In 1987, Nike Air was not a new proposition. Runners were already familiar with its cushioning benefits, which first appeared in the Nike Tailwind in 1978. But the world wouldn’t join the air cushioning revolution until Nike Air was more than a feeling. The next step was made when Nike designer Tinker Hatfield set out to visualize that feeling. Air Max, the fruit of Hatfield’s labor, gave birth to a franchise that would alter the course of sneakers.
But the story of visible air doesn’t begin with Hatfield’s design. Rather, it starts when David Forland, Nike’s Director of Cushioning Innovation, joined the team in 1985. In many respects, Forland is the world’s foremost expert in visible air. He’s been focused on pushing the technology into unimaginable new territories for the past 30 years. He’ll also be the first to admit that the road to what we now call Air Max was not without its obstacles.
At its inception, the focus was visible air. Forland, still constructing encapsulated air prototypes by hand, stumbled upon a critical moment in visible air history when asked what would happen if the bag was rotated, placing the seams on the top and bottom instead of on the perimeter.
“At that exact moment my light bulb turned on and I thought to myself ‘yeah, I could do that.’ I built a new prototype right there on the spot,” Forland says.
And thus, the very first prototype of visible Nike Air technology was born, with the Nike Air Max 1 being the first to showcase it. Prior to this introduction, Air-Soles were getting thinner, not larger.
“Air-Sole units were becoming thinner and thinner to make the manufacturing process easier,” Forland recalls. “What we wanted to get back to was injecting more air in to the sole to achieve a strong cushioning sensation under the foot.”
In an effort to increase the sensory perception of walking on air, Forland quickly changed the approach.
“If you look at the history of Air Max, especially from ’87 to ’93, one of the main things that separated each model was how each model held a greater volume of air than the last one, and conversely the least amount of foam. Foam breaks down, air doesn’t,” Forland says.
During the pursuit for increased air volume, a thought occurred. Eliminating the foam between the outsole and the Air-Sole unit might create space for increased Air-Sole volume. With that idea came the Air Max 180, the first shoe to feature a 180-degree visible Air-Sole. This was no easy task for Forland.
“The idea was much easier said than done. The Air Max 180 was one of the most difficult Air Max sneakers to create,” Forland remembers.
At that point, the Air Max 1, Air Max 180 and Air Max 90 all had Air-Sole units in the forefoot. But they were fully encapsulated and could not be seen. As the quest for a fully foamless running sneaker continued, a monumental discovery was made. This came in the form of a new Air-Sole construction method called blow molding. First used on the Air Max 93, this technique allowed for the creation of Air-Soles in 3D shapes that weren’t dependent on air pressure. This meant that the Air-Soles could be made to fit the curvature of the footwear’s forefoot. Taking full advantage of the innovation, the Air Max 95, which consisted of two separate blow-molded Air-Sole units, was the first manifestation of visible air in the forefoot.
In 1997, the code for a full length Air-Sole was cracked with no shortage of manufacturing, development and design effort. The first step was to create an interconnected heel and forefoot unit. The next task was to figure out how to hold the molten film long enough to close a full-length three-dimension mold around it. Many prototypes and one bullet train later, the Air Max 97 came to life.
After unlocking full-length air, ideas around air seemed endless. Nike began to focus on other forms of cushioning, one of which was Tuned Air. This innovative play on air cushioning was first seen on the 1999 Air Max Plus and was an early demonstration of a concept that would soon evolve into Nike Shox.
The next form of innovation came with the Air Max 360 from 2006, which finally achieved the goal of completely removing foam from the shoe making equation. To create the Air Max 360, Forland’s team utilized Caged Air technology as the stabilizer instead of foam, finally realizing the goal of a foamless Air Max sneaker 20 years after starting the project.
The all-air achievement did not mark the end of Air Max evolution. Nike had fulfilled its dream, but could not resist the question of how to improve the franchise. To do that, Forland and the team shifted focus from eliminating foam to increasing flexibility. Utilizing tubular construction, deep flex grooves were built into the Air-Soles of the Air Max 2015, resulting in the most flexible Max Air cushioning platform ever.
After the long journey, Forland learned that innovation never comes without risk.
“I remember the first blow-molded Air-Sole unit. We worked so hard on that and had no idea if people would embrace it,” Forland says. “I remember being in an airport right around the time the first Air Max sneaker launched. I was calling a tech in the lab when someone walked by wearing a pair. I stared at him from the phone booth and said, ‘Somebody bought them. I see them going up and down.’ Big risk. Bigger reward. For the Air Max, it’s only up from here.”
Air Max will be available at Level Shoe District in Dubai Mall on 16-26 March, 2015.