Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Where is my complimentary poster?

How do you honor the past when you have to define the future? When Nike sold the Air Force One in 1982, they sold you the sneaker, you got a poster. In those days posters were the internet and the cable television of that time period. A kid would take a poster and put it on their wall and that was the game to communicating to that kid. The beauty of this system was that it made the shoe into something more than just a shoe, a shoe that represented a culture, a phenomenon and consequently an icon. 

Most bizarrely Nike never advertised the sneaker. There's never been a commercial. THe only brief period was when a complimentary poster would be found in your new Air Force One shoebox. For that poster Nike needed individuals to capture and personify the essence of the Air Force One. The 'Original Six' were chosen and represented the shoe. This meant that the ones who knew about the sneaker, knew that there was a poster with six guys on it who were super human.  

What Nike achieved with that poster was to unite the styles of the street balling scene with the undisputed excellence of the NBA. The 'Original Six' were not unintentionally defensive specialists. Basketball was consistently more efficient back in the day. You had certain players who specialised in certain things, they came out, they hit the floor they provided those things every game, every season. If you could come down the court every time and perform a certain play and score, you were going to keep doing that play, you were going to keep doing that move until someone stopped you. This playing ethos was the same on the hallowed turf as it was on the parquet maple of NBA stadia.

Importantly this poster represented the correlation between the excellences of the athlete with the aesthetic and performance of the footwear that they were wearing, (something that Nike took to extremes with the arrival of Michael Jordan, and the birth of the first signature shoe and label, Air Jordan). These posters of the 'Original Six' weren't a cat just dunking or standing in front of the lens holding a shoe, they were the chosen ones standing on that air strip about to take off to the future. Twenty-five years later, everything that that poster said has been true. 

Historically, the brief introduction of marketing a sneaker through the inclusion of a poster inside a shoebox was a short live phenomenon. ONce this original idea of Nike's was transferred into the DNA of the new Air Jordan marketing scheme, posters not longer belonged within the shoebox but were sold separately as collector pieces. The artwork dramatically changed but retained the important connections between the athlete and the shoe. The new dialogue that emerged played on the ambiguity of the athlete making the sneaker or the sneaker making the athlete.

This brings me to a crucial question. How does a shoe become an icon? As we have seen with the Air Force One and the Air Jordan brand the athlete has become an integral part to the developing of the status and style of the sneaker. The game of basketball has become a culture within its own right, even an institution, with many a sneaker attempting to embody that game in its appearance, style, design and performance. Yet the birth of sneaker culture, my attention is turned to the sneakers that don't have the affiliation with the game of basketball. Without thinking too hard its easy to see that for the cross trainer Nike have found their Michael Jordan equivalent in the form of Bo Jackson. Fo the likes of the Air MAx 90 we see (Europe way anyway) the endorsing of football/soccer players to fill a somewhat troublesome void. With the ebb and flow of great players fluctuating in and out of form and therefore in and out of the public eye, the face of the Air Max 90 is not a constant yet benefits hugely from the array of faces that have contributed to its overall myth and aura.    

So we arrive at the Air Max One. Here is a sneaker that needs little introduction but one whose identity is somewhat shrouded in a veil of folklore. Its not like there has ever been a face to the Air Max One in recent memory. Initially designed as a running shoe it has struggled to find its natural relationship with a promotional athlete. Yet how has it become a household name in the sneaker community?

More than anything it is down to the birth of sneaker culture. The importance of the sneaker has moved beyond the realms of the athlete and the technological performance of the shoe. It isn't difficult to see that inner city youth culture and music, with its emphasis on style and freshness has created a dialogue with sneaker companies to take as much care in the aesthetics of the shoe rather than the mere performance driven agenda. Consequently artist collaborations are dropping the whole time as well  as treating such classic designs as the Air Max One and the Air Force One as blank canvasses for endless customisation. Since the birth of the Air Force One 1982, sneaker companies have been alerted to this cultural development. Sure it was the best shoe to go ball in, whether in the streets or in the professional arenas, but for pure aesthetics, damn it looked cool with the strap hanging. So what we've got here is that popular culture is just that single ingredient that makes the Air Max One.

What is forgotten within this whole discussion, is that the role of sneaker culture isn't simply that of being the face of the Air Max One or any other kick. The Air Max One in its own right as a sneaker, with its specialist design (updated but unchanged), style, aesthetic and innumerable colour combinations is enough of an inspiring and desirable cocktail that it has moved beyond the point of needing its image to be tied in with an athlete. Even with the Air Force One we see it still being used on the NBA courts to this day and promoted by such players as Rasheed Wallace. Yet the Air Max One is past all this due to having a pedigree that lacks any involvement past and present with a celebrity athlete. So what I am really proposing is that to emphasize this fact publicly, Nike should revisit their use of a complimentary poster in the shoebox not so much as a promotional technique but more to celebrate the iconic status that this sneaker has achieved through seemingly unorthodox means of being nothing more than just a sneaker.

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