Not all Air Max models receive the same love. Some, like the Air Max 1 and 95, become instant classics, loved by all from every corner of the world. Others are slow-burners, first appreciated within niche circles, with its appeal only reaching the broader world many years later. This is true for Nike’s Air Max 97, originally released over a decade ago and recently receiving a re-issue.
Christian Tresser joined Nike around 1996 after a stint at Reebok working in their football department. He was given the initial sketches of 97, which had already been through two designers before him, and told him, “This shoe is going to make your career. Don’t blow it.” With this in mind, Tresser began his hard work on the silhouette, utilising a new air max sole unit that spanned the length of the entire midsole.
Tresser knew the upper had to match the bold and futuristic tooling used for the sole, and therefore turned to his passion of mountain bikes with their silver hi-tech progressive materials. This is contrary to popular belief that the first Air Max 97 was inspired by Japanese Bullet trains, which was merely Nike story telling after the creation of the 97 silhouette.
Though it still incorporated a layer of polyurethane foam, it offered runners sport-specific crash padding to provide more durable heel-to-toe cushioning. This was the first Air Sole developed specifically for running, harkening back to Nike’s inception as a company on the frontier of high performance footwear for runners.
Tresser’s newly designed model incorporated sleek lines into a decidedly chunky silhouette with a reflective upper, that created a sneaker that stood out on the shelves, but still had a polarising response by customers. Despite a supposedly slow start when they arrived at retailers like Foot Locker, that popularity would soon erupt. Rome’s graffiti crews saw the connection between those lines of 3M and their North Face gear, appreciating how they seemed to explode when the camera flash hit them posing in front of their freshly painted pieces.
But it was the shoe styled on the catwalk in an early 1998 Armani show and on a Dolce & Gabbana catwalk later that year, that turned the Air Max 97 into something of a fashion phenomenon, especially in Italy. The Air Max 97 also found serious love in the UK. Unorthodox, bulkier shoes, like the Reebok Pump Fury and Nike Footscape, were extremely popular and the Nike Air Max 97 fitted perfectly into this trend.
1999 saw the release of the first gold Air Max 97, coming after many years of reissuing the Silver Bullet. Collaborations utilising the 97 followed this but were thin on the ground. The first 97 collaboration was with San Francisco’s True store, which reinterpreted the sneaker in a ACG-style with premium fabrication. The Nike Air Max 97 was also featured in 2006’s Powerwall Air Max Collection and sold well, but those on NIKEiD, Nike’s customisation service, began to have the most fun with the model.
Somewhere, between the early 2013 re-issue of the silvers and the present day, the hype snowballed. The bulky retro became a global fascination with 1997 era aesthetics embodied in output from every key streetwear line, with the Supreme 98s from a couple of years ago stoking the flames. This created a mania for some neglected big bubble makeups as well as its more curious budget spinoffs. Prices soared and Facebook groups like Air Max 97 Enthusiast were full of WTB and WTS posts.
The Air Max 97 Ultra saw its release in 2016, applying mesh and knit construction for a lighter feel and sleeker look. The 97 releases continued and the model was used in the extremely hyped collaboration with Grime artist Skepta, titled the SkAIR. The bulky silhouette also went on to be honoured in Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten”, receiving the now iconic deconstructed treatment from the Off-White designer. The hype continued with Sean Wotherspoon's winning hybrid of the Air Max 97 and 1, called the 97/1 SW, being the most popular releases of the past couple of years. Most recently, the Air Max 97 was introduced to the Vapor Max sole unit, creating the popular Nike Air Max VaporMax.