Nike Air Max Plus

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    Nike Air Max Plus

    Nike Air Max Plus

    464 articles

    A shoe that once pushed the limits of footwear technology and still inspires to this day.

    Air Max Plus

    In 1997, Nike were in the midst of an important collaboration with Foot Locker. The aim was to create a shoe that would feature a breakthrough Air technology, but the retailer was unconvinced by more than 15 of Nike’s preliminary sketches. Meanwhile, a young designer by the name of Sean McDowell was on holiday in Florida enjoying its beautiful beaches, swaying palm trees and vast sunsets. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but this simple vacation would soon provide the inspiration for the Nike Air Max Plus – a unique design that delighted Foot Locker.

    After returning from his holiday, McDowell was offered a job with Nike, and his first assignment was to work on the Air Max Plus. On discovering that the project was named Sky Air, after Joe Skyar – the man who had come up with the sneaker’s Tuned Air cushioning system – he was filled with inspiration. These simple words sparked memories of his time in Florida, taking him back to the sketches he had drawn of the colors shifting in the sky at dusk and the gentle movement of the palm trees in the breeze.

    McDowell transformed his drawings into novel concepts that were introduced across the Air Max Plus. The TPU exoskeleton, for example, reflected the shape of Florida’s palm trees, lending structure and stability to the upper. The shape of these thin strips of thermoplastic was informed by McDowell’s desire to give the wearer an interesting view of the shoe from the top as they wore it. As a result, he designed them to stretch up its sides and curve around each other rather than meeting in a straight line across the top of the foot. As well as thinking of how the wearer might perceive it, he also considered how the sneaker might affect the running community. As a runner himself, he found it odd that contemporary running shoes only reflected light around the heel when it was standard practice to run facing the traffic. His solution was to introduce reflective bars up the front, from toe to tongue. At less than 340 grams, it was also ultra-lightweight, with other running-specific features like flex grooves in the forefoot and a performance outsole making sure the Plus stood out as a runner.

    Beneath all of the running tech, though, lay a piece of technology that would bring the Air Max Plus worldwide renown – Tuned Air. This innovative system evenly distributed the cushioning across the length of the foot through the use of so-called hemispheres. These tough half-moon structures made the shoe incredibly comfortable, something Nike wanted McDowell to broadcast to the world as clearly as possible. A week into his work, with the concept well underway, he was told to find the now iconic hexagonal Tn logo a prominent place on the design. This stylish little emblem contained Tn Air branding and a tiny swoosh inside a red circle in the top right hand corner. McDowell added one to the heel along with another on the sole, directing the wearer’s attention to the groundbreaking tech it signified. Only housed in the heel and the forefoot, these Tn air pockets left space in between for another of McDowell’s ideas. Here, he placed a distinctive shank inspired by a whale’s tail emerging from the sea. This gave the feature an unconventional shape that made it one of the most captivating aspects of how the sneaker looked.

    With the technical elements of the Air Max Plus settled, it was time to decide on its colors. In an homage to the fades of earlier Nike designs like the Nike Omega Flame he had run in as a child and the Air Max 95 Neon colourway, McDowell opted to use bold color gradients. Once more, he wanted to tell a story taken from that holiday in Florida, this time of the shifting tones he had seen in the sky as it moved from night to day. He did so across three colourways: the Sunset, which represented the colors of the twilight hours, the Night Sky, a much darker shoe with hints of red as the stars, and the Sunrise, whose outer moved from warm orange to bright yellow.

    With that, the design of the Nike Air Max Plus was complete, but it still had to be manufactured. This stage proved challenging as those charged with producing the components struggled to bring McDowell’s forward-thinking ideas into reality. He was initially told that the TPU welds could not be produced. On hearing the news, he took it upon himself to fly out to the factory where they were being made to solve the issue. Everyone was relieved when his suggestion to use three individual welds instead of one single piece worked. Next, he was informed that his dynamic color fades were unworkable. Once again, McDowell himself had the answer, proposing a sublimation technique that involved printing the lightest color first before gradually layering the darker shades over the top. The process was a success, and the Air Max Plus was finally ready to be shown to the team at Foot Locker.

    They were so impressed that they decided to forego the usual product testing procedures, taking the prototype straight to their nearest store, where it was put on display. Within minutes, the unique sneaker had drawn a crowd keen to discover everything about it. Foot Locker had their answer – this was the design they had been waiting for.

    When the Air Max Plus launched in 1998, it achieved global success. In Paris, the design was very popular, and the people began calling it “le requin” (the shark) in an alternative interpretation of McDowell’s shank idea. Elsewhere, it went by the simple moniker “Tn” thanks to Nike’s suggestion to include the memorable logo on the sneaker. Its popularity saw the Plus worn on the streets of London and New York, even garnering fans in the fashion world. It truly was a shoe of worldwide renown.

    McDowell’s ability to think outside the box led him to break a number of 90s design conventions with the Nike Air Max Plus. His innovations imbued it with technical prowess and a compelling aesthetic that appealed to sneaker fans the world over. In the decades since its release, this remarkable shoe has been reimagined in countless colourways, securing its place as one of the most important sneakers in Nike’s history.

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