History of the Nike Air Max

March 26, 2021 by Joey Birch

History of the Nike Air Max

Nike Air technology consists of pressurised air inside a tough yet flexible bag and provides more flexibility and spring without compromising structure. The Air-Sole units maintain their given form with elasticity, lower impact and keep the shoe snug and lightweight.” - Nike.

Nike’s Air Max iteration is, simply put, the greatest footwear line ever to be created. Spanning over 42 years with 21 silhouettes to date, the Nike Air Max lineage is as much of a staple in sneaker history, as it is in every sneakerhead’s collection.  

History of Air

At the inception of the Air Max in 1978, the idea for the ‘Air’ part of the Air Max was to provide a more comfortable, cushioned sole which would change the way we wear sneakers throughout the years. Interestingly, the idea of adding air to the sneakers was from former NASA engineer Frank Ruby.

The Nike Air Tailwind was the first Air Max to release, and is one of the lesser worn silhouettes in the selection. However, in 2019 they came back into the limelight through a collaboration with Japanese streetwear brand, Undercover.

Following on from the Nike Air Tailwind, the Oregon-based sportswear giant released what is now regarded as the shoe most synonymous with the Nike Air line – the Nike Air Max 1. Designed by Tinker Hatfield – the designer who went onto design for the Jordan brand as well as various other silhouettes – the shoe initially was released in a University Red and White colourway.


Original Nike Air Max 1 Advert from 1987

Hailing from a background in architecture, Hatfield worked on a building for Nike before he worked on footwear, and was the designer behind the brand's Oregon campus in 1981. This, along with what he has called a ‘rebellious’ streak, saw Hatfield go against the design and marketing brief that Nike had given him – and he decided to design a shoe that was unlike anything that anyone had seen before.  

This decision led to the visible air unit being placed in the midsole of the shoe – an incredibly bold move that, at the time, was seen as controversial. Hatfield’s design choice was inspired by the infamous Centre Georges Pompidou in France. The building is considered an eyesore, in large part due to most of its structural elements being on show.

The Air Max 1 had a massive ripple effect on both sneaker design and the community. So much so, that on March 26th 2014, Nike would make the decision to commemorate its prized running model with the annual celebration known as Air Max Day – 27 years after the initial release of the sneaker, fans of the shoe and the Air Max lineup come together to celebrate all things Air.

This design carried throughout the Nike Air Max line and has never gone back. 1989 saw the release of the Air Max 1 Light, which was effectively the same silhouette as the Air Max 1 with a couple of the materials changed to create a lighter, more comfortable feel.  

Nike Air Max 90 Retro 'Infrared'

1990 saw the release of a second landmark Nike Air Max release with the Air Max 90 – the shoe was initially supposed to be called the Air Max 3. The sneaker took the look of the 1s and reworked it to fit the new generation. With a slightly larger midsole, along with new materials on the side of the shoe, it quickly became one of the most renowned sneakers in Nike's history, going on to be reworked by Virgil Abloh in the Off-White ‘The Ten’ collection released in 2017, before two other colourways were later released in 2019. 

The next big release in the Nike Air Max line was the Air Max 95’s. A shoe that fights for the top spot of the best Air Max of all time, with a completely new design and style. The first colourway of the Air Max 95 was released in 1995 (hence the numbering in the name) and came in the iconic Neon colourway.  

Sergio Lozano, designer of the Nike Air Max 95

Nike brought designer Sergio Lozano in to lead the design work on the shoe. Lozano had 4 years of design under his belt with a focus in tennis and training shoes which meant a fresh take on the Air Max. At the time the shoe was released, basketball was prevailing and sportswear was following this trend. Going against this, Lozano decided to create the Nike Air Max 95 to be a performance running shoe. 

Whereas before, previous sneakers had been inspired by buildings and reworking past iterations; the 95s were inspired by human anatomy. When you look at the shoe, you can see where the designer looked at the formation of bones and muscles that went into the shape of the sneaker with the ribbed panels on the upper along with the curver midsole made to look like ribs and a spine.  

