Cortez: The Sneaker that Made Nike

Close-up of Nike Cortez trainers worn with selvedge jeans
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Nike trainers were among the first wardrobe items that registered as cool to me when I was growing up. Everyone always seemed to stop and take notice when a kid on the playground sported a new pair of Nikes. There was one guy that I remember in particular who had a pair of white Air Force 1s which, despite nearly every road in my home town being a dirt track, he somehow always managed to keep spotlessly clean — luminously so, even. I still don’t know how on earth he did it. 

They were on TV too, of course. Marty McFly’s Bruins. MJ’s Jordans. Nikes seemed to be everywhere apart from on my own feet. It was OK, though, I felt certain my time would come and, when it did, I knew exactly what pair I’d get.

For me, the holy grail has always been the Nike Cortez. It was a purely aesthetic response at first. I liked the styling: classic, simple, retro yet somehow always fresh-looking. And, as time went by and I noticed that the best clothes didn’t always have to be kept pristine, I realised they even looked great all worn in and scuffed up (a rarer distinction among sneakers than with work boots or denim, say). It wasn’t until I finally bought a pair when I was older that I learned, in addition to its good looks, the Cortez was among the first pairs of shoes Nike ever made under its own name. Moreover, it was the design the fate of the company once turned on.

Side view of a Nike Cortex shoe
Cortezes only get better with wear
Image credit: Luca Trassini on Unsplash

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, before Nike went by that name, it started out as a company called Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS). It was founded by Phil Knight for the purpose of selling Japanese running shoes made by the sportswear brand Onitsuka Tiger (today known as ASICS). For the first few years of its operation, that was all that proto-Nike did. Or, it was what Knight and his sales associates were doing, anyway. While the rest of Blue Ribbon was flogging Tigers, Knight’s co-founder, Bill Bowerman, was busy making shoes.

To be more specific, he was figuring out how to improve the running shoes that Onitsuka was shipping to the States. Bowerman — in addition to co-founding Nike, writing a best-selling book, and being America’s most famous track coach — was an inveterate tinkerer. He’d pull Onitsuka’s shoes apart and figure out how best to put them back together again. He’d develop novel materials and designs. He’d experiment with new midsoles and outsoles, with tread and grip, and then he would use his ready supply of runners to try it all out. Then he’d send the fruits of his experiments back to Japan in the form of reams of notes offering endless adjustments and refinements for future models (So valuable was Bowerman to Onitsuka that when the company eventually parted ways with Blue Ribbon under unhappy circumstances, they nevertheless hoped to keep Bowerman on as a consultant, but he didn’t go for it).

One of Bowerman’s finest achievements in those early days was the Cortez. He made it, as ever, by tweaking the specs of previous models, which resulted in the first prototype being sent over from Japan in 1967. It boasted a spongy midsole and raised heel aimed at reducing pain and strain while running. Initially, Bowerman wanted to call it the ‘Aztec’ in honour of the upcoming Olympic Games, which would be held the following year in Mexico City. But when the company’s long-time rival, Adidas, threatened legal action (they had a shoe called Azteca Gold) Nike regrouped. Phil Knight recounts the incident in Shoe Dog

‘Aggravated, I drove up the mountain to Bowerman’s house to talk it all over. We sat on the wide porch, looking down at the river. It sparkled that day like a silver shoelace. He took off his ball cap, put it on again, rubbed his face. “Who was that guy who kicked the shit out of the Aztecs?” he asked. “Cortez,” I said. He grunted. “Okay. Let’s call it the Cortez.”’

Phil Knight

The newly-christened Cortez, as made by Onitsuka Tiger, was a huge hit. Buoyed by its success at the Olympics and the burgeoning jogging movement (kicked off by none other than Bill Bowerman thanks to his aptly titled book, Jogging), the Cortez sold in record numbers. Off the back of its success, Blue Ribbon sold $300 000 worth of shoes in 1969. The Cortez soon became the most successful shoe in the history of both BRS and Onitsuka.

Its success, however, sowed the seeds of the oncoming split between the two companies. The Cortez proved such a hit that neither business could keep up. To make matters worse for Blue Ribbon, Onitsuka would satisfy their local demand first before sending any over to the U.S., which made for late shipments that rarely contained what BRS had asked for. This, combined with a general deterioration of their business relationship and a rise in mutual suspicion, led to Blue Ribbon secretly starting their own shoe-making operation while still under contract with Onitsuka in 1971. All of which resulted in a prolonged lawsuit in which ownership of the Cortez was amoung the main disputes. A judge eventually ruled that both companies could sell their own versions of the model, with Nike (the brand that emerged from Blue Ribbon’s covert shoe-making efforts) retaining the name Cortez since it was Bowerman’s design and coinage. The Tiger model came to be known as the Corsair.

Close-up of Nike Cortez sneakers
Image credit: Jeroen den Otter on Unsplash

The freshly-minted Nike Cortez, rising from the ashes of BRS, continued to do blockbuster business. It debuted at the 1972 Olympics and hasn’t slowed down much since. 

The popularity of the Cortez has been bolstered over the years by several high-profile on-screen appearances. One of the most influential was on an episode of Charlie’s Angels in 1977 in which Farrah Fawcett wore a pair of Senorita Cortezes (the model marketed at women) while skateboarding through a park. It was enough to have every pair of Senorita Cortezes sold out by noon the following day. Indeed, the image of Fawcett skating in Nikes, bell-bottoms, and a red top became so well-known that Bella Hadid recreated the image for the Cortez’s 45 anniversary.

They also appeared in concert on the feet of superstar singers Elton John and Whitney Houston, as well as being a signature for one of TV’s favourite curmudgeons, George Costanza from Seinfeld, and film’s loathed antihero, in the form of Jordan Belford of The Wolf of Wall Street (remember the scene where he tries to drive his Ferrari on Quaaludes? Its a Cortez that he manages to get stuck in the car door). Nowhere, however, has the Cortez enjoyed higher billing than in the 1994 Oscar-winning mega-hit, Forrest Gump, in which the title character (played by Tom Hanks) calls a pair of red, white, and blue Cortezes ‘the best gift anyone could ever get me’ before using them to run across North America. The film and its Cortezes have become so entrenched in popular culture that you’ll still find the red, white, and blue colourway referred to as the ‘Forrest Gump’ by some sneakerheads.

For all of the Hollywood glam, Cortezes also have a grittier legacy elsewhere on the streets of Los Angeles, dating as far back as the ’70s and ’80s when they were adopted by the Bloods, Crips, the MS-13 gangs. They also became a long-lived LA style staple thanks to popular gangsta rap acts like N.W.A. 

In our own time, they continue to be worn by such influential dressers as Donald Glover, Shia LaBeouf, and Kendrick Lamar (who has four Cortez collabs under his belt). Which suggest that, should you decide to lace up with a pair of Cortezes, Nike’s OG megahit is still guaranteed to make you feel like the coolest kid on the playground.

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