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    Air Max

    In the mid-eighties, Nike was looking for a way to update its revolutionary Air technology, which had been introduced during the previous decade. The intention was to create something new and exciting that would take Air to the next level of innovation. To achieve this, the brand turned to an unlikely individual – architect Tinker Hatfield. He had been with Nike since 1981, but his switch to shoe design in 1985 would change the course of his career, and the direction of Nike Air. 

    Tinker was expected to make the Air pockets smaller and more compact, but he did the opposite, changing the shape of the airbag to make it thicker and wider for increased support and stability. Inspired by cutting-edge building design, he also made the Air visible through a small window in the heel. It looked completely unique and gave the enlarged airbag room to flex and expand under the weight of the foot. Although Hatfield’s unexpected design was met with some resistance, he had enough support to get the shoe made, and so began the story of the Nike Air Max. 

    The Air Max system was a simple one that offered many benefits to runners and casual wearers alike. With the introduction of the window, larger airbags could be produced with more air inside for increased cushioning. It was also easy to change its size and shape so that Air technology could be put into different parts of the shoe. This increased volume and surface area spread the weight of the body through the sole of the foot, providing better energy absorption and impact protection. All of this made the Air Max sole ideal for heavy-duty activities and sports like basketball and tennis, which were played on demanding surfaces. 

    While designing the first Nike Air Max shoe, Tinker created sketches with different sized Air windows as his team worked to make one with the correct proportions. If the window became too large, it couldn’t hold enough weight, but if it was too small, it wouldn’t match the desired aesthetic. As a result, the window in the heel of the Air Max 1 was smaller than some of the proposed designs, but, crucially, it proved that the concept could be successfully implemented. Over time, the Air pockets and transparent windows expanded to provide increased padding while also revealing more and more Nike Air.

    In the years following the release of the Nike Air Max 1 in 1987, several more shoes were brought out with similar sized Air windows, most notably the Air Max 90, whose attention-grabbing heel cassette emphasized the presence of visible Air. Then, in 1991, Tinker innovated again when he created the Nike Air Max 180 in collaboration with Bruce Kilgore. Standing for 180 degrees, this number represented the fact that the airbag was visible on the bottom of the shoe from lateral to medial side. It was a unique innovation in itself which opened up room for even more Air to be added – an impressive 50% more than previous Air Max sneakers. 

    After this, the brand turned its focus to extending the Air window horizontally. In 1993, a new technique was introduced to make a larger, more flexible Air pocket that was visible around the entire heel of the Air Max 93. The evolution continued two years later with the launch of the Air Max 95, whose visible heel and forefoot Air incorporated airbags with different pressure ratings for the very first time. The air pocket in the heel had 4 interconnected bags: two oblong shapes down the sides at 25psi each with a square one in the middle and a half-moon shape at the back, both of which were inflated to 5psi. This technique meant that the air pressure could be set to different levels depending on the sport to make Air sneakers that would suit a variety of activities.

    The size of the visible airbag was increased even further in the late 90s to create the very first full-length Air midsole on the Air Max 97. It had a window that extended from forefoot to heel, along with a second smaller window that wrapped around the back of the heel. Inside, it consisted of two outer tubes that were connected across the middle by narrower air-filled bands and a small quarter circle at the heel to provide Air padding to all parts of the foot. 

    Just a year after this release, the charismatic Air Max Plus was launched. It featured a series of small windows around the edge of the midsole and Air units with different pressure levels. It was the first in the Nike Air Max line to use the new Tuned Air technology, which combined Air cushioning with mechanical parts called “hemispheres”. These added structure and support wherever they were inserted, allowing the designers to vary the level of cushioning across the foot. On the Plus, they were placed in the heel, which meant that the pressure in the airbags could be reduced, producing softer cushioning and increased stability. 