Lastly, the next big change that the Air Max 95 brought was the new air unit. Creating a completely new designed air unit that looked as if it completely supported the sole of the shoe – the sneaker was a huge step forward for Nike.  

With Nike showing no signs of slowing down in 1997 they released the Nike Air Max 97. Another huge shoe in Nike’s history, designed by former football player Christian Tresser who had previously worked with Reebok on a variety of shoes including the Daytona DMXs. 

Nike Air Max 97 'Silver Bullet'

 Lovingly coined the ‘Silver Bullets’, the original inspiration behind the shoes colourway came from the silver Japanese high speed ‘bullet’ trains. When it came to the design of the sneaker, Tresser took notes from the shape of the train as well as the air waves flowing around the vehicle. 

With the new designer came a newly designed upper that, again, paved the way for upcoming performance sneakers to come. With this new design came yet another variation of the air unit on the midsole of the shoe. Tresser managed to create an air unit that actually supported the entire shoe and went around the whole midsole.  

While nowadays there’s a vast amount of 97 colourways on the market, the original colourways are still hard to come by. However, after its re-release in 2017, there have been a number of takes on the shoe with the ​off-White ‘The Ten’​ collection as well as the highly sought after ​Sean Wotherspoon​ Air Max 1/97’s released in 2018 for Air Max Day. 

1998 saw two releases in the Nike Air Max line. The Air Max 98 (obviously) and the Nike Air Max Plus (better known as the Nike TNs). 90s fashion was bold and brash with bright colours and mismatching tones. The 98s captured this style perfectly with it’s OG ‘Gundam’ colourway, featuring a bright blue and white upper with red details throughout the shoe. Being a slightly less discussed release, the sneaker had a collaboration with Supreme in 2016 which gave fans a new appreciation for the silhouette.  

Following the two releases in 1998, the Nike Air Max releases began to slow down slightly. There was the Nike Air Max Deluxe in 1999, the Air Max 2003 in (you guessed it) 2003 and the Air Max 360s in 2006.   

Nike Air Vapormax 'Pure Platinum' 

 It wasn’t then until 2017 that Nike released a new Air Max sneaker to it’s now huge fanbase. Taking a step in a completely new direction, the Nike Vapormax Flyknit was released. The Vapormax was a huge step forward for the Air Max lineage both technologically and aesthetically. Providing the wearer with a sock like Flyknit upper along with a full visible air unit which made up the entire sole of the sneaker.

The shoe was a big step in the technical side of performance running sneakers as well as the direction Nikes Air Max line is heading in. It took 7 years for the shoe to finally be created after it’s original idea was put onto paper but has since seen a variety of different colourways and designs including collaborations with ​Acronym​ and ​Cactus Flea Market​ .  

Nike Air Max 720

The latest shoe in what is widely considered Nike’s most successful sneaker line, is the Nike Air Max 720, released in 2019. Following in the footsteps of the big air bubble design on the Air Max 270 which was released the year before, the 720 came in during the ‘chunky sneaker’ trend. With the sneaker resting on an oversized air bubble and the materials used in the upper of the shoe, there is a strong futuristic feel here.  

Dylan Raasch and Jesi Small wanted to create an Air Max sneaker that had a focus on a more casual/lifestyle wearer. They hit the mark with this by releasing it in a variety of gradient colourways that took the mainstream sneaker market by storm at the time of release.  

While this shoe has got a futuristic feel that fits a more specific taste, the shoe stands for something more. Being made out of over 75% of recycled materials, the sneaker was released as a way to show the sustainable standpoint that Nike is taking in future releases. 

After all these different designs, it’s difficult to imagine where Nike will go next with the Air Max lineage. But as has been shown time and time again, there are always new and innovative ways to design sneakers. One thing is for sure, the Air Max will always have its stamp on the sneaker industry for years to come.