• Denis Yong

Air Max In The Dance

Updated: May 23, 2020

Certain shoes have always been stylistic signifiers that’s often reflective of a certain scene or subculture, before eventually transcending it all together. Throughout the years, dance music and Air Max have always had a romance, and more.

The Hacienda, Manchester, 1988. Photo by Peter J. Walsh

Starting out at the infamous The Haçienda nightclub, Manchester — deemed as the "cathedral to house in Britain" — the acid house movement began to flourish from 1988. This is notably one year after the Air Max 1 was released — a defining moment in Nike’s shoe design history debuting its revered visible Air unit, which marked the start of the Air Max product line. Acid house’s piano-driven, europium house sound trickled out of the club’s doors and down into the rest of the UK during the Second Summer of Love.


It formed a new culture sweeping the club scene that gave rise to countless subgenres as the ‘90s became the decade electronic dance music went big. From hardcore to jungle to drum and bass, rave came to conquer the world. Not only was there a cultural renaissance happening musically, but in terms of style too. Unlike many clubs at the time, The Haçienda didn’t implement a rigorous dress code (button-down 'going-out' shirts and dress shoes — 'smart casual' so to speak), so club-goers were able to dress as they pleased in freedom of expression and movement.


“The music had changed the way people dressed. Baggy trousers, t-shirts and Kickers, a floppy, summery fashion,” New Order’s Peter Hook, the co-owner of the club, wrote in his memoir ‘The Hacienda: How to Not Run a Club’. “Funnily enough, kids still wear it today. It’s like dressing as a punk.” The sonic landscape and Air Max ran parallel with one another, before the two sparked a certain romance.


A new decade dawned and rave culture began to really kick off in the UK. Club-goers were dubbed as the ‘warehouse party generation’ by the media, a term to describe the intoxicating and addictive thrill of being part of a movement in which nothing mattered but the weekend. It may very well be classed as hedonism, but night culture has always been about congregations — meetings of like-minds, attitudes and ideas. Here, music is the ice-breaker just how most youth subcultures are built on a solid foundation of music.


Down in London at Heaven nightclub, Rage — the seminal weekly Thursday club night between October 1988-1993 — emerged into a musical environment buzzing with the illict energy of acid house. It was where eventual drum and bass pioneering duo, Fabio and Grooverider, eventually mixed hardcore house by adding sped-up, chopped-up breakbeats and ever-more rumbling basslines — elements that birthed an urban dance genre with jungle around 1991 which became a fully formed genre in 1993. Fabio and Grooverider were also formative to B2B (back-to-back) DJ sets by complementing each other by going in at 15 minutes a time.

Raver at Rage, Heaven in London, 1990. Photo by Dave Swindells

After two previous releases that didn’t quite catch the attention of their audience, shoe designer Tinker Hatfield finally stuck gold with his third attempt — the Air Max III. It stomped onto the scene at the start of the decade and is one of the most interesting shoes of the Air Max series simply because of its colourway: Hyvent Orange (eventually better known as Infrared). By framing the Air unit with a bright colour, focus was solely on the function of the shoe. The colour was also applied to the heart-shaped backtab, both acting as a serendipitous touch for a fruitful love. For the shoe’s upper, a Duromesh upper was introduced for additional performance and motion.


The Air Max III’s sports performance aspect on the road translated onto dance floors. It was unlike any other running shoes at the time. Built like a tank — being slightly bulkier, the look worked quite well under loose fitting bottoms — with elevated comfort and maximum cushioning with encapsulated forefoot Air (which is not seen or felt in retros today), it was perfect for the rising scene of ravers who’d be on their feet all night. Music brought people together, but it’s not a full-blown subculture until there’s a shared sense of style. The success of this shoe was so dominant in the early 90s that Nike decided to change the name in 2001 to its year of birth — the Air Max 90.

Tinker Hatfield designed its successor for the following year. A sleeker version of the Air Max 90, the Nike Air Max Classic BW employed the same sole unit but with a larger window to better the heel’s Air bag. This resulted with it being colloquially known as the 'Big Window'. Sandwiched between the releases of the Air Max 90 and Air 180 (released in 1992 and certainly not an Air Max model as considered nowadays), it wasn’t the most popular or respected model, but like any other Air Max, it had its own unconventional character while continuing to pass down its family’s reputation for excellence.