    As the Air Max entered the 2000s, Nike’s designers worked on getting the most out of Air technology. By 2003, they had managed to reduce the foam element of the midsole to an extremely thin slice on the Air Max 2003. This paved the way for the first Air Max to have no foam at all – 2006’s Air Max 360. Three years in the making, its sole unit was crafted using a new method called thermoforming, which made it possible to alter the softness and rigidity of the Air Max unit. The resulting airbag looked completely different to previous iterations. It had a tubular cushion running around the edge of the foot with an indentation in the toe, and a series of oblong-shaped indentations under the center of the foot. This produced an incredibly flexible shoe that was also strong enough to offer impact protection from heel to toe, removing the need for any foam. At just over 340g, it was almost 60g lighter than the previous model, making it the lightest Nike Air Max ever. To prove its structural stability, Nike put the sole unit through serious testing, with one test runner traveling over 1,000km in the Air Max 360. Its sole remained in excellent condition, proving the durability of the new design.

    By this point, as Nike had already succeeded in constructing a full-length Air window, the focus turned to adding innovations to other parts of the Air Max silhouette. For example, the Air Max 2015 was enhanced with a range of futuristic technologies. It contained a fully-engineered mesh upper, something not seen on an Air Max before, alongside Flywire cables and reverse swooshes. In addition, the Air unit was refined through the incorporation of a new style of flex groove that made the whole thing far more flexible.  

    However, in 2017, the brand found a way to increase the size of the Nike Air Max unit even further. After an eye-watering 7 years of development, Nike’s expert designers finally managed to construct an entire sole unit that was full of Air without any need for a midsole. Appearing on the revolutionary Air VaporMax, this groundbreaking feature was extremely complex, using TPU lugs like tiny pistons to generate bounce and return energy to the wearer. It truly was the ultimate Air Max sole, providing not only the feeling of walking on air, but also the look – its transparent housing making it completely see-through. 

    With an Air Max unit that could fully replace the sole, it could be said that Nike’s mission to offer the feeling of walking on air was complete. But the brand continued to work on its Air Max technology. In 2018, the tallest ever Air unit was added to the Air Max 270, whose Air heel stood at 32mm. Just one year later, Nike broke its own record on the Air Max 720, with a heel that towered over others at 38mm tall. 

    New designs continued to be launched into the 2020s, beginning with the Air Max 2090, which gave a nod to the iconic Air Max 90 to mark its 30th anniversary. In 2021, the Air Max Dawn came out with yet another take on the Nike Air Max design through its use of a pill-shaped window, which evoked the original Air Max 1. Along with such heritage aspects, it also had its own unique look forged by the exposed front portion of the airbag and its opening that spanned the width of the midsole. The following year, Nike continued to develop its collection of Tailwind designs with the Air Max TW. Honoring the shoe that first brought Nike Air cushioning to the world, before the days when it was visible, the TW featured an enhanced Air Max unit in the heel with five bulbous windows revealing the Air inside, giving it an eccentric look. Then, on Air Max Day 2023, Nike stepped things up once more with the Air Max Pulse. Taking the Air unit from the 270, the Pulse included a point-loaded cushioning system that, through the use of a plastic clip, helped to distribute the weight of this plush sole unit to key points across the bottom of the foot, delivering increased bounce and yet more comfort.   

    The development of the Air Max line has involved some of Nike’s most celebrated designers and produced some of its most memorable designs. Although the brand has already achieved its goal of building a shoe that allows people to run entirely on a bed of air, there is no doubt more to come from this illustrious collection. The iconic technology is still widely seen in shoes worn by sports stars, artists, celebrities and other fans all over the world. In fact, it has been so impactful that Nike dedicates a whole day to celebrating the legendary line every year. Held on March 26th, Air Max Day often heralds the release of a retro design, such as the Air Max 1 that was launched at the inaugural event in 2014, or even a completely new Air Max creation. The brand’s passion for the line ensures that the remarkable innovation of the Nike Air Max continues to support its wearers with that unique feeling of walking on air.

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