Some athletic shoes transcend their performance roots and become a cultural phenomenon. The Nike Air Max Plus, released in 1998, is one such shoe.
This unique addition to the Air Max dynasty defined the era in which it debuted as well as those that followed. On sale somewhere in the world for close to two decades without any downtime and released in hundreds of colorways and variations in construction that include leather editions, Ultra makeovers and slip-ons, the ultimate accolade for the Air Max Nike Internationalist DamenPlus was an unofficial rebrand —Adidas Stan Smith Womens in some territories it’s better known by the two letters, “Tn,” that represent Nike Cortez Femme the Tuned Air it debuted — and the moniker is now standard issue at street level.
While the silhouette’s cult stature is well known, its origin is less established. Designed by industry veteran Sean McDowell, the shoe combines an unlikely aesthetic influence with a trio of never-before-employed manufacturing techniques. Here, McDowell shares his memories of creating the classic runner.
That local beauty fired his imagination. “I sketched that out, and I thought, ‘It could make a quarter panel, like you could hold your foot down with those palm trees," he says, filing that thought away for future use.
Shortly after and upon arrival to Nike in 1997, McDowell immediately took on the challenge of creating a new running Adidas Stan Smith Femme shoe (and thus completing a nascent Adidas Stan Smith Mujer project for Foot Locker) that used a new Max Air innovation that implemented Nike Air Max 2017 Dames two opposing hemispheres to evolve the cushioning technology. Its working name was Sky Air, and more than 15 potential shoe sketches had been presented to the retailer. None had received the nod yet.
As a keen athlete, Sean understood where challenging convention could yield new functionality. “I grew up a runner, and you learn to always run facing traffic so that cars can see you, and I thought, ‘But it's weird they put reflectivity on the back of almost every shoe when you need reflectivity all the way up the front,” he says. “So I put bars of reflectivity going all the way up the forefoot, the vamp and the tongue.”
His commitment to detail extends to the distinctive outsole. “I called out the different hemispheres in the rubber because you couldn't really see them on the medial side, so you didn't know if there was any Adidas Ultra Boost Femme new technology,” he explains. He created color damns to draw more attention to the Tuned Air that was inside. He also added palm tree stripes in the shank and the Tn logo. “Those lines were pointing to the air bag, like this is the cool thing,” he says.
Now, the Air Max Plus is synonymous with that Tn Air logo, but the hexagonal branding was a surprise at the time for McDowell, who was a week into the sketches, and felt as though everything was coming together nicely. “I didn’t know where we were supposed to put it, but they told me it was a really big deal and I needed to feature it prominently."
McDowell’s break between jobs was also critical in the designer’s decision to stray from traditional colorways. He visualized telling a night-to-day story for the introductory trio of Air Max Plus makeups. “We didn't have color Nike Air Max 720 Donna specialists, so the first three shoes are a really great part of the story,” he says. “The first shoe was dusk, the second was almost all black with a little bit of red [they used reflective mesh from the Jordan XIII] to represent stars in the night sky, and the third was bright orange and yellow to depict sunrise the next morning.”