A History of the Air Jordan 1 Sneakers

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In the history of sneakers, some stand out from the rest. The Converse Weapon, the Vans Slip-On with the iconic checkerboard print and the Nike Air Max 1 are a few. However, in a market that is inundated with daily launches — enough to make your head spin — there is something about the simplicity of such shoes that sets them apart from the rest.

And no other shoe has an aura in the sneaker world as the Air Jordan 1.

It’s arguably the shoe that started the market for sneakers in the first place. And no matter where we go from here, the Jordan I will be looked back on by many as the greatest, most endearing sneaker or all time.

It’s also a shoe that almost didn’t happen. During college, Michael Jordan’s professed favorite shoe to play in was Converse’s Chuck Taylor, a shoe he liked so much that he was set on signing with them when he eventually made it to the NBA. But Nike was relentless, going so far as to get Jordan’s parents to bring him to the Nike campus in Oregon. Nike did their best to convince him by presenting their plan for Jordan being an entire brand, not just a shoe. But none of that mattered to Jordan as he simply didn’t like Nike’s shoes as the soles were too thick. It was a change that Nike was happy to make, thus creating the legacy of the Air Jordan.

It was to be none other than Peter C. Moore, Nike’s create director, who would design Jordan’s first shoe. At first glance Jordan didn’t like the Jordan I design, referring to them as “clown shoes,” though he would eventually warm up to them. But since the Air Jordan wouldn’t be ready by the time Jordan’s rookie season started in 1985, he played in Nike Air Ship’s until the Jordan’s were ready in November of that year. And it’s hard to tell the difference between those two shoes, even with hindsight, which is why Nike decided to go with the Air Ship’s in the first place, knowing that people would think they were Air Jordan I, which would help sales when they eventually came out.

Looking back, people tend to think of the first real Air Jordan 1 as being the “Banned” colorway, also known as the “Bred,” or black and red. They got their “Banned” name from the fact that league rules at the time stated that a players shoe had to be at least 51% white, also known as the “51% rule.” And since the shoes were predominantly red and black, Jordan was fined $5000 per game. But the story is mostly make-believe as there shoes were actually the aforementioned Air Ship’s, and there is no confirmation of any actual fine being levied against Jordan, only a letter sent to him by then NBA commissioner Russ Granik warning him about the fines.

All of that was just fodder for the marketing department, and when the shoe was released in the fall, for $65 a pair, it sold out immediately. And as soon as they sold out, Nike would restock them, until the shoe was overstocked, causing the price to drop to $20 in 1985, which would eventually lead to the shelving of the shoe in 1986. By that time, 13 colorways of the Jordan 1 had been released, including “Banned,” “Chicago,” “Retro Royal,” “Carolina Blue,” among others. And though many other colorways would be released in the future, the colorways from that original year remain the most sought after.

It’s hard to fathom, but many of things we take for granted in today’s sneaker world––drops, or serializing––didn’t exist back then. Air Jordan’s weren’t Air Jordan I or II, they were all just Air Jordan’s. But in 1994 Nike did something a shoe company had never done before, they brought the Air Jordan I back out of production, in a number of colorways like “Banned,” and “Chicago.” As Jordan was still playing (albeit baseball at that exact moment), and the move was so unorthodox, the re-issue floundered.

The reissuing of the Jordan I flip-flopped as much as Jordan’s career itself. It wasn’t until Jordan returned, and retired, and returned again, in 2001, that the Jordan I was reissued. This time is was released by Jordan Brand over the course of the following three years in a couple of the classic colorways, “Retro Royal,” and “Breds,” as well as a couple of new colorways like “Midnight Navy,” “White Chrome,” and “Black/Metallic Gold.” The Jordan Brand reissue (specifically the “White Chrome”) was also the first time that the shoe featured a Jumpman instead of a Swoosh, and was also the first series for which a low profile version was introduced. Jordan himself would eventually retire in 2003, and Jordan Brand would retire the Jordan I in 2004.

The reissue finally took in April of 2007 when Jordan Brand released the Jordan 1 (again) as part of “Old Love, New Love,” a two pack that included a retro “Black Toe” colorway paired with a new pair that was yellow and black. Over the next few years a plethora of new colorways and silhouette changes were introduced with the “Phat,” “25th Anniversary,” and “Frags” versions, just to name a few. In 2017 the show was deconstructed by Virgil Abloh called “Revealing.”

The Air Jordan 1 has been through many ups and downs over its 36 year history. But it seems like the most turbulent times are over and the sneaker has claimed its rightful place at the top of the mountain of sneakers. Going forward we will always have more colorways and silhouettes to look forward to as the simplicity and functionality of the original design offers endless variation.

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