How Virgil Abloh’s Air Jordan 1 From ‘The Ten’ Almost Didn’t Happen

Hundreds of sneakers hit the market this year, and many resonated with fans. But none were as coveted as Virgil Abloh’s take on the Air Jordan 1, the highlight of his line of deconstructed Nike icons, dubbed “The Ten.”

After Abloh previewed his Jordan 1 at the Met Gala in May, celebrities and consumers with an appetite for sport-inspired style became infatuated with the look. It was an atypical version of the classic, showcasing features and functions rather than delivering yet another color update to the silhouette.

And shoe fanatics were buzzing. But only a select few A-listers, including the likes of Roger Federer, A$AP Rocky and Bella Hadid, have been fortunate enough to secure a pair so far.

Virgil Abloh Nike The Ten Air Jordan 1
Virgil Abloh personalizing Air Jordan 1s from his Nike “The Ten” collection on-set for the FN photo shoot.
CREDIT: Andrew Boyle

Today’s most in-the-know collectors offered high praise for the designer’s work with the vintage basketball model.

“The Nike x Virgil Abloh collection was amazing —  especially the Air Jordan 1, which was a different take than what we’ve seen from the brand,” said Yu-Ming Wu, chief marketing officer of consignment retailer Stadium Goods.

On a recent visit to FN’s New York offices for his cover shoot, Abloh shared some intimate details about the collaboration and his approach to design.

“Nowadays, there are so many shoe colorways that I’m almost uninterested,” he said. “If you say there’s a Chanel Air Jordan 1, I assume it’s going to be black and white. If I can guess it, then it shouldn’t exist.”

Virgil Abloh Nike The Ten Air Jordan 1
FNAA Shoe of the Year winner Virgil Abloh.
CREDIT: Andrew Boyle

He said that the partnership began with a trip to Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., campus last December, where he started to dismantle the Air Jordan 1 with an X-Acto knife (a staple in his toolkit) to understand its inner workings.

During that process, the designer became enamored with a deconstructed look. “The X-Acto knife work makes it look half made, like you’re seeing a sample,” Abloh said. “When you see shoes in process, that’s more interesting than seeing something that’s finished.”

Nike execs praised his thoughtful execution of “The Ten,” and in particular the Jordan 1. “There is a narrative to why each piece is done in a certain way,” said Andy Caine, Nike’s VP of footwear design. “There’s so much on this AJ1 that’s completely new yet completely familiar, and to me, that’s the magic. It has so much more depth than anyone has ever brought.”

While Abloh’s creative vision has been widely celebrated, sneaker experts noted that Jordan Brand and Nike also deserve a large amount of the credit.

“If Jordan says no [to an idea], it doesn’t happen,” said renowned influencer Mayor. “They let Virgil add his touch to it. The fact that he was able to put his own twist on it makes the shoe so special.”

And the designer agrees. “Nike is progressive. They easily could have been like, ‘Don’t do this. You can’t have the heel counter exposed — that needs to be covered.’ Instead, they said, ‘We did a collaboration to find new space,’” Abloh said.

In fact, that creative freedom is what led to a vital last-minute change to the shoe’s color palette. Abloh’s original way of connecting all of the models in “The Ten” was an off-white hue (a nod, perhaps, to his breakout fashion label).

But while walking through the airport in Newark, N.J., he spotted a pair of sneakers  that resembled the look he had just finished designing.

“I couldn’t tell if they were [Nike] Dunks or Jordans. The lightbulb went off in my head: What makes the shoes iconic is the colorway. That’s when I was like, I almost made a mistake,” Abloh explained.

He quickly called up Nike to make the change, which presented a big problem for the athletic brand. “Internally, we were like, ‘Could we pull this off?’” Caine recalled. “When you’re producing shoes, there’s a moment where you have to lock in everything to order the materials to produce the quantities. We were on top of that deadline, literally two days out.”

But ultimately, Nike and Abloh agreed that it needed to be done. “The powerful narrative from Virgil’s side, plus the color heritage of the Jordan 1 and the story of the original colorway being banned [by the NBA in 1985], linked and made a lot of sense,” Caine explained. “That’s where we came together and said, ‘Let’s drive this through.’”

Virgil Abloh Nike The Ten Air Jordan 1
The medial side of the Virgil Abloh x Nike “The Ten” Air Jordan 1.
CREDIT: Andrew Boyle

Even now, after seeing the tremendous success of his Air Jordan 1 design, Abloh continues to be haunted by the comments the shoe might have received had he and Nike delivered the shoe in its original off-white execution.

“People would have been like, ‘It’s cool, it’s just experimental. We’ve seen too many colorways of too many shoes; it’s not interesting,’” Abloh said. “The shoe would have totally missed the mark.”

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