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In His Words: Never-Before-Revealed Stories About How Virgil Abloh’s Air Jordan 1 Was Born

Four years ago, Virgil Abloh visited FN’s offices in New York City prior to accepting Shoe of the Year for his Air Jordan 1 at the 2017 FN Achievement Awards. During the visit, Abloh spoke at length about his instantly-iconic range with Nike, dubbed “The Ten,” and the thought process behind the designs.

Abloh, who always spoke with eloquence, delivered quote after quote that would  intrigue any sneakerhead or aspiring designer. After spending a few hours with Abloh, editing the interview to pull his best quotes was quite the task, and several gems were left on the cutting room floor.

Below are previously unreleased excerpts from FN’s November 2017 interview with Abloh, who died on Sunday after a cancer battle.

First Meeting With Nike

“The meeting we had on [Nike’s] campus, it was unknown what the project would be. At that phase what they had in mind were the early phases of this reconstructing 10 icons. I took an X-Acto knife and cut the shoes with the team and Nate Jobe — the design director there, he was instrumental in the process — and Matt Kilgore, the son of [Air Force 1 designer] Bruce. We were just literally cutting up, exploring. That’s where I asked the naïve question about the Jordan 1. I was like, ‘This might be a dumb question, but is there air in the Air Jordan?’ I never thought about it literally. I took an X-Acto knife and just stuck it in the bottom. Nate was like, ‘Yeah, there’s an air pocket in there, but this is before they had the technology to expose the air bag.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to write ‘Air’ on the shoe to illustrate that there’s air in here.’ That’s where the whole bringing my signature of writing in Helvetica and writing in quotes became a signature on every product. What I did for ‘The Ten’ is make a tool kit: a pretty standardized Swoosh, the orange tab, basically signifying I’ve approached this Nike product. I wanted these shoes to highlight what makes Nike, Nike. I wanted it to be a reintroduction of what the core principles are of the brand. That, to me, is responsible design.”

Virgil Abloh Nike The Ten
Virgil Abloh x Air Jordan 1 “The Ten.”
CREDIT: Ethan Klein

One Shot to Get It Right

“I was home in Chicago, I did these shoes on my phone. The first round was in person, but the rest was finished in an app called WhatsApp. We were finishing them off in the factory, at the factory in China. You get one round in the day, go to sleep and that version would come the next day, so you would get one shot every 24 hours to make a decision.”

Designing With Purpose

“I wanted kids to appreciate footwear and sneaker design. Everything you see here is underneath the shoe they already have in their closet. That’s why it is an honor to get [FNAA] Shoe of the Year coming off of a conversation that was only meant to progress footwear. This was one of, if not the most, fast tracked Nike projects ever, I’ve been told. It’s not even a year since the first meeting. I had that first meeting in December 2016. This [Air Jordan 1] shoe was done by February. The shoes were ready at the top of the year, from the meeting to done. The other shoes [from ‘The Ten’], we did them later. Sample, in the factory, finished sample, production. What I wanted to do was stop the scroll on the internet because that’s how people interact with footwear more than a previous era where you see shoes on the street or in a store. We just scroll to see the state of the market. Mission No. 1 was to make people stop, to make them scroll past it and go back believing they didn’t see what they saw. That’s what informed the design process.”

A Great Risk

“Say this project gets a B or even a B+. It’s a failure. Out of the 10 shoes, imagine if only three were good and the rest were nah. Or five were good and the rest were trash, or if nine were good and just one was like, what? You’ll be like, ‘Why did you do 10? You should have just do one.’ It would be career suicide. Playing Russian Roulette 10 times and not getting shot in the head.”

The Narrative of “The Ten”

“My part isn’t about inventing. I might get there later, I might try to invent a phone, but right now I’m into making art out of everyday objects. To me, this is more of an art piece. I made something that was for your mantle as opposed to the latest sneaker and it being so valuable so you want to save it to sell. I thought, ‘How could I make something new that feels vintage?’ This is a new vintage. I love how they degrade faster. That was me with another commentary on how these kids just buy them to not crease them. Don’t worry, the shoes are already ruined.”

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