There aren’t many shoe trends that stand the test of time. The true classics are the trends that transition into long-term staples. Both shoe aficionados and non-aficionados alike regularly don them. Nike’s best-selling shoes tend to be white leather-like the dad-friendly Air Monarch line, which cool kids and connoisseurs despise. All-white, low-cut Nike Air Force 1s are a rare example of a sneaker that can be worn by both men and women.
One of the most popular colorways of the Air Force 1 Low is white. An expert at the New York Times a decade ago estimated that this shoe sold 12 million pairs in 2005 after being on the market for more than two decades; Powell said it is still Nike’s second best-selling shoe a decade later. Even though hyped-up collaborations and limited-run collectibles helped to elevate the AF1’s status and introduce it to new audiences, it’s the monochromatic looks, particularly the white-on-white, that I’ve kept most sneaker shops open over the years.
Nike designer Bruce Kilgore creation made a splash like a high top only when it debuted in 1982 as the first basketball shoe to feature Nike Air cushioning, drawing comparisons to hiking boots. One of the shoe’s few safety features was the use of a white and grey color scheme. When the Air Force 1 hit retail in 1983, it became even more popular because of a low-cut and brighter, team-colored Forces.
Nike’s original plan was to put the AF1 away in favor of a newer model or a newer technology. To counter this, a group of Baltimore retailers (Charley Rudo, Downtown Locker Room, and Cinderella Shoes) put together a “color of the month” initiative, which resulted in an expanded collection of colors for the model. Thanks to those limited editions, D.C. and New York became cult destinations for sneaker tourists. Following its discontinuation, the AF1 made a brief comeback in East Coast stores around 1986. (with a slightly altered shape, complete with more regional exclusives). Troop co-founder Teddy Held’s “Jew Man” store in the South Bronx, which has since closed, was rumored to sell a variety of hard-to-find cosmetics.
From 1984 to 1993, the East Coast’s inner cities were ravaged by the crack epidemic, which resulted in a glut of cash. Even if big brands don’t admit it, the authentic style influencers of their era were drug dealers and hustlers. The dealers’ new shoes, flashy cars, and gaudy jewelry set a new bar for aspiration, one that could only be met with the kind of cash that the fast life seemed to offer. The high cost of shoes may have attracted a fair number of soldiers, who in turn spawned a new wave of sneaker mania.
Only Moses Malone and Mychal Thompson starred in the original ads for the shoe, but Nike only sold it in inner-city markets because of a lack of marketing efforts. According to a March 1991 Washington Post article, “The company… sends a special makeup’ model — the Air Force One, which was introduced in 1983 and sold for about $80 — to selected inner-city stores… In the words of a Washington retailer, ‘These shoes are strictly inner-city.’. Even though Nike does not carry it, it is popular among African-Americans.'”
With the subsequent gentrification of urban sneaker culture, the AF1 represents a shoe for all people. When it first came out, a core group of fans in the inner city kept it going. Without them, the Force would likely have faded away.
The all-white Low was the next to arrive. As crisp as a pair of white Reeboks, once a popular shoe among New York’s hustlers, the white-on-white colorway accentuated Kilgore’s timeless design. The white Air Force 1 Low is still a bit of an enigma in terms of its release date. When Nike reissued the AF1 in 1986, the time between the reissue and the early 1990s redesign of the shoe’s design to remove its mesh side panels was so poorly documented. If some think the shoe didn’t exist until the late 1990s, it’s understandable because of the lack of information. We’re left with nothing but show-off Polaroids, album covers, and ads from the past.
The white-on-white highs worn by artists like the Bronx’s own Lord Finesse in 1992 (and only a few regional Foot Lockers had the white highs as a limited release) raises doubts about the 1997 debut of the all-white, all-leather Low. A 1994 advertisement for Baltimore’s still-existing Holabird Sports advertises all-white or all-black highs or lows (priced at $62.95 and $57.95, respectively) to emphasize the city’s long-term devotion to the shoe.
