Then came the all-white Low. Crispy like white Reeboks — a popular hustler shoe in certain NYC boroughs, back when such stylistic divisions were a thing — the white on white colorway let the ageless look of Kilgore’Adidas Superstar Femmes creation speak. But when exactly the white Air Force 1 Low was first released remains something of an enigma. The time between the AF1's 1986 reissue and the early 1990s reworking of the shoe’s design to eliminate its mesh side panels is so shoddily documented. It’s patchy to the point where it's understandable if some think that the shoe never even came into being until the late 1990s. All we've got scraps to go on are showoff Polaroids, album sleeves, and old ads.
Insider sources claim that the all-white all-leather Low debuted in 1997, but seeing artists like the Bronx's own Lord Finesse in white-on-white highs circa 1992 (and by that point, select regional Foot Lockers had the white highs as a limited release) casts doubt on that. Just to reiterate that Baltimore's love for the shoe was long-term, a 1994 ad for the city's Nike Air Presto Womens still-standing Holabird Sports advertises all-white or -black highs or lows (priced at $62.95 or $57.95 respectively).
Then there were the subtle variants to keep things confusing. Off-white lows with the brown outsole were available in select spots in 1991, while an array of white canvases with gum soles were on sale in the mid-1990s. A gleaming all-white patent low was released as part of a pack in 1996.
Whenever they were officially debuted, all-leather, white-on-white lows quickly became a strong seller thanks to an existing inner-city fanbase; Nike knew how to build hype among the already loyal fans. At one point, Nike’s Limited Edition team – with quickstrike and retro pioneers like Nike employee Drew Greer in the mix —temporarily denied supply of the white-on-white lows for a moment to build demand and exclusivity. As the 1990s progressed, the distribution of the AF1 expanded beyond its key cities. The 199Adidas Gazelle Womens 4 introduction of the often-maligned Air Force 1 Mid and a carefully orchestrated “City Attack” project that spawned the familiar Nike NYC logo was the tactical precursor to a global rollout that would send the white on white overseas.
In terms of pop culture, the white Air Force 1 low made a significant impact. Sneakers had been name dropped since hip-hop’s infancy, but how many had been called out in a specific colorway? Forces had been mentioned in general terms before. 3rd Bass’s Pete Nice rapped, “Bought the Nike Air low cuts off the Jew man,” on his 1993 song “Outta My Way Baby”).
Distributed well enough to sprawl far beyond the East, the Air Force 1 hit the Midwest hard enough that St. Louis-based artist Nelly was stockpiling colors. At the peak of his popularity, Nelly dropped “Air Force Ones,” an anthem about the Nike Air Max 95 Damenshoe complete with a video festooned with a questionable selection of color/material variations. It was a hit, and operated as a constantly played commercial that normalized buying multiple “purrrrs” with lines like “Now don't nothing get the hype on first sight like white on whites.”
Nike was quick to reward rap’s unofficial endorsees by going off the grid and working with the likes of plugged-in NYC shoe retail legend Udi Avshalom, who ran the now-defunct sneaker store chain Training Camp, to create branded white on whites with simple stitched Roc-A-Fella logos. That was followed by white-on-white Nellyville versions and tributes to Fat Joe’s Terror Squad.
In London, the burgeoning grime scene popularized the all-white and all-black Force that was readily available at High Street stalwarts JD Sports (who also peddled their own Nike Air Max 95 Dame sought-after line of UK-exclusive SMUs). In year 2005, three years after Nelly’s hit, Atlanta’s trap pioneer Young Jeezy got his own signature Air Force 1s, too. The sneaker silhouette that entered street culture as an attention-grabbing anomaly had become a mandatory street staple, paired with a white tee and big jeans for a uniform of dope boy anonymity. With more availability and a lower price point than it had over two decades prior, the Air Force 1 was a phenomenon. The sneaker was as easy to replace as it was to crease — but instead of alienating wearers, its quality control issues were practically celebrated.