Jobs’ would to tech enthusiasts—he didn’t invent it, but he certainly changed the game. Hatfield gave the Air Max its signature look, with a window on the sole of the shoe that would expose the airbag technology within. Considered a legend in sneaker design, Hatfield was also instrumental in the development of several iterations of Nike’s Air Jordan.

Tinker Hatfield's original sketch of the Air Max's window design.
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Before the Air Max, Nike was a leader in sports design thanks to their straightforward, utilitarian approach in creating products, but as the decade came to a close, “people were looking for something different, not just in what Nike was doing, but all around the world,” says Hatfield. “The mid-'80s was a period of transition from a more formalized hierarchy to a looser, street-based, more inspirational form. We at Nike were part of that wave, and I just happened to be a designer doing it from a footwear perspective when nobody else was.”

The Nike Air Max 1 in its original University Red and White colorway. 

Hatfield was inspired to create the window on the shoe’s sole during a visit to Paris’ Centre Pompidou. The establishment features a unique, inside-out design, where the building’s skeletal structure is displayed on the exterior, thus giving Hatfield the idea to use the inner workings of the shoe for aesthetic rather than just utility.

The Centre Pompidou building's inside-out structure inspired Hatfield to create the Air Max's sole window.
PHOTO BY Barbwire99/Pixabay

After the success of the Air Max 1, Nike released new iterations of the silhouette in 1988 and 1989: the Air Walker Max and the Air Max Light, respectively. The former was a heavier version of the original, made primarily for walking rather than running, while the latter was a sleeker, lighter version of its predecessor.

The Air Max in the '90s

At the dawn of the new decade, Nike debuted the Air Max 90. Considered to be the second flagship design of the Air Max series, it remains one of the brand’s most popular silhouettes to this day. Though still designed by Hatfield, the Air Max 90 was a complete reworking of the original Air Max, maintaining its signature elements such as the lightweight feel, air-bag technology, and sole window. The Air Max 90 has received many makeovers throughout the years. There's even a collaboration with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White, a testament to its ongoing relevance in fashion, streetwear, and the sneaker community.

The Air Max 90, seen here in its OG Infrared color scheme.

As the '90s unfolded, more and more designs were released. The Air Classic BW in 1991 was a sleeker version of the Air Max with a larger window on the sole (where BW, or big window, comes from). Later that year, the Nike Air Max 180 was released. It was the first in the series to display the Air technology on its outsole and was considered one of the most experimental jumps from the original Air Max design. Another iteration was made in 1992, the Air Max ST, constructed with a heightened air sole for added stability.

The Air Max 180 was the first to display the Air technology on its outsole.

The Air Max 93 followed soon after (2017’s Air Max 270 pays homage to this silhouette). Its design was built upon that of the 180, giving it colored air units, a more snug, sock-like fit, and more air on the sole. The Air Max 94 was next—a hybrid of the Air Max Light and Air Max 93—is one of the lesser-known silhouettes in the series. That same year also introduced the Air Max 2, the only pair from the series that has never had a re-release. It introduced a new innovation to the sneaker that included multiple air chambers with different levels of pressure throughout the sole for strategic cushioning and support, which was later found in the Air Max 95. Just as with the original Air Max, they created a lighter version of the Air Max 2, the Air Max 2 Light, later that year. However, unlike 1989’s Air Max Light, this one proved more popular than its predecessor.

The Air Max 93 in Menthol

In 1995, a turning point was reached for the sneaker with the release of the Air Max 95, which was a complete overhaul of the Air Max design. It was also the first silhouette in the Air Max line not designed by Hatfield, but by Sergio Lozano, then a relatively new Nike designer whose focus in his early years with the company "working on tennis, training, and ACG (all conditions gear) products," according to Sole Collector. Inspired by the image of water eroding a landscape, it features parallel grooves across the exterior, which Lozano has described as striations similar to what you see on the walls of the Grand Canyon. The 95 presented a more direct shift toward lifestyle sneaker enthusiasts, rather than practicing athletes. It’s no coincidence that the 1990s was the birth era of streetwear. Note, however, that 1995 also saw the release of the Air Racer Max, which features a flatter sole and a mesh upper and was heavily geared towards runners.

The Air Max 95 was the first sneaker in the series not designed by Hatfield, but by Sergio Lozano.

Next came the Air Max 96, an early version of the trendy chunky sneaker silhouette. Still designed by Lozano, it had similar wave-like designs as the 95. The Air Max 97 came the year after, this time designed by Christian Tresser, with layered uppers inspired by the ripples in a pond. The 97 was the first in the line to feature full-length air-cushioning lining all around the sole of the shoe. Even today, it is one of the most widely recognizable silhouettes from the series and has had many reiterations since its original release.

The Air Max 97, designed by Christian Tresser, features wave-like striations inspired by ripples in a pond.

The tail end of the '90s saw several new additions to the line including the Air Max 98 with its mismatched design and bold, contrasting colors as well as the Nike Air Max Plus designed by Sean McDowell, and the Air Max 98 TL. The decade was capped off with the Air Max Deluxe, which was inspired by the European rave culture (a huge trend in fashion at the time) and the Air Tuned Max.


The 2000s and Beyond

The first Air Max release of the aughts came four years after, with the Nike Air Max 2003. Unlike the bold, chaotic designs of the '90s, this pair introduced a cleaner, monochromatic version of the shoe. The simple design on the sneaker’s upper was contrasted by the extra thick cushioning. The Air Max 2003, conceptualized by Lozano, was an early indication that an era of sleeker sneakers was dawning.

Fun fact: One of the Air Max 2003's claims to fame was that it required no break-in time.

In 2006, the Air Max 360 debuted. As its name suggests, the design focused on an air unit visible from every angle of the sole. It paid tribute to its heritage by being released in a colorway similar to the OG Air Max 1. The Air Max wouldn’t return again after that until 2014, when it was married to another popular flagship technology of Nike’s—the Flyknit. The result was a thick, all-around air-cushioned sole and a lightweight, flexible upper. 


The year after saw the introduction of the Air Max 2015, most famous for its horizontal tubular construction and signature grooves along the outsole. It even features a reverse swoosh near the heel—a mark of Nike’s experimentation with the new design. 2015 also introduced the Air Max Zero, lifted from one of Hatfield’s original designs for the Air Max 1, but "dismissed at the time for being too innovative for the general public," reports Sneaker Freaker.

2017 saw the return of the Flyknit upper with the Nike Vapormax Flyknit. It was dubbed “the pinnacle of Air” upon its release thanks to the evolutionary VaporMax unit, which features the air unit standing alone as the sneaker’s entire sole.

The Air Max 270 was modeled after the 93.

In 2018, Nike released the Air Max 270. Inspired by the Air Max’s early '90s designs, the pair’s retro-futuristic design is a mark of both the Air Max series’ legacy and continuity—by now, an institution in fashion, streetwear, and the sneaker community. The Air Max 720, which came out in 2019, sports an ultra-futuristic design and the tallest airbag of the entire Air Max series to date. 


From the cultural revolution of the 1980s to the birth of '90s streetwear and now a legacy in sneaker design, the Air Max has proven its ability to not only withstand the test of time, but to evolve with it. And if 41 years (and counting!) of fresh designs, new iterations, and continuous innovation have shown us anything, it’s that the Air Max will be around for a long time to come.

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