Nike Air Max 97, a Love Letter

March 11, 2022 by Joey Birch

Nike Air Max 97, a Love Letter

Few sneakers stand as pillars in the timeline of a brand's catalogue and even fewer manage to create huge waves within generations, influencing the lives of wearers forcing them to adapt to the new normal that they propose. 

Nike Air Max lineage

The Nike Air Max line, as a whole, is one of, if not the, most famous sneaker lineages in history, closely followed (or following depending on your stance) by Jordan Brand. While the Air Max line was begun in 1978 with the Air Tailwind, it wasn’t until 1987 that the line took off after the release of the Air Max 1. When Tinker Hatfield made the first sneaker with a visible Air Unit, inspired by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, he may not have known that what he had created would change the world forever. 

Following Tinker Hatfield’s move away from the Air Max line to focus on performance basketball footwear, including the Air Jordan 5, the responsibility was handed over to Sergio Lazano to keep Air Max on its trailblazing path. 

Original Air Max 95 advertisement, 1995

Lazano, who was working on the ACG branch of Nike during the mid ‘90s, hit the ground running when he created the Air Max 95 which was inspired by the human anatomy using the human spine and rib cage as the inspiration for the shape of the upper. 

While the design of the Air Max 95 was something that no one has ever seen before, it was the development of the infamous Air Unit that showcased Nike’s innovation, which was continuing at an alarming rate. Displaying what was designed to look like a full-length air unit, the 110s, as they’re lovingly known in the UK, kicked the European sneaker culture into a frenzy turning heads and garnering questions with the added speed lacing system creating a shoe that felt like it shouldn't be released for another 10 years.

OG Nike Air Max 96

Following on from 95’s, the next big release came in the form of the Air Max 96. Translating Lazano's history with outdoor wear during his time at ACG, the design was inspired by ocean waves with deep blue leather panels in conjunction with white mesh running along the upper. Carrying over similar design features from the Air Max 95, it wasn’t until the following year, in 1997, that Nike was about to take a huge next step.

Released, as the name suggests, in 1997, the Air Max 97 is, technically, the 14th addition to the Air Max lineage designed by Christian Tresser. A designer whose roots originally lay in creating footwear for footballers, Tresser was always looking to push the boundaries of his work. Before he took his role at Nike, he was using Reebok's innovative Instapump technology and carbon fibre footplates within the boots that would then go on to be worn in the 1994 World Cup.

Upon his initial shift to Nike, Tresser was based in Montebelluna, Italy, which is deemed the location of the brand's master craftsmen to this day with a focus on producing football boots. It is here that the first ‘Mercurial’ was produced. Created from a single piece of material. The boot, once again, proved the designer's ability to push the boundaries.

Following Tresser's standout success with his work in Nike’s football branch, he was then drafted in for this take on the Nike Air Max. What he created, has been a key talking point in the history of sneaker design to this day.

As with Air Max 95 and 96, the 97 brought a brand new take on what an Air Max could be. With the key inspiration taken from the Japanese Bullet train, the silhouette of the shoe shouts speed and aerodynamics. A lower cut to the Air Max 96, the 97 hugs the top of your foot thanks to the speed lacing system, cleverly hidden beneath the upper of the shoe to provide a further streamlined look.

Once again, Tresser's time at ACG came into play when designing the main configuration of the shoe, with the layered materials in the form of waves cascading around the upper, inspired by water droplets. "The nature of it was water dropping into a pond. The water would drop and radiate out to the Air unit" Tresser describes when speaking about his inspiration. 

While many believe the sole inspiration behind the sneaker's colourway was from the Japanese Bullet train, Christian Tresser describes how he was inspired by the colour of mountain bikes, telling Nike: "Mountain bike components and mountain bikes at the time had metal on metal finishes like aluminium and polished titanium".

This distinct finish is what gave the Air Max 97 the ‘neck-breaking’ status it has to this day. Varying silver tones with each layer running up the sneaker from the Air Unit, with 3M hits on the 360 piping curling around the shoe, and hints of red from the bold Nike Swoosh on the medial and lateral sides of the sneaker along with the tongue - the shoe was like no other meaning people couldn’t help but stare if they saw them going past (aka neck-breaking). 

While the design of the sneaker made its mark in history as one of the most iconic of all time, it’s the further advancements in the Air Unit technology which the 97 is arguably best known for. Providing a full length ‘bubble’ underfoot, it was as if the wearer was walking on air. A concept later interpreted by the Brooklyn based design label ‘MSCHF’ with the INRI Air Max 97 Custom.

In the space of just 10 months of being made the Lead Footwear Designer at Nike in Beaverton, Tresser designed and released the Air Max 97, the Mercurial as well as the Air Zoom Spiridon, named after Spiridon Louis an Olympic marathon runner in 1896.

When discussing his incredible portfolio of work in an interview with Adsum, he says: “Ahh… gosh. It’s kind of crazy to have some impact that way. I don’t know. I try not to overthink it… I just get these ideas, work on them, execute, and move on from them. I have a big appetite for innovation and design, especially in footwear. I keep trying to create and keep going. I’m like a shark in the water, I have to keep swimming or I die.”

Much like a number of the Air Max models, the 97 has acted as the canvas for several collaborations which has since reached grail status for many collectors. Releases including the Union ‘One Time Only’ in 2005 which saw the Air Max 97 and the AM 360 fussed together, a Skepta collaboration from 2017 which took its colourway inspiration from the Air Tuned Max and the 2017 Cristiano Ronaldo ‘Golden Patchwork’ which was inspired by Ronaldo's childhood, but was also a fond nod to Tresser’s time in football boot design previously.

Following the release of the Air Max 97, the sneaker’s first retro came on its 20th anniversary in 2017 as part of Air Max Day; lovingly rereleasing with the original design. Now, in 2022, rumours have started to swirl of another retro of the classic shoe in honour of its 25th anniversary.

While little is currently known about the release at the time of writing this (just two weeks before Air Max Day), fans of the shoe are eagerly waiting with baited breathe on any detail that Nike release ahead of the rollout. 

Nevertheless, what is for certain is that the impact the Nike Air Max 97 has had will undoubtedly ripple through many generations to come.

For all the latest on Nike Air Max as well as Kick Game’s Air Max celebrations, stay tuned.