Air Jordans

What changed leisure footwear forever and created the wonderful, hideous behemoth of contemporary consumer culture? It's gotta be da shoes.

Published August 5, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

I'm running toward the local sneaker outlet with cash in my hand and nothing but Air Jordans in my head. It's 1985 and I can hardly believe it's happening. I've spent the entire year begging, arguing and subtly suggesting that my parents spring for the sneakers that I crave. Their colossal social importance, the extent of their style, coolness and athletic support -- I've explained it all to my parents. But they've never seemed to get it.

"They're too expensive," they kept saying. "Forget it, we're not spending nearly $100 on footwear."

Until now. Finally, I've won. After agreeing to split the cost, after working at a flower stand to earn my share -- and especially after finding a store that sold the overhyped kicks for $50 -- I've convinced my parents to let go of their anti-materialistic urges. They've brought me here, to a dingy, musty store housed in the basement of an old brick factory in Worcester, Mass. And they've conceded defeat. My 12-year-old palms are sweating. Through the skewed lens of my memory -- in which all things visual are clear while emotions are remembered as vague but intense -- I think I'm afraid. As I sprint through the aisles looking for my size, I remember thinking: What if they don't have my size? What if my parents suddenly decide to rescind their offer? What if I never get the shoes?

Thankfully, my fears proved unjustified. Perhaps because I actually prayed for the sneakers, God smiled on me and my size was not sold out. Within a matter of minutes, I had pulled down a pair of blue and black high tops, tried them on, paid and strutted out of the store. Later, I regretted my decision to forgo the black and red classics in favor of the blues, but in the midst of that first sweet, short moment of ownership, as I pretended to juke Magic Johnson in the parking lot, I can only remember feeling relieved, excited -- and intensely happy. Never before or since has a single purchase brought such bliss.

Of course, I know now that this feeling was sick and twisted. I've digested the writings of Thomas Frank and Naomi Klein. I know that Nike took advantage of my adolescent vulnerabilities. I know that forging emotional ties to Nike's flagship offering -- quite possibly the single most marketed fashion product of the 20th century -- puts me in the "shallow consumer" category dominated by teenagers on the WB, Imelda Marcos and Annette Bening's character in "American Beauty."

But my desire for Air Jordans arrived before the slick commercials, and my appreciation extends beyond the simple product. Consider, if only for a minute, that the vast majority of the developed world has a view of athletic footwear that couldn't have existed without Nike's black and red high-tops. Gone are the thoughts of pure function, of rubber soles and leather uppers. Because of Air Jordans, sneakers are now a part of the bright, brash, mesmeric and often-flawed Leviathan that is American culture. Those kick-around Simples that you love wearing to bars or barbecues? They exist because of Air Jordans. The idea that casual footwear somehow reflects who you are, what you like -- your vision of the world? It's gotta be da shoes.

Sure, there are serious problems with the sneaker culture that Nike helped create -- among other things, its tendency to breed violence -- but Jordans deserve to be lauded for their powerful cultural impact. No other fashion item in the past 25 years has made such a mark on the world's sense of style. Air Jordans are the Levi's of our era.

The Air Jordans story, in my mind at least, starts not with the marketing or with the man but rather with the shoes. Peter Moore designed the original Air Jordans and they looked nothing like their predecessors. Sneakers had almost always been white, crisp like snow when new, beige and brown once they got old. But Moore figured, why not make the shoes match the clothes? If the Bulls' colors are red and black, why shouldn't Michael Jordan's sneakers match?

This idea has since become a form of conventional wisdom, after Converse created its Weapons line -- green and white for the Celtics' Larry Bird; purple and yellow for Magic Johnson. But it was Moore who started the trend. And even now, his design, both in color and arrangement, remains unmatched. The lack of white, the red and black leather overlays around the toe, up the laces and behind the heel, still look fresh and sinister even after a decade. The fact that each pair of shoes came with colored laces only emphasized that these shoes didn't belong on Bob Cousy or anyone else from the earlier black-and-white, dunk-free age.

Look no further than the logo on the original design to see what I mean. On the outside ankle rests a basketball flanked with wings. It's an almost angelic symbol: Sport mixed with divinity. Just as you needed supernatural powers to stop Michael Jordan in his prime, his sneakers evoked something larger than athletics, and perhaps life itself.

Older sports fans couldn't see the genius of Moore's design. Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick, in a November 1987 article, called them "extraordinarily ugly red and black clodhoppers." NBA commissioner David Stern went even further, banning the shoes because they didn't match the Chicago Bulls' mostly white uniforms. But the elders' disgust only made the sneakers more beautiful, more magnetic. Air Jordans weren't just one of the few cool, timeless items to come out of the '80s -- hip-hop also belongs in that category -- they were also products of rebellion and generational individuality.

None of these feelings would have been as intense, of course, without Michael Jordan. If not for No. 23's moves, dunks and sheer explosive basketball brilliance, Moore's design would likely have disappeared, like the leather boots with bow ties that also characterized late-'80s footwear. And Jordan brought more than athletic prowess. He was also the perfect pitchman. Good-looking, noncontroversial and graceful on the court and off, he was the epitome of smooth. He made greatness seem easy and attainable. He made us all believe that we could be like him. The shoes were simply part of the process.

