Thursday, April 18

How the First Air Jordan Was the Sneaker Icon

Almost single pair of Air Jordan 1s has a backstory. The iconic Bred colorway symbolizes a budding athlete turning into a national celebrity; they are the mainstay of Michael Jordan’s marketing campaign and a large portion of the culture that has come to be known as “sneaker culture.” The Shattered Backboards are based on the outfit he donned when he, well, broke the backboard in an exhibition game in Italy in 1985. Remember when the world’s best basketball player ever took a year off to ride the bus in the lower leagues? when’s what the Barons are all about. The Lettermans are a playful homage to the colors of the tracksuit that a teenage Michael once wore to the late-night talk show host when he expressed his opinion that the Breds were ugly.

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The first vintage set of shoes has an abandoned tale.

Releasing pairs of Air Jordans that had been out of production for a long time was something Nike did hundreds of times to great fanfare in the next twenty-five years, starting in 1994 when Michael Jordan, having just retired, started a new career with the White Sox farm system. But when the corporation did it for the first time, nobody seemed to mind. For the first time since they were discontinued in 1986, Nike made pairs of the iconic Bred and Chicago hues accessible to the general public in celebration of the tenth anniversary of their flagship sneaker.

Given that new shoes didn’t cost much more at the time, perhaps the $80 price tag was too much for an old pair of shoes. Perhaps it was because Jordan was out playing baseball. Perhaps it was the abundance of other sneaker alternatives available, such as Michael Jordan’s most recent model, the Air Jordan 10. Shoes were arranged on shelves. Shops started cutting the price until it was $19.99. And then they visited places that weren’t renowned for stocking the coveted sneakers, as Kenneth Myers Jr. remembers.

“I wouldn’t even say they were outlet-bound,” remarks Myers Jr., a 25-year-old AJ1 enthusiast who started the mr_unloved1s Instagram account and credits the 1994 retros for igniting his passion for shoes. “You were going to locate them at Sears or JCPenney, depending on where you lived.”

The narrative is unimaginable now, as the AJ1s are more significant than ever for Jordan Brand, which separated into its own company under the Nike umbrella in 1997, and the identical retros that were formerly on sale for $19.99 now fetch 100 times that price. The company announced its first billion-dollar quarter in November, driven by sales of two sneakers: the Air Jordan 34, the newest addition to the trademark line, and the original Jordan 1, which saw the release of at least 80 iterations in 2019. (To put things in perspective, the Jordan 4 was the second-most-released retro in 2019 with 18 drops.) The demand for the timeless design has surpassed all previous levels, even at the period when the sneaker revolutionized the footwear business thirty-five years ago. Furthermore, demand could only rise when The Last Dance rekindles excitement for basketball’s favorite son.

According to Jordan Brand vice president Gentry Humphrey, “it’s very difficult to separate Michael’s world from the footwear world that we are a part of.” “They are incredibly synonymous.”

With new iterations dropping practically every day, the Jordan 1 is back at the top of the shoe game. There are variations for everyone from high-end luxury pieces like the upcoming Dior AJ1, which is said to retail for $2,000, to everyday sneakers like the Jordan 1. However, how did a 35-year-old model end up becoming the most sought-after footwear in the competition? It turns out that, similar to the recent excitement around Michael Jordan, the key to creating myths is not just identifying brilliance but also coming up with fresh narratives that explain the stories that support it.

As it rolls toward the man, he’s the only one on the playground court. When it gets to him, he catches it and dribbles between his knees in one motion before starting to run. He flicks it up with his foot like a soccer ball. The sound of jet engines fades in, as the camera moves into slow motion. In a matter of seconds, he’s airborne and at cruising altitude with his left arm extended. In the subsequent picture, we observe him smashing the ball over the hoop while gazing skyward. He asks, “Who says man was not meant to fly?” in a voice-over that appears to be coming from heaven yet there are just clouds visible on the screen.

Nike used this method to tell the Michael Jordan narrative to the six locations where his trademark sneaker was first released in April 1985. Although Jordan wasn’t the first basketball player or sports athlete to have his own sneaker, and Nike was already well-known for its advertisements, the campaign wasn’t innovative in and of itself. However, when you take into account the consequences and what came after, it was really revolutionary.

The business desperately needed a success story in 1984. Reebok was gaining ground on Nike as the latter’s sales of trainers surpassed those of running shoes. The situation was so bad that Phil Knight, the chairman and CEO of Nike, began his yearly letter to shareholders with the words, “Orwell was right: 1984 was a tough year.” But there was one silver lining: Michael Jordan, a rookie, signed the richest shoe deal in history with Nike that summer. There was a chance. The inexperienced athlete had to win Rookie of the Year, become an All-Star, or average 20 points per game in his first three years of the five-year, $2.5 million contract, which contained an out clause for the firm in the event that he failed to meet performance targets. However, there was also a potential that the deal might pay off handsomely. All Nike needed was a product to justify that expenditure.