Nine Moments in Air Force 1 History

To celebrate the release of Riccardo Tisci and Nike’s collaboration, we traced the history of the Air Force 1.

March 21, 2014

Today, Nike’s Air Force 1 has officially gone high fashion at the hands of Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci. Looking back to its 1982 debut, there were no signs that the sneaker would stick around as long as it has let alone become a pop culture icon in the process and muse to Nelly and the rest of Oughties rap and, later, one of the fashion industry’s greatest living talents, Tisci. To celebrate its new release, we’re looking back at its greatest cultural moments.

The Basketball Era

The AF1 started on the court with Moses Malone. The then-Philadelphia 76ers won the 1983 NBA championship while wearing what was Nike’s first Air basketball sneaker, a move which sparked interest in the shoe on the street, ultimately, securing its future production.

The Reissue

When the Air Force 1 first dropped in 1982, Nike had only counted on a two-year run. At that time, sneaker styles -- aside from Converse’s Chuck Taylor-- were mostly ephemeral. But unlike other shoes, the AF1 had an immediately wide reach without as much as a marketing campaign. To buy them, fans traveled from New York to three Baltimore retailers, Charlie Rudo Sports, Downtown Locker Room, and Cinderella Shoes who eventually got Nike to reissue to the shoe (pictured above), also known as Uptowns, in 1984 -- a move that made history since AF1s were the first-ever reissued shoe and eventually spawned the now-rampant idea of sneaker nostalgia.

Its Radio Debut

But it took another 18 years for the Air Force 1 to go mainstream when, you know, Nelly and his St. Lunatic crew sang about them. His song, named for the shoe, was inescapable during the fall of 2002, peaking at #3 on the Hot 100 chart and going to #1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Tracks chart. The video, which naturally showed off an impressive range of colorways (fact: now, there’s roughly 2,000 versions of it), featured cameos by then-St. Louis Rams players Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt and Baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.

2000s Hip-Hop

Nelly might have been the first to pen an entire song about the shoe but AF1s have also popped up in the lyrics of Jay Z, Ludacris, The Game, The-Dream, Rick Ross, Curren$y, Xzibit, and T.I. who swears by them. Not only has he said “No matter how much money any sneaker company gives me I’ma still wear Air Forces” but he also followed suit with the song “My Air Forces,” appropriately timed for the shoe’s 25th anniversary in 2007.

Its 25th Anniversary Year

That year was pretty historic for Nike. The sportswear brand brought together Krs-One, Nas, Kanye West and Rick Rubin -- who later went onto produce Yeezus (and maybe Kanye has Nike to thank for that?)-- to record a song pegged to its anniversary. What ensued was “Better Than I’ve Ever Been” and the DJ premiere remix featuring Rakim went on to earn a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Collaboration in 2008. Nike also also put together an all-star scrimmage commercial for their anniversary soundtracked by Julez Santana and starring LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Shawn Marion, Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal. And the retailer was the first to sell a four-digit-priced shoe, creating two anniversary editions made from anaconda and crocodile with gold-tipped laces.

When the AF1 Went Hollywood

After the Oughties, the AF1 momentarily fell out of favor, being pushed out by an over saturated market, but, of all people, Nelly predicted their eventual rise again. "I think they are always gonna be cool sort of sneakers but as far as them being the now and the then—not at this moment. But I do think they will circle back around like things always do," he told Daily Beast in a 2010 interview. Though the red carpet set were just starting to catch onto them at that time -- See: Robert Downey Jr. and Justin Theroux's outfits at the premiere of Iron Man 2.

Kanye Brought It Back

Sure enough, two years later, Kanye wore them for a very special occasion: the first of his masked performances and the show where he announced he and Kim were having a baby. Not only did Kanye bring back creed to the white-on-white version of the AF1 he also might have had the shoe on his mind when he designed his coveted Red Octobers -- take a look at this similar style which came out in 2011.

Drake Followed

Drake also helped the AF1 make a comeback when he Instagrammed his collection with the caption "We been back on these... just saying. Y Pree." He stepped out in a pair for his snowy "Started From the Bottom" video where he shows that the white-on-white version works well as a winter white.

Riccardo Tisci's Remix

And when she debuted one of Tisci's pairs this Paris Fashion Week, Rihanna showed that the shoe is forever cool among the fashion set. Tisci has given the sneaker new life, perhaps at an ideal time since sneakers have been trending on the runway at Chanel and Dior and other designers like Givenchy, Céline, and Marc Jacobs have put their own stamps on the shoe for retailers. But even more importantly, Tisci has added to the legacy of the world's best-selling sneaker, in the process bringing together its diverse group of fans and letting them own a piece of luxury at an affordable price. As the designer recently told FADER, "The project means a lot to me. And it means a lot to the young generation, it’s a project with a beautiful message of positivity that’s reachable to everyone."

Nine Moments in Air Force 1 History