The BW became a cult classic amongst the gabber scene. Derived from techno music having reached Amsterdam in the late ‘80s, it was producers and DJs down the country in Rotterdam evolving the sound in the early ‘90s. Created as a reaction to the seemingly pretentious house scene of Amsterdam, Rotterdam formed their own specific sound, and gabber emerged as an industrial subgenre of hardcore techno. It’s a genre not for the faint hearted with beats faster than a pneumatic drill and stadium rock-sized levels of distortion, generally between 160-220 bpm.


The sound formed scenes across the rest of the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Belgium. Gabbers fused style influences from old school hip-hop and British skinhead culture. Looks consisted of shaved heads (it’s easier to wick sweat from a bald head) for guys, black bomber jackets and colourful tracksuits mainly by Italian high-end tennis brand, Australian by L’Alpina. The absolute essential to complete any outfit was a pair of Air Max. Again, they proved to be popular since they were considered to be really easy to dance in, but fundamentally its all about style. Various Air Maxes such as the 90 and 95 made appearances in the gabber scene, but the BW became the staple shoe.


Pulling up into the mid-90s, both jungle and drum and bass were taking shape in the UK. Another genre was forming with the inception of early UK garage. UK influences start morphing with the US garage/soulful house sound. It becomes slightly faster, tougher and more focused on the bassline while still keeping a lot of US influence. This genre runs parallel with Nike’s next masterpiece.

Clubber in Nike Air Max Triax 94 at drum and bass rave, Hysteria, Santuary in Milton Keynes, 1995. Photo by Tristan O’Neill

The Air Max 95 arrived and seemed to be as forward facing as the music. Conceived by upcoming footwear designer Sergio Lozano, this Air Max (like others) saw to a few firsts. It was a move away from Hatfield’s restrained designs to flamboyant styling — a sneaker with its radical new design that introduced a forefoot Air bubble. Taking design cues from the human anatomy, the sneaker saw the Swoosh placement no longer take centre stage and positioned it as a signature, a sign off on the shoe. As many runners were predominately white with white midsoles at the time, they got dirty really fast. So Lozano flipped the colours, starting with a black sole to hide the dirt then work the shoe’s upper into white via its coveted layered gradient. The latter was perfect for ravers who inevitably would scuff their shoes too.


To top it all off — just how the infrared worked on the Air Max 90 — bright yellow accents emphasised the Air Max 95’s technology. However, it wasn't the first runner to employ a neon hue according to Lozano. "The neon yellow was not new. It was obviously part of our colour palette. It was also part of our heritage, you know? It's part of Nike racing heritage.” (The colour was previously employed on Andre Agassi’s signature shoe, the Nike Air Tech Challenge III (1990) and Borussia Dortmund’s iconic home football shirts throughout the early 90s too.)

Italian graffiti writer. Photo by Sha Ribeiro.

A couple of years later was the next great chapter in the Air Max series; the Air Max 97. Created by young designer Christian Tressor, his previous experience had largely been in creating football boots — as well as another cult favourite, the Nike Spiridon. The shoe introduced Nike's first full length Air unit and its initial silver colourway was actually inspired by chrome mountain bikes, not the commonly mistaken Japanese bullet train since it became the nickname, the 'Silver Bullet'.


Italians adopted the Air Max 97 with the swiftness. Author and editor, Lodovico Pignatti Morano gives insight to the shoe’s craze over on Dazed Digital. “In Milan and Rome, graffiti writers were the first to embrace the shoe which became part of their uniform. In Naples, it was clubbers from the city’s house music scene to first start wearing them.”


He further says, “They were more fashion conscious and interested in combining the shoes with designers like Margiela or Helmut Lang while Milanese and Roman graffiti writers were more into a straight up technical look with North Face jackets and Goretex pants.


Nothing like the shoe resonated with clubbers as it did with its sleek streamlined design and eye-catching metallic silver upper that held the perfect balance of high fashion and functionality.


Tino Ricciardi, an Italian gabber enthusiast also says on Dazed, “From the moment I saw them, I loved them. I liked the fact that they were all grey and metallic, which reminded me of cyberpunk, and then when I went and tried them on in the store and felt how comfortable they were, I was totally sold. They were perfect for dancing.”

