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It’s impossible to dive into the expansive lexicon of sneakers — New Balance 990s, Adidas Sambas, Converse All Stars — without immediately diving headfirst into Nike. The Swoosh has produced and marketed some of the most iconic shoes of all time, from the hallowed Air Jordan one to the record-breaking Vaporfly. One style, in particular, holds a cultural cache unparalleled by even the most popular of kicks: the Nike Air Max.
What is Nike Air Max?
In 1978, Nike debuted the Air Tailwind, the first sneaker to utilize NASA aerospace engineer Marion Frank Rudy’s (or Frank Rudy) “air bag” technology, a process that captured dense gases in rubber membranes, which would then be used in a shoe’s midsole to help reduce the impact of steps on one’s body. Sounds like something right out of a movie, right? The technology would go on to become one of Nike’s most important inventions, spawning a series of sneakers that includes some of the most iconic and recognizable silhouettes — many of them falling under the Air Max umbrella.
Since the release of the very first Air Max in 1987, fittingly called the Air Max 1, there have been innumerable releases and versions in the decades since, some entirely new or others just slight tweaks of past designs. And while the shoe was designed with performance in mind, and still is, they’ve far surpassed their intention of being just a running shoe, having found their way into the closets of runners, hypebeasts, sneakerheads and those who just appreciate a damn good sneaker.
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We’ve compiled a guide to help you better understand the variety of Air Max sneakers that exist, from the original to more recent styles like the Pulse and re-released Penny, with occasional mention of previous styles that have yet to be retro’d (here’s hoping, though). So go ahead and see what all the hype is about — you won’t regret it.
Nike’s Air Max Sneakers: Which One Is Right For You?
Arriving in 1987 thanks to Tinker Hatfield, the very first Air Max gleaned inspiration from the architecture of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, specifically the building’s exposed interior, which is reflected in the shoe’s visible Air technology.
Three years later, Tinker Hatfield set out to completely rework the Air Max 1, seeking to further emphasize the Air technology with bold accents surrounding the window. The sneaker continues to endure not only as one of the most popular silhouettes among the Air Max collection, but shoes in general, finding favor year after year among sneakerheads and non-sneakerheads alike.
In the early 1990s, Nike found themselves wanting to depart from the original design of the Air Max in an effort to breathe new life into the line. Designer Sergio Lozano was granted complete creative control, and from that the Air Max 95 was born, a sneaker inspired by Oregon’s nature and the process of erosion, the upper panels, which typically fade from light to dark colors, reflecting this process. Lozano also cites human anatomy as inspiration, the tendons and muscles of one’s foot inspiring the upper while the rear view of the sneaker mimicking a spine.
Initially thought to be inspired by the bullet trains of Japan (hence the original grey colorway of the shoe being dubbed ‘Silver Bullet’) designer Christian Tressler found inspiration for the sneaker in the ripples made by drops of water in a pond, recreating this effect in the layered uppers. The 97 was the first sneaker to not only introduce full-length cushioning but a hidden lacing system too.
Just one year after the release of the sleek Air Max 97, Nike went in a bulkier direction for the 98, keeping the same fully-cushioned sole while trading the streamlined uppers of its predecessor for ones that were slightly more substantial and busy. It wasn’t long before the brand released a new iteration of the sneaker, the 98 TL, featuring a fully-visible Air sole and redesigned uppers. Despite the OG 98 experiencing a renaissance of sorts in recent years, the TL version has yet to be retro’d.
Following the lackluster reception to the AM98, the Air Max Plus was released in the same year of 1998, receiving a more positive response. Designer Sean McDowell’s inspiration for the sneaker arrived long before he even started working at Nike: a sketch of Florida at dusk eventually served as the main reference for the design. The sneaker marked the debut of the brand’s Tuned Air technology — whereas the goal of the previous Air models was to feature as much of the Air technology as possible, the Air Max Plus favored hemispheres (the half-spheres found in the sole and Air unit) which would work to reduce pressure in the heel.
With Air Maxes having long been used for purposes other than running, Nike decided to make the first-ever lifestyle Air Max, the 270. Inspired by the AM93 and AM180, the shoe features 270 degrees of visibility in the Air Unit which also happens to measure as the tallest unit yet, clocking in at 32mm. Following the release of the 270 came the 270 React, which kept the silhouette of the original and combined it with the brand’s React foam cushioning.
Deemed “the shoe of the future” and released 30 years after the Air Max 90, the 2090 sought to streamline its predecessor’s silhouette and become representative of the evolution of sneaker design at Nike. Keeping the mudguard, horizontal fins on the molded part and framed window of the Air Unit, the designers at Nike looked to the initial inspiration of speed (the 90 was inspired by Italian racing cars) while keeping in mind a lightweight structure. The 2090 has 200 percent more air than the 90, pushing Nike one step closer to their goal of creating a sneaker that feels like you’re walking on nothing at all.
Released for Air Max Day 2021, the Pre-Day was designed with retro-jogging styles like the Nike Daybreak serving as primary inspiration. A revolutionary exposed-air heel unit, the first of its kind, is a new incarnation of a timeless style, and the shoe’s arresting aesthetic, a blend of the late-1970s and the 2020s, highlights a simplified design ethos that minimizes material waste.
Paying tribute to the classic Air Max models of the 2000s, the Air Max Genome sports full-length air units and a low-profile reminiscent of the older styles. Engineered for casual comfort, the genome married the technical strengths of the Air Max with Nike’s foray into street style.
Landing somewhere between moon boot and dad shoe, the Air Max TW melds past and present with a ’90s-inspired silo and giant windowed heel air bubbles. The gradient striping is a direct nod to the vintage Nike styles, but don’t get it twisted — the TW is very of the now.
What do you get when you take the ’98 Air Max Plus and stick it on a bubbly VaporMax sole? This shoe, naturally. A bold design, the floating cage and revolutionary VaporMax Air technology might not be for everyone, but there’s zero denying the comfort — or visibility — that comes inherent to this Air Max update.
One of two most recent Air Max releases, the Pulse was designed for pay homage to the London music scene (part of a bigger push to embrace the likes of Blokecore and terrace culture), and Nike has done an admittedly bang-on job. The textile-wrapped midsole complements an otherwise Air Max 1-leaning silhouette, and point-loaded Air cushioning—revamped from the incredibly plush Air Max 270— sustains the signature Air Max look without compromising on innovation.
Penny Hardaway is back, baby. Nike’s replica of the hoops original is accurate to a trey, from a jeweled Swoosh to the wing piping on the sides. We’re not saying you’ll immediately be able to dunk after lacing these up…but we’re not not saying that, either.
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