Nike Cortez History: 50 Years An Icon

Nike Cortez History: 50 Years An Icon

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Cortez is as iconic as any Nike shoe can be. From Forrest Gump to NWA, the silhouette has touched virtually every aspect of popular culture, leaving an unforgettable mark on history. A cutting-edge performance running shoe, an undeniable symbol of Los Angeles street culture, as well as Academy Award support - the Cortez has seen and done it all. 



In 1966, before The Swoosh was born, Bill Bowerman owned Blue Ribbon Sports, a sneaker importer which brought Onitsuka Tiger to the West. With his running expertise, Bill worked with the Japanese brand to release the TG-24 model, marketed as a marathon shoe with performance enhancements never seen before.

 


After Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman officially changed Blue Ribbon Sports to Nike, they dropped their own version in 1972 - calling it the Nike Cortez. It was the first track shoe released under their new Nike banner - keeping Bowerman’s original TG-24 design but adding the new Nike Swoosh in place of the original Onitsuka webbing along the side. 


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The Cortez quickly became an important piece of the company moving forward. The demand for the shoe grew exponentially almost immediately after the public noticed that the Nike Cortez was being used by the 1972 U.S. Olympic athletes. Sales reached $800,000 during the first year the shoe was released. 


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Despite the shoe’s popularity, Nike still had to fight Onitsuka Tiger in court for the right to use the name Cortez going forward. Finally in 1974, after years in court, the judge ruled that both brands could produce their version of the Cortez, but only Nike could continue to use the name as it was spelt. Onitsuka responded by renaming their version the Corsair, and with that - a legend had officially been born. 

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Already wildly successful in the running community, it wouldn’t be long before the Nike Cortez would start to gain its footing within the pop culture landscape, thanks in large part to one of the biggest television stars of the 1970s. In an episode of Charlie’s Angels, Farrah Fawcett wore a pair of Nike Cortez (recreated years later by Bella Hadid). In 1991, Whitney Houston gave the Cortez another boost when she donned a pair for her legendary rendition of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. 

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Reaching even greater heights in 1994, the classic film Forrest Gump saw Tom Hanks gifted a white, blue and red pair of Cortez - later running across the United States in them. To this day, many refer to this colourway as the "Forrest Gump".



One less spoken about the cultural connection of the Cortez is the LA gang appeal. To many in the area, the Cortez is an “LA” shoe - with its roots going all the way back to the 70s and 80s, peaking with the rise of Los Angeles gangster rap in the late 80s and early 90s. 

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The Cortez model started being referred to as "Dope Man Nikes" in LA, thanks to NWA’s song “Dope Man” in 1987. The shoe was also adopted by Bloods and the Crips gang members and it's even believed to have become the official footwear for the MS-13 gang - making it part of their uniform to go along with their khaki pants. 

Nike has never officially acknowledged this connection but when the time comes to create new versions of the Cortez, The Swoosh often calls up LA-based artists and brands like Mister Cartoon, Kendrick Lamar or most recently, UNION LA - all of which are cemented within Los Angeles culture.

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