In the world of sneakers, few styles last. The ones that do are the true classics—the trends that graduate to staples. They’re consistently worn by both footwear enthusiasts and the general public. For Nike, the shoes Adidas Ultra Boost Femme that sell shareholder-pleasing units tend to be white leather shoes like the dad-friendly Air Monarch line—ones that cool kids and connoisseurs hate. One rare example of such sneakers that cross over into both worlds is the Nike Air Force 1 in its most popular, iconic style: low-cut, in all-white.
The white Air Force 1 Low is one of the bestselling shoes of all time. A decade ago, sporting-goods analyst Matt Powell told the New York Times that the shoe sold an estimated 12 million pairs in 2005 alone, more than two decades after its debut; the sneaker is still Nike’s second bestseller a decade later, according to Powell. The hyped-up collaborations and limited-run collectibles may have given the AF1 a covetable level of prestige and helped spread its gospel to new generations, but the monotone makeups, particularly the white-on-white, Nike Internationalist Dámské have been the ones keeping the lights on at most sneaker shops over the years.
On its 1982 introduction to the court, Nike designer Bruce Kilgore’s creation, initially only available as a high top, was striking for its hiking-boot-inspired cues and uniquely chunky sole—it was the first Nike Air cushioning on a hoops shoe. The neutral white and grey palette was one of the only parts of the shoe that played it safe. Inevitably, bolder, team-color Forces would follow—as would a low-cut, making the Air Force 1 an even more popular choice when it hit retail on a wider scale in 1983.
Nike’s initial intent was to shelve the AF1 in favor of the next style, the next technology. But the model lengthened its lifeline thanks to an extended collection of different colors, a byproduct of a “color of the month” initiative pushed by a cartel Nike Air Presto Femme of Baltimore retailers (Charley Rudo, Downtown Locker Room, and Cinderella Shoes) making ambitious orders for special makeups. Those exclusives turned the city into a destination for Forces; footwear tourism along Interstate 95 brought the sneaker’s cult status to D.C. and New York. Phased out shortly afterwards, the AF1 returned around 1986 to select East Coast stores (with a slightly altered shape complete with more regional exclusives). Rarely spotted makeups could be acquired by those in the know from fabled stores like Troop co-founder Teddy Held’s long-defunct spot in the South Bronx, nicknamed “Jew Man.”
Big brands don’t acknowledge it openly, drug dealers Nike Air Presto Womens and hustlers were the true style influencers of their era. As a result of the crack epidemic that tore apart East Coast inner cities from roughly 1984 to 1993, there was plenty of expendable dough to be spent. Dealers’ pristine shoes, ostentatious automobiles, and oversized jewelry set a new standard of aspiration — one that required the kind of money that only the fast life seemed to provide. Footwear prices may have recruited a fair share of soldiers, and those soldiers in turn helped birth even more sneaker fanaticism.
The sneaker has a history of very little marketing, outside of the original ads that featured the likes of NBA stars Moses Malone and Mychal Thompson, but it was sold by Nike strictly in inner city markets. According to journalist Bill Brubaker and an unnamed source in a March 1991 Washington Post article, Nike Air Huarache Mujer “The company... sends a ‘special makeup’ model — the Air Force One, which was introduced in 1983 and sells for about $80 — to selected inner city stores. ‘This shoe is strictly inner city,’ one Washington retailer said. ‘It’s not in Nike’s catalogue, but it sells well among blacks.’”
The subsequent gentrification of urban sneaker culture gives the impression that the AF1 is a people's shoe that transcends race, gender, and class. But without its initial inner city fan base keeping it alive, the Force would most likely be little more than a shoe praised by true connoisseurs and historians but forgotten by everyone else.