There were several subtle variations. In 1996, a patent low-top in gleaming white was released as part of a set. Off-white low-tops with brown outsoles were available in 1991 at a few select retailers, while a variety of white canvas shoes with gum soles were available in the mid-’90s…
Nike didn’t take long to gain a following in the city’s inner-city neighborhoods when they released their all-leather, white on white lows. Nike’s Limited Edition team, which included Quickstrike and retro pioneers like Nike employee Drew Greer, temporarily denied supply of the white-on-white lows to build demand and exclusivity for a while. The AF1’s distribution grew beyond its core cities in the 1990s. To prepare for a global rollout of the white on white, the Air Force 1 Mid and the “City Attack” project, which resulted in the now-famous Nike NYC logo, were introduced in 1994.
This was because the AF1 was so simple and perfect in its neutral state that even minor tweaks, such as a different logo or an Iced outsole, were enough to earn its own nickname and level of bragging rights for anyone who managed to get their hands on one.
In the early 2000s, the model would be a victim of many who wanted to adorn their shoes with elaborate embellishments. AF1 rip-offs spread like wildfire because of how simple the design was by today’s standards. At least, Nigo brought something extra to the table in terms of material (shiny patent leather) and crazy color combinations with the Bapestas (in turn inspiring Nike to get more outrageous in their executions). In addition to Lugz’s Birdman shoe and Reebok’s popular I3 Pressure shoe, which appeared to be an attempt to prevent Allen Iverson from wearing his beloved Forces, the white on white Low was also imitated. The closest consumers could get to the Force Low on the shelves of Foot Locker was the I3 Pressure when Nike and the chain fell out overpricing. When both sides agreed to work things out, sanity reigned supreme. However, as the phenomenon of collecting grew in popularity, things became absurd in other places.
The white Air Force 1’s reach was demonstrated in Sons of Anarchy by its constant placement on the feet of Jax, the protagonist of the F.X. biker gang drama. Although the show’s realism was never a strong point, many critics took issue with the white shoes’ association with bikers. Nerdist interviewed Charlie Hunnam in 2013, and he revealed that the AF1s were part of a replica outfit he’d ridden with as part of his research for the role.
White lows were a significant part of Nike’s Air Force 1 anniversary celebrations in 2007 (which included a Nike-funded track featuring Rakim, Kanye, Nas, and KRS-One and collaboration between Juelz Santana and Just Blaze). With exotic skins and a price tag of $2,000, the Anaconda Lux took an Italian-made concept to a new level. Re-engineered white on whites used a 10A full-grain leather that, it was claimed, was whiter than ever before.
The white AF1’s prominence among collectors began to wane as newer models took its place. Some attribute the “golf club effect” to overindulgence on the wearer’s part, while others blame the “anniversary overkill.” However, the AF1 continued to be popular. Because it had been around for so long and had influenced so many different fashions, strategies, and subgenres, the shoe that started it all became a dad shoe in its own right.
Contrary to popular belief among sneakerheads, who believed that Rick and Raf had shed the hip-hop culture’s old skin entirely, white was still in. In many hoods, like the Southside of Chicago’s Southside, a new generation of drill artists like Chief Keef were still keeping it loose and pristine (usually with obnoxious belt buckles and True Religions). Fetty Wap from Paterson, New Jersey, and London’s street-level rappers like Giggs and Nines also sported the look. The much-maligned white AF1 mid, popularized by Harlem’s A$AP Rocky, turned out to be an inside joke between Flacko and his friends as his career took off. He wanted to show that he impacted the fashion industry by making a trash shoe fashionable.
Recent changes have been made to the Force DNA to better fit into the high-end, high-top trend. Last year, Nike introduced a massive white Special Field Air Force 1, which was well-received because it catered to a more contemporary aesthetic.
The real thing, on the other hand, cannot be slain. Nike’s iconic Air Force 1 has been around for 35 years, but it’s still a foundational piece of footwear’s past and future — no advertisements were needed then, and they aren’t needed now. In the early 1980s, Nike failed to discontinue Air Force lows, and the classic white-on-white variation isn’t going anywhere.