Birth of an Icon: The Air Jordan 1

Air Jordan 1 on a plinth
Image credit: Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Where does one begin when talking about what is arguably the most important shoe line in the history of sneakers?

Starting with a little context seems as good a place as any. Difficult as it may be to imagine today, there was a time when Michael Jordan was not the most famous athlete in the world (Today, of course, even two decades after his retirement, he continues to be our highest-paid athlete). Ditto, there was nearly a universe in which Jordan did not sign with Nike, meaning a different brand may have brought his signature shoe into being. And, even once Nike managed to seal the deal, there was a period in which the Jordan 1 did not look to be anything like the era-defining, smash-hit success story it would eventually become. 

So let’s go all the way back to 1982. Michael Jordan just had his first brush with fame when he hit the game-winning shot for the University of North Carolina over Georgetown during the NCAA championship game. Two years later, he would pass on his senior year and instead declares for the NBA draft, becoming the third pick after Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. Despite not being the number one selection overall, Jordan’s basketball talents were already writ large and a shoe contract was all but inevitable. This had become a common, although still relatively modest branch of ancillary income for athletes at the time, with the biggest contract belonging to Jordan’s former University of North Carolina teammate, James Worthy, who had signed a $150,000 per year contract with New Balance. 

At the time, Adidas was all the rage and Jordan as a fan wanted to sign with them most of all. But thanks to some pressure from his parents and his agent, Jordan agreed to meet with Nike at their headquarters in Oregon. The brand’s pitch was comprehensive, saying they wanted to build a whole brand with him at its centre — basically, promising to make the young athlete’s wildest dreams come true. But at first, Jordan wouldn’t bite. He apparently didn’t like shoes, since their soles were too thick for him to feel the hardwood under his feet. Fortunately, Nike was happy to oblige, and all parties eventually agreed to an unprecedented $500,000 per year five-year deal, plus royalties from shoe sales and a new design built according to Jordan’s specifications. 

Peter C. Moore, Nike’s creative director, was tasked with designing Jordan’s first shoe with the brief, per Jordan’s instructions, that it needed to be ‘different’ and ‘exciting’. Then, when the shoe in question was born, the rookie’s initial response was apparently to say, ‘I’m not wearing that shoe. I’ll look like a clown.’ Needless to say, the look grew on him and thus, in 1985, the Air Jordan 1 was born. 

Air Jordan 1 sneakers
Image credit: Jake “Sulli” Swoyer on Pexels

But it wasn’t quite the Air Jordan 1 yet, in more ways than one. Firstly, it wasn’t called that — in the early days, none of the shoes were numbered and the numeric nomenclature was only applied retroactively some years later. Moreover, at the time Nike, even with all of the eggs they had placed in MJ’s proverbial basket, didn’t expect the shoe to do as well as it did. With their considerable expenditure in mind, after the sneaker’s release in 1985 the brand hoped to reach $3 million in first-year sales; by the time the Air Jordan II arrived in 1986, sales of the first Air Jordan had exceeded $100 million.

These spectacular sales numbers were driven in part by a canny bit of marketing spin from Nike. The Jordan 1, designed with a bold red-and-white colourway combined with a black Nike swoosh, was released at the tail end of MJ’s rookie year in 1985. This meant that when Jordan laced up for his first game prior to the release of his signature sneaker, he had to do so in a pair of similarly-styled Nike Air Ships. They figured no one would be able to spot the difference and they were right, not least because the aftermath proved much more spectacular than the shoe itself. 

When Jordan stepped on the court (so the much-mythologised story goes) the NBA moved to ban the custom-designed shoe on the grounds of it not matching the Chicago Bulls’ uniform. Jordan wore it anyway despite the threat of a $5,000-per-game fine for breaking the league’s uniform rules. Far from being cowed by a threat of a financial penalty, Nike saw it as a golden opportunity. So when the shoe launched six months later, they promoted it as an illicit product in a national TV commercial with a simple message: ‘On October 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them.’

What followed was a sales frenzy. The shoes, which went for what was at the time a hefty $65 price tag, immediately sold out and the rest is history. In the wake of the Jordan 1, there has been a new sneaker release every year (37 models in total at the present count) and the original — reconceived via countless colourways, collaborations, and re-releases — has scarcely been off the shelves since. It proved popular enough to launch the Jordan Brand as a standalone division of Nike and jump-started seemingly everything from resale markets, to shoe collecting, to the contemporary sneakerverse as we know it. Without it there would have been no Mars Blackmon ads, no Do The Right Thing scuffing scene, and no blockbuster origin story set to hit movie theatres next week, not to mention that everyone from Jay-Z to Jason Sudeikis to Miles Morales would have had to sport a different set of kicks. 

Today, nearly forty years after its initial run, the Jordan 1 continues to represent the pinnacle of sneaker design, unequalled in its influence, style, and desirability. As with the man for whom it is named, his Airness himself, long may that reign continue. 

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