In 2020, the iconic Nike Air Max 90 turned 30 years old. Whether you've been rocking these kicks for three decades or you're new to the game, there's no denying their appeal.

As you eye new releases to add to your collection, it's interesting to take a look at how these sneakers got their start. What was behind their creation and how did they get to where they are today?

In this post, we're doing a deep dive into the history books and sharing how some of the most recognizable shoes in sports history came to be.

1987: The Development of Nike Air 

Before 1990, there was 1987. This was the year that Nike Air changed the game forever. The brand's legendary designer Tinker Hatfield had the idea to create a visible air pocket on a pair of running shoes. 

As the story goes, Hatfield first developed his vision for the shoes after a trip to Paris, France. While there, he visited the Centre Georges Pompidou, a city complex turned inside out. In short, all of the interior components required to keep the structure running, from the plumbing and electricity to the escalators, are on its exterior

The colorful complex blended form and function, but with a unique twist. Hatfield had the vision to translate the look into a new Nike product, and he began sketching drafts of the Air Max 1 as soon as he arrived back home to Oregon. 

The final product, known as the Nike Air Max 1, was a marvel. Never before had a shoe's inner elements been so transparently visible on the outside. It was an instant hit. 

Not only did the Nike AIR pocket give the shoes a bit of supportive cushioning, but it also made them ultra-cool. Wearers donned them both on and off the track and the Air Max 1 officially became a household name. While Nike has released many different running shoes over the years, the Air Max 1s remain top-sellers, cherished as much for their nostalgic style as their all-day comfort.

1988 to 1989: Expanding the Nike Air Empire

There was no denying the mass appeal of the first Nike Air Max sneakers. The only issue? Hatfield and company had a hit on their hands, but nothing to satiate the public's desire for new releases. 

They needed to tweak the look of the Air Max 1 just slightly, adding new features and components every so often to keep buyers engaged and keep the market cornered. The brand's first efforts were ambitious, even if they weren't met with the same immediate success.

In 1988, Nike reimagined the Air Max 1 as not a running shoe, but a walking shoe. Dubbed the Nike Air Walker Max, it was a short-lived effort but it spurred other iterations. The next year, buyers rejoiced when the Air Max Light hit the shelves. 

Featuring a red, navy, and white colorway, the original Air Max Lights were clean and cool. They retained most of the features of the Air Max 1 but added new Phylon tech where the former models had polyurethane. The Air Max Lights also featured a more breathable toe box and thermoplastic straps for enhanced ankle stability. 

Aesthetically, it was a great example of the brand's effortless approach to color blocking, which countless competitors have tried to emulate over the years. The silhouette of the Air Max Light would set the stage for the design of the Air Max 90, which would come just a year later. 

1990: The Debut of the Nike Air Max 90

In 1990, Nike decided to release the next sequel to the Air Max I. As the Air Max Lights could have technically been referred to as the Air Max II, it was time for the Air Max III.

In fact, that's what the brand called the Nike Air Max 90 when it first hit the shelves. It wasn't Hatfield's first time reaching the three-point line in the game of sneaker fashion. In 1988, he'd led a similar expedition by releasing the Jordan III, which spurred decades of collaborations, colorways, and new releases.

This time, it was the Air Max he was tasked with redesigning.

The new release needed to maintain much of the appeal that had helped the original sneakers sell so quickly. Yet, it had to also embrace modern functions, technology, and design. Thankfully, Hatfield knew the winning formula to employ

As expected, the Nike Air Max III, soon eclipsed the Air Max I in terms of popularity and style. The response was reminiscent of the way the Jordan III flew off the shelves, years after the first Air Jordans debuted in 1985. 

New Features and Expanded Functionality

Nike had to give buyers something unique and special with the Air Max III, and the brand more than delivered. When the Air Max I first debuted, the most talked-about feature was the exposed Nike Air unit, which revealed the inner components of the cushioning that made the shoe so comfortable.

With this version, the Air bag was not only bolder and more prominent, but the window was infrared instead of fully transparent. On a white-bottomed sneaker, the original Air unit was almost missable, but this time, you couldn't look away from it. Plus, the Air Max III removed the foam that was previously inserted between the outsole, so the Air unit didn't collapse as much under pressure. 

At the same time, the Air Max III also ventured into new territory in terms of colorways. Gone were the red, blue, and white tones that had defined previous models. Now, the look was all about drama. 

Neon reds and bright pinks took the place of primary colors, and the debut colorway was aptly titled "Infrared". Many of the features were similar to those on the Air Max Lights, including the thermoplastic straps and breathable upper. Yet, these features were made better, stronger, and more durable with this version. 

Visually, the shoes had the look of speed and fusion. In addition to the pink and red tones, there were also hints of black, gray, and white throughout each sneaker. In 2020, Nike re-vamped the original Nike Air Max 90 Infrared Colorway to celebrate the shoes' 30-year anniversary. 

1991 to 2006: The Transformation of the Nike Air Unit

Not long after their debut, the Nike Air Max IIIs became known as Air Max 90s. In the years that have passed since then, these shoes have undergone various updates. This includes the notable Reverse Duck Camo Colorway, which blended a green and black camouflage design with those signature infrared tones. 

Other iconic Air Max sneakers included the Air Max 93, 95s, and 97s. Of course, we can't discount the Nike VaporMax series, which debuted in 2016 and hit the retail market in 2017. While other Air Max sneakers got plenty of makeovers over time, the original Air Max 90s remained largely untouched until 2005.

That year, Nike debuted its History of Air collection. In an ambitious undertaking, the brand re-released all of its flagship Air Max sneakers in the order of the year that they first debuted. The sneakers maintained the original colorways, though there was one noteworthy change.

Instead of the trademark middle seam that used to run length-wise along the Air unit, it was now made of a single, solid piece. While the new structure was more streamlined, it also required the Air unit to shrink just a little. In 2006, Nike added a new Air Max 360 sole to the Air Max 90s, adding an Air unit that ran the full length of each shoe. 

2008 to Present: Revamps, Updates, and Retro Releases

There were other Air Max retro releases in 2008, 2010, and 2015. In 2012, Nike added its new Hyperfuse technology to the shoe, dubbing it the Air Max 90 Hyperfuse. Designed to be lighter and more breathable to support on-court action, these sneakers were also more rugged and durable than their earlier counterparts. 

Yet, the best and most recent update happened five years later. 

As mentioned, the brand re-released the OG Air Max 90s in 2020, making only minimal changes to ensure the "updated" model was actually more in line with the original design. Most of the changes centered around the shoe's silhouette, which was slimmer due to modifications that Nike made to the toe box, heel counter, and side panels. 

The initial release was called the Triple White Colorway, and it was an all-white vision, with a sleek profile that called to mind the running shoe's original design. 

Shop Our Collection of Nike Air Max 90 Sneakers

The history of Nike Air Max 90 sneakers is long and rich. These shoes continue to pave the way for similar lines, though few pairs can beat the OG Infrared release. 

If you're in the market for a running shoe or an ultra-plush pair of everyday sneakers, few can stand up against these. They continue to be some of the brand's best-selling shoes, with dedicated fans lining up eagerly for each new release.

Looking to add a new pair to your own collection? We have a variety of Nike sneakers available in our online shop, so start browsing today!


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