Outside a UK garage club night on Old Kent Road, London, 1998. Photo by Ewen Spencer

Two-stepping into the UK garage era (1998), the hype around it brings the UK music scene to new heights, especially in the capital. It’s a London thing. The British press was all over it and UKG compilations sold out. Entering the charts were artists including MJ Cole, Tuff Jam and Dreem Teem; garage events such as Pure Silk put Ayia Napa on the map as a clubbing destination. UKG was about the champagne lifestyle — a move away from the house scene’s debauchery with hard drugs. This was reflected with expensive garments by Italian brands like Iceberg, Versace and Moschino with loud prints which were strongly favoured by clubbers and the scene itself, including the junglist massive.

Typical raving attire at One Nation club night, September 1997. Photo by Tristan O'Neill

High-tech running sneakers started to take over loafers as the essential footwear choice in the UK club scene. The Air Max 95 became a social status symbol on the street and in the clubs. In the UK, the shoe rose from its initial price of £99 in 1995 to a steady £110 for years (which was crazy back then as most sneakers cost around £40-£60). The hefty price tag helped coin the shoe’s nickname, the '110'. Perfect for the champagne lifestyle. Through the music scene, it helped solidify the Air Max 95 as the London shoe and was embraced as the unofficial uniform shoe of rave culture at the time.

Drum and bass collective Bad Company with member dBridge in Nike TNs. Photo by Georgina Cook

That year also saw another pricey piece of footwear drop from Nike, the Nike Air Max Plus. It became another social status symbol on the streets and elsewhere, and got better known as the TN — the featured Tuned Air that it debuted. Designed by Nike’s creative director at the time, Sean McDowell, the shoe combines an unlikely aesthetic influence of palm trees silhouetted by a sunset on beach in Florida. A trio of never-before-employed manufacturing techniques; both the TPU welding for the synthetic exoskeleton webbing atop of the sublimated gradient fade on the upper, combined with the sole's heel and forefoot bonded together, made the shoe instantly recognisable.


Fast forward towards 2000-2001, the sound of UKG was morphing and going in different directions. The MC-led parties created a new sound. Club MCs inspired a new generation of artists which took the charts by storm. Artists like Oxide & Neutrino, Heartless Crew, Pay As U Go Cartel and So Solid Crew helped shape up the future of UKG.

Carl Morgan of So Solid Crew wearing the Air Tuned Sirocco (1999), 2001. Photo by Eddie Otchere

As the momentum of UKG eased up completely, MCs needed to have a space to express their voice and what filled that void was grime… Or 8 bar, UK bashment, sublow or Eskibeat. Wot do u call it? Grime opened up to a whole new audience when in 2003, Dizzee Rascal became the youngest winner of the Mercury Prize for his debut solo album, ‘Boy In Da Corner’.


Its iconic album artwork was designed by Ben Drury, known for his extensive work with Mo’ Wax and the creative vision behind the covers such as DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing…..' and Wiley’s ‘Treddin’ on Thin Ice’, and his very own Nike Air Max 1 ‘Hold Tight’ (2006). More importantly on the cover artwork, sitting in the corner of two yellow walls contrasted by Dizzie sitting in a black Nike tracksuit, is what’s on his feet; a pair of black and white Air Max BWs. Grime's aesthetic was formed.

Air Max has clearly forever been the choice for ravers across the continent and the world all over. Its love affair with dance music has been referenced in different ways. As European rave culture was at its height in 1999, and Nike were ready for their next futuristic instalment, the Air Max Deluxe. Rounding off the first full decade of Air Max, it held an in-your-face aesthetic. A decorated design for the Deluxe’s upper was inspired by the reflective apparel, bold colours and wild prints from raver’s outfits across the continent. This marked the first time Nike put an all-over digital print on neoprene.

Further futuristic styling features on the heel which is the same moulding technique used on the Air Foamposite (1997), a shoe that was dominating hardwood at the time. From that same year, the full length visible Air sole originally designed for the Air Max 97 is used here.

Cult classics even inspire artists' for their monikers like electronic producer and DJ, Air Max ’97 aka Oliver van der Lugt, who’s released material on forward-thinking music labels such as London’s Trax Couture and Liminal Sounds.


As dance’s sonic landscape and its aesthetic side have both constantly evolved and continuously held it down in contemporary culture together, they remain forever relevant. Here's to seeing what the next big sound and Air Max pairing will be, as rave culture has always given a new sense of community, style and energy.


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