26 August 2018

The Roadman Favourite: Air Max 95

Solar Red

A shoe I have never been able to make my mind up about - the Air Max 95.

The Air Max 95 is a cult classic. For years it was the most worn shoe by criminals in the UK, as determined by footprints left at crime scenes (overtaken by the Reebok Classic in 2010, although I am not sure what the current crowd favourite is). It was the sneaker behind what police at the time called the first ever recorded case of targeted shoe robbery in Japan. And it is the first ever shoe that I remember knowing by sight the exact brand and model name. In fact when it comes to clothing in general, it was the first time I knew the name of a product, could identify it on the street, and knew exactly how much it cost. And that had nothing to do with advertising, or because certain celebrities wore it, but purely thanks to word on the street. To put it into perspective for international readers, Nike Air Max are as popular and culturally relevant in Europe as Jordan brand is in America, and arguably nowhere more so than in London. Although they initially released at a price of £99, the Air Max 95s were soon retailing for £110, which is why to this day many still refer to them as the "110s".

The design of the shoe was inspired by human anatomy. The lacing system and those long eyelet loops that start down at the midsole represent the rib cage. The breathable mesh panelling either side of the eyelets are supposed to represent the lungs, while the layered suede panels seek to evoke layers of muscular tissue. The heel of the shoe has a relatively rigid 3M panel that represents the neck or spine. The original design sketch did not actually feature the Swoosh at all, but rather was meant to be a totally clean sneaker. Even with the Jordan 2 in their roster, removing the Swoosh was just not done at Nike. The colour choice behind the original Neon colourway, which is the same as the shoe photographed, but with neon yellow instead of solar red, was also contentious. Many did not think that consumers would buy black and grey shoes, fearing they looked dirty. Even having visible air units towards the front of the sole was quite a departure from previous designs. You hear about it here and there, but I actually remember seeing someone get jumped on the street near my school once purely so that the attacker could stab and puncture the air units on the victims shoes. Needless to say, it provided us with a talking point for months to come.

Indeed as a child this is the shoe that I remember more than any other, and more than the shoe itself, I remember the reputation. To put it simply, they were the drug dealer's shoe, and if you had a pair - you were the man. The area I grew up in was not the most salubrious, and so the older relatives of a sizeable number of my classmates in school made their money on the road. The functional requirements for such endeavours are shoes that are comfortable to stand in all day, but that would also work when making a quick getaway on foot; while the social requirements boil down to something expensive and exclusive enough to mark you out from the crowd. The Air Max 95 checked every box, and thus they were both status symbol and a surprisingly practical choice. The colourway I most remember is actually the OG neon, but soon you could see any number of colourways on the street. I would have been five or six years old when I saw my first pair, but even at that age, I knew that they meant something. Everyone seemed to know that they meant something. If you were wearing them, people would treat you with respect, or at the very least, a wary politeness. Of course that was context specific, because within a few years I remember children at school owning pairs, but even then, those shoes put them at the top rung of the social ladder.

As large a part as the Air Max 95 plays in my memories of childhood, I have never actually been able to decided whether I like them or not. It is one of the only pieces that I can think of that I have gone back and forth between time and time again. And so when I found out that the OG Solar Red colourway would be coming out this year, I knew that I had to get a pair to satisfy my curiosity. The truth is that I until I got this pair, I had never actually tried a pair on before. Nostalgia is a tricky business, and so when they arrived from Nike, and I pulled them out for the first time, it took me right the way back to being a little kid in school. I had not held a pair in over twenty years, and sitting there with them in my hands gave rise to an interesting mix of emotions. If I think about my interest and love of fashion and dress, then that pair of shoes that I sat there holding was arguably the first step that would define the direction of my life. I had never really thought about it in those terms before, but sitting there I realised that they were literally my earliest memory of having an awareness of the social and cultural value of a piece of dress. I remember the design, I remember the value, I remember the reputation, I remember the meaning, I remember everything that can surround a piece of dress to make it more than simply something you wear.

But like I said, nostalgia is tricky business, and the moment I put them on and saw myself in the mirror, I knew they had to go back. I usually look for garments where the meaning outweighs the design (i.e. I want clothes that mean something more to me than simply looking cool), but in this case, that skew was so heavily in the corner of meaning over design, it felt as if they were simply not for me. They felt comfortable on my feet, they looked pretty cool in the mirror, but I felt like I was wearing someone else's shoes. I think that the social and cultural meaning they hold in my mind are so great, that I feel as if I am wearing a piece of costume when I put them on. It is a difficult feeling for me to explain, but they belong to a life that I saw played out in front me, but thankfully not a life that I have ever lived. It is the same reason that I do not think that I could ever wear a pair of the patent leather America's Cup Prada sneakers. Some things are better left to those who lived it, or those who have no knowledge of it. I still think that they are a fascinating shoe, but they are just not for me. Even so, it was pretty cool to try on a pair for the first time - somewhere in my mind a five year old version of me had his jaw on the floor.


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