Air Force 1 history - Everything you need to know

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There is no question that the Air Force 1 history is one of the most fascinating and storied of any sneaker on the market today.

It all began in 1982 when the Air Force 1 was introduced as one of the best basketball shoes around at the time, evidenced by the fact Nike used six of its most popular NBA stars to promote the sneakers.


However, the Air Force 1's road from basketball to sneaker stardom isn't as straightforward as you might think, with the shoes almost going extinct if it weren't for a small collection of stores in Baltimore which backed Nike's design early on.

So, how exactly did a shoe go from the brink of extinction to still being made to this day? Well, we've rounded up some of the most defining moments in the history of the amazing Air Force 1 silhouette to give you a little more insight. Let's get into it...

Air Force 1 history

The Air Force 1 has been around for 40 years now, but where did it all begin for the iconic model? Let's take a closer look at its origins...


As touched on, the Air Force 1 began life in 1982 as a basketball shoe, most notably as the first sneaker to bring the soft, springy Nike Air cushioning to the game, before the likes of the Air Max made it so popular.

Nike doubled down on this and used six of its top NBA stars under contract, these being Michael Cooper, Bobby Jones, Moses Malone, Calvin Natt, Mychal Thompsen, and Jammal Wilkes, to promote the shoes as part of the "Original Six" campaign.

Air Force 1 history - Nike 1983 Air Force 1 campaign with six NBA players dressed in white with the original Air Force 1s on feet.
Credit: Nike

As per their name and Bruce Kilgore's futuristic design, the concept of the promotion was flight, with each player donning bright white aerospace overalls to match the high-top sneakers on their feet.

Despite being dressed in white, these weren't the popular "Triple White" Air Force 1 '07s available today. No, the shoes actually featured grey Swooshes and outsoles to match the ankle strap around the high-top collar.

Air Force 1 history - Nike product image of an original 1982 white and grey Air Force 1 high-top.
Credit: Nike

This is perhaps where the Air Force 1 initially stumbled. With just the one collar height and colour scheme, to begin with, there wasn't an Air Force 1 for everyone like there is today. As a result, the Air Force 1 didn't really boom in popularity.

What this initial design did provide though was a template for future releases, although Nike hasn't forgotten about where it all started as it dropped Vintage "Sail" remakes of the originals in 2022.

Read More: Best shoes like Air Force 1s


Yes, one of the most popular sneakers ever made was actually dropped by Nike in the early years, with the original #4190 design eventually discontinued by '83.


However, consumers demanded it back, with owners of the Air Force 1 taking to customising their own shoes in order to compensate for a lack of new designs.

Retailers also had an interest. According to Nike, three stores in Baltimore had a particular desire to see the Air Force 1 return, and even lobbied hard for it. Nike agreed, but only if the retailers would take 1,200 pairs of the two initial colourways.

Air Force 1 history - Nike Air Force 1 Highs in red, brown, white, black, and blue on a table next to their original drawings.
Credit: Nike

These retailers accepted and took on the 1,200 pairs of the "Royal Blue" and "Chocolate Brown" designs and, in doing so, inadvertently retro'd a sneaker for the first time, something that is massively popular in today's sneaker culture.

This collection of shoes became known as the "Colour of the Month" series, aka the sneakers which Nike credits as the saviour of the Air Force 1.

Read More: Best places to buy Air Force 1s


Following its return, the '80s and '90s saw the shoes only sold at select retailers rather than through Nike's catalogue, thus giving them an element of exclusivity.

Nike also made some adjustments to the design in the '90s to give the shoes a more uniform, sleek aesthetic. For example, Nike ditched the mesh side panels, opting instead for an all-leather upper that remains popular to this day.

Air Force 1 history - Nike Air Force 1 in white and grey next to the "Royal Blue" colourway.
Credit: Nike

Where the Air Force 1 really made its mark on sneaker history though was when Nike introduced the white-on-white design in the '90s. This simple colour scheme was easy to wear and match to any outfit, thus making it popular along the East Coast.

This design became so popular in fact that music artist Jay-Z started to wear the shoes on stage which, according to Bobbito Garcia, "really, really pushed the shoe", and the rapper even referenced the sneakers in “Can I Live II”.

Read More: Best Nike collabs


Moreover, Dr. Dre famously wears a fresh pair of Air Force 1s every day, while Nike even debuted a Roc-a-Fella Records collaboration in the '00s, further cementing its legacy in the hip-hop scene.

Ultimately, the Air Force 1 made its mark in popular culture in a way few sneakers have over the years.

Air Force 1 history - Nike Air Force 1 collaboration with Roc-a-fella Records dressed in white with the Roc-a-fella logo on the heel.
Credit: Nike

Nowadays, we'd say the Air Force 1 house cemented itself on the Mt. Rushmore of sneakers, with perhaps the Jordan 1's history the only legacy that compares.

The shoe still remains incredibly popular to this day, and has been the centre of some of the best sneaker collaborations over the years, with Supreme, Off-White, and, more recently, UNDEFEATED to name just a few.

So, from basketball to the streets of Baltimore, and then on to sneaker stardom, the Air Force 1 really has done it all. What's next for the model though? We certainly can't wait to find out.