1984 was a game changing year for popular culture: Prince released his rock opera Purple Rain. Apple launched the Macintosh computer during a SuperBowl ad. MTV hosted the first-ever Video Music Awards. Not to mention, I was a senior in high school and living in my own existential combination of great optimism and uncertain fear of what the future held for my emancipation into the world as an adult.
Amid creativity and chaos, America, at the time, was also riddled with a recession, issues of race and gender, the AIDS pandemic, right-wing ideological rhetoric, and intense culture wars. Conversely, it was also a new renaissance of Black culture, entertainment, and sports dominating the news, box offices, TV, and public popularity. (Sound familiar?)
For me, as a Black teenager growing up in Cincinnati, I looked to the bright lights of Black excellence as a North Star, and one figure in particular: A rookie for the Chicago Bulls named Michael Jordan who looked like me, who seemingly soared through the air as he scored points on the court—and who just signed a five-year, 2.5 million dollar endorsement deal with Nike.
And while I wasn’t the best basketball player (truly mediocre, at best), I could dare to aspire to his greatness, with a $65 investment, wearing the Jordan 1 sneakers—a symbol that, like winged sandals of the Greek God Hermes, personified success, determination, agility, high performance, and most importantly, cool. Yes, for a marginalized teenager in America like me, Jordans were the representation of a reality I wanted to manifest in my own life.
In fact, the Jordan 1’s secret sauce was very simple: they were made for consumers who may or may not love basketball (who may or may not even play sports) and from any walk of life. And it’s this accessibility—which became the 35-model-strong shoe brand Air Jordan—has made the shoe even more legendary today.
So how does a utilitarian sneaker become iconoclastic?
The answer is Peter Moore, the first Creative Director for Nike who designed the Jordan 1. As the legend goes, in a meeting in Washington with Nike executives, David Falk (Jordan’s agent) suggested the name Air Jordan because of Michael’s ability to gracefully soar through the air while making his famous dunk shots.
Allegedly, after the meeting, Moore sketched the winged logo on a cocktail napkin during a flight back to the Nike HQ in Beaverton, OR, after seeing an attendant handing out a winged pendant to a child. “The flight attendant had just given it to him, so I said, ‘Can I have a pair of those wings?’” Moore told Slam magazine in 2018. “She gave me the wings, and I sat down and started drawing the wings. I put a basketball in the middle of them.”
The rest was history. Aside from the innovative construction—the fixed straps to the forefoot and ankle for more stability, a heel cup for extra support, padded ankle collars for a more comfortable fit, air cushions, and the winged logo on the upper part of the high tops—the most notable innovation of the Jordan 1 design (and the most disruptive) was the color. In 1984, most NBA regulation basketball sneakers were simply all black or all white. Occasionally, the sneakers were white with the accent color of the team. Moore pushed this idea by creating Jordan 1 in red, black, and white—the Chicago Bulls colors. Because of this colorway, the Jordan 1’s nickname became “BRED”. Bold and braggadocious, the Jordan 1, like the player who wore them, received a lot of attention. Each time Jordan laced up his Jordan 1, he was actually fined $5,000.00 per game. The shoes subsequently became known as “BANNED” —and Nike, smartly, decided to make lemons out of lemonade.
Nike, a relative newcomer to the world of athletic shoes with cutting edge technology and out-of-the box marketing strategies, turned the $5,000 fines into an opportunity to community-build an even larger fan base around the latest NBA star and ignite the idea of revolution in young people in the U.S. A Nike commercial featuring a young Jordan bouncing a basketball with censor bars over his sneakers. The voice over says: “On Sept. 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On Oct. 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them.”
By the end of the season, Jordan became the NBA Rookie of the Year—and Jordan 1 sales total $126 million.
The infamy and the instant cool-factor of the Jordan 1, and later Air Jordan, was a fashion and marketing alley-oop—the pinnacle for an athlete branded product and a feat that wasn’t surpassed by anyone else. The result is that the Jordan 1s are some of the most coveted shoes today. In 2020, Sotheby’s auction house sold a pair of Jordan 1s for $560,000. Enabled by eBay, sneakerhead culture gave consumers the opportunity to buy, trade, and resale sneakers. Now, these actions occur on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, at retailers like Flight Club and Stadium Goods, on websites like StockX, Grailed, and Round Two, or applications like GOAT. Collaborations with luxury fashion brands like Off-White, Comme des Garçons, and Christian Dior have given Jordan 1 fashion caché. Jordan 1 collaborations with pro BMX biker Nigel Sylverster and Houston rapper Travis Scott has engaged young influencers to endear even younger consumers to this now legacy brand.
39 years later, Jordan 1 still symbolizes all these things for me, but has now become iconic for so many people globally. Like Converse Chuck Taylors, Levi’s 501s, or the Apple iPhone, the Jordan 1 is a classic American invention, its design, form, and function exploding into a cult of personality that is bigger and broader than anyone ever expected. Its popularity created an intrinsic sense of belonging—a lighting rod of hope.
These days, it feels like I see the Jordan 1 everywhere. I was recently taking an afternoon walk in my New York City neighborhood and I noticed a young girl wearing a navy plaid Catholic school uniform paired with navy and white Jordan 1 mid. On my way to a Bermudian cooking class in Lower Manhattan, I almost collided into an office worker (both of us deep in our iPhones) wearing a charcoal overcoat, dad jeans, and white and pale gray Jordan 1.
This is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why Jordan, aside from his historic athletic achievements, NBA Championships, and Olympic wins, is considered the greatest of all time. Jordan and his classic shoe represent a cultural and sociological tipping point in society that was so needed in 1984 and even today. Everyone still wants to be like Mike—or at least walk in his shoes.
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