Moore, perhaps better than anyone, understood that we bought Jordans because we identified with the 6-foot-6 master of all things hoop. He never lost sight of the fact that he and his company were selling a dream, the dream of Jordan. "True innovation ultimately must strike an emotional chord," he told Fast Company magazine. "Which of us would pay $150 for a pair of Air Jordans? But that product struck a chord with teenagers. Innovation means changing mind-sets. Kids lined up overnight to get those shoes because of the emotional connection to Jordan. And that was the innovation: Taking something as innocuous as a shoe and making it something you aspire to."

Nike, however, didn't just let the relationship between Jordan, his shoes and consumers develop on its own. The Beaverton, Ore., company turbocharged the process with a heavy dose of big-budget marketing -- equal in style and force to both Jordan and his sneakers.

The first trick Nike employed was simple diversification. Each year, Nike came out with a new, completely different version of Air Jordans that we all wanted to have. Version II, for example, was a plain, white high-top with black laces and a black midsole; Air Jordan III's, the first to show a visible air sole, returned to a black color scheme, but this time the shoe was a midcut and contained a gray-and-white print at the toe. Later versions mixed these basics of color and height with flashes of design, from flames to glow-in-the-dark rubber. Only Version 17 -- a blue-and-white model that came out in 2002, to match Jordan's new team, the Washington Wizards -- looks like a complete break from Moore's original design. And even these sold out in many stores as soon as they arrived.

Every Air Jordan since III, which came out during the 1987-88 NBA season, received a major push from Nike advertising. Television commercials became Nike's trademark, starting first with the Mars Blackmon campaign. Directed by and starring Spike Lee, playing an awestruck fan who declares repeatedly, "Yo, money, it's gotta be the shoes," the ads upped the ante of sneaker salesmanship. Sneaker sales had previously relied on print advertisements and word of mouth. But the Blackmon ads offered something new. They were slick, funny, urban, compelling -- the kind of thing discussed at the proverbial water cooler or, as was the case for me, in the junior-high lunchroom.

"This was one of the great American moments in Madison Avenue advertising," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "The idea that people don't get good at something because of practice and the right genes, but rather with the right attitude and the right shoes -- it was brilliant."

Nike also pioneered guerrilla marketing on Air Jordans' behalf. The company relied on its "urban promotion teams" -- "young black guys who would go into ghettoes to see what was happening and to put our shoes on the hot guys," in the words of Brendan Foster, a former Nike marketing V.P. and Olympic runner, who laid out the strategy in a 1990 article in Campaign magazine. "Six months later, the shoes would be hot in L.A."

And this is where the Air Jordans story takes a turn toward tragedy. The ads, the innovative marketing and the high prices all contributed to a major problem: sneaker-related violence. Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, a spate of robberies and a few murders were tied to Nike's high-priced sneakers. Kids who couldn't afford the $125 price tag simply started stealing the shoes they wanted. Gangs reportedly started using sneakers to recruit youngsters, and even accepted nifty new pairs as payment.

Was Nike ultimately responsible for the violence? Thompson suggests that Nike marketing was simply part of a larger trend. "This ability for American commerce and culture to transform celebrity into a product, a commodity -- even something as mundane as a shoe -- is perhaps a thing that Americans do better than anyone else," he says. "Air Jordans are just one of the supreme examples."

But critics contend that in Nike's case, the trend toward branding went too far. Thomas Frank, in "The Conquest of Cool," criticized Nike for co-opting and commercializing the counterculture: "the words of William S. Burroughs and songs by the Beatles, Iggy Pop and Gil Scott-Heron ('the revolution will not be televised')."

Meanwhile, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, despite Nike's stable of African-American spokesmen, condemned Nike for taking advantage of the black community; for promoting what he called an "ethos of mindless materialism" that most low-income blacks couldn't afford. And it wasn't just the buyers who needed to beware. The three-figure prices were especially egregious, Jackson and other critics argued, because the company paid the workers who actually made the shoes -- typically in Indonesia -- less than $3 an hour.

Ultimately, consumers -- "black and white and brown," Jackson said in a 1998 "Frontline" interview -- needed to wake up. They should judge companies and their products not according to style, cost and appearance but rather "by their investment policy," he said. "That's the real challenge for us today."

I agree with Jackson's point; in an ideal world, consumers would always consider the extended effects of their purchases, whether on workers or the environment. I also agree, though to a lesser extent, with Frank. Sometimes the Nike ad campaigns anger me at a visceral level. John Lennon doesn't deserve to have his "instant karma" tied to a product. If he were alive and in charge of his own rights, I'm sure Nike would have had to look elsewhere. (They could probably have bought a song from Donovan.)

The real point, though, is not whether Nike's use of such songs somehow taints the originals (I would argue that it doesn't), or even whether Nike crossed a line from marketing to manipulation. To truly judge greatness, one must only consider impact. Karl Marx's ideals have largely been found impractical, but he's still a towering figure of 20th-century history. Sigmund Freud's theories have been punctured and pricked with doubt, but anyone who argues that he should be dropped from the canon of Western civilization needs therapy.

So it is with Air Jordans. The sneakers, in all their black, red, white and blue brilliance, are a masterpiece. They've given the world a new vision of their feet, a reason to exercise, a new form of cultural expression. A fresh pair of A.J.s won't necessarily make the world a better place, but I for one am willing to let this larger issue go. Even though I'm less willing than I once was to pay the outrageous prices, I'll never regret owning those original Air Jordans. Because, as I told my friends when I hooked up with them at the mall later on that fateful day, Air Jordans are just too wicked cool to pass up.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

MORE FROM Damien Cave

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Basketball Fashion