Never Done Imagining
Department of Nike Archives
Unwrap the behind-the-scenes stories, surprising moments and daring decisions that enabled Air to transcend culture against all odds – and get inspired by it to create your own iconic iterations.
Air has spawned looks, lyrics and genres, and taken athletes to new heights. It has redefined what a shoe should look like, and what a shoe can be. And yet, it could have flopped rather than flown at so many moments.
A series of quotes from around the project from those who were unconvinced by the the projects potential/chance of success.
“Hell, we didn’t know what we were doing.”
“That’ll never work. The bags will blow up.”
—Tinker quoting anecdotally people’s perception
It began with an engineer – Frank Rudy. A man not necessarily with a plan, but an idea for a semi-permeable membrane that could trap a large-molecule gas inside. However, he initially used Air to enhance the fit and support of ski boots, rather than power a more comfortable and performance-enhancing running ride. Having pivoted to serve runners, subsequent steps were not the smooth sailing that the intrepid innovator might have expected either, with prototypes exploding in one early pitch.
“Everyone thought it was a bad idea.”
The Nike relationship almost never happened as well, with Rudy only catching a brand representative with minutes to spare at a footwear convention. His initial call to co-founder Phil Knight was made from a back hallway, and it was a simple 20-minute test run weeks later, in a pair of Cortez shoes with an Air demo stuffed inside, that gained his approval.
It would be easy to say the rest is history, but many more twists and turns were to come.
The hand-welded prototypes that would blow out miles into long test runs, leaving wearers to limp back in near-freezing temperatures.
The military-level secrecy – enforced by a local biker gang – Rudy insisted on, that meant only a handful of people knew the process end-to-end.
The decision to release Nike’s first Air shoe Tailwind in silver paint, which caused the shoe to fall apart within weeks.
The alternative innovations that never made it: from Spider, a plastic honeycomb structure, to Corrugated Air, which resembled the walls of a cardboard box.
The glorious failures that made Air possible. One of the early Air Max prototypes tested in 1986.
The first versions of visible Air, created as early as 1980, that were only stumbled upon when a plastics salesman visited Nike to query them about polyurethane, and bumped into Frank Rudy sitting in the same room.
The proclamation by some execs, in response to an early edition of Air Max, that it was ‘a cheap marketing gimmick’.
The unusual inspirations behind key designs; from ribs and lungs leading to the Air Max 95, to mountain bikes and water ripples ending up as integral to iconic AM97s.
At first, many questioned Vapormax’s bubbled design, or 360 degrees of Air (AM360 itself a crucial innovation, with nitrogen replacing greenhouse gas SF6 to fill soles). Both went on to be hugely successful.
Air innovator Bill Peterson recounts the team were told not to talk to people outside of Nike, ‘because they’ll find out how stupid we are’. But without them, the mindset of being bold and daring in theory, and learning and iterating from reality, would not remain to this day. Join us in the video above and at iconic locations to peel back more layers of the Air journey, and add the next chapter in the story with Nike by You.