When sneakerheads talk shoes, they’re talkin’ bout Nikes. Yes, yes, I know — there are plenty of sneakerheads as obsessive and loyal to the three stripes, Puma or what-have-you, as Nikeheads are to the Swoosh. But the fact remains that when it comes to sneakers and the cats that love/collect/obsess over them, there’s Nike and really, nobody else. I’m not here to dispute this claim (which I just made) — only to explain why.
Let’s just say that Nike (and sneakers in general) owe a little bit of that to some guy named Michael Jordan. In the ’80s, Reebok was killing it by addressing women in general, aerobics specifically (jeez, remember aerobics?). Converse had the best ballpayers of the decade, Magic and Bird, choosing their Weapons. But then this Jordan guy started dunking on everyone in sight, wearing garish, bright colored sneakers banned by the NBA (for too little white on the shoe). He single-handedly pulled Nike from the doldrums in the ’80s, and promptly went on to become the greatest basketball player of all time, and the most popular athlete/endorser ever. Before Mike, only tennis players received signature shoes with their name on them (Stan Smith, Rod Laver…). His Airness became the first team-sport athlete to rep signature product, and nothing has been the same since then.
But it don’t stop there: since then, Nike has signed pretty much every significant/flashy athlete in the game (any game, that is): Andre Agassi, Bo Jackson (when that meant something), Charles Barkley, Mia Hamm, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Serenna Williams, Lebron… The people at the Swoosh have always gone out of their way to have their products closely aligned to excellence, and flamboyant excellence at that. About the only two athletes that move product that Nike didn’t/couldn’t sign are Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson (and at least Allen wore JXIs @ Georgetown — and wore ‘em well). Add this roster to their brilliant advertising campaigns (courtesy of ad giants Widen & Kennedy), and genius is really the only possible result.
Of course, all the endorsements in the world can’t save a lousy product. And product is another reason Nike shines. First, ever since technology has played a significant factor in shoes (let’s say the ’80s), Nike has consistently been on the cutting edge. If all they’d done was Air and velcro straps on basketball sneakers, Nike could call it a day and still reign supreme. But they had to invent the concept of cross-training, and add Hurache, Zoom Air and Shox technology to the repertoire as well.
And when you marry ill technology to even sicker design, there’s not much that can stop you. The Air Force 1, designed by Bruce Kilgore in 1982, is still getting significant play today. Every shoe Tinker Hatfield has ever designed (Air Max ’87, Jordans 3-15, Trainer 1s) is a classic. If you think of sneaker companies as fashion houses, it’s true that the brand alone will still sell. But when you couple the brand with outstanding designs that inspire the imagination, then you have success. For whatever reason, Nike’s designers have never been constrained by the Swoosh: some of their most famous designs don’t feature a logo prominently anywhere. But designers at the three-stripes and RBK have never figured this out, somehow. And it don’t help when you’re already three steps behind to begin with (every other brand seems to imitate Nike’s latest technology about one to two years later).
This last part I can’t quite figure out, but it’s worthy of mention. In the blossoming world of limited editions/retro’s/cool-guy sneaker stores, Nike rep’s at least 90% of the product on shelves today. Any sneaker boutique around the world knows that Swooshie joints are the most-coveted by far, and their stock reflects this. Why? I suppose Nike is just the most in-tune with the market, and constantly offers the best of its extensive back-catalogue, in line with exclusivity (for better or worse) and crazy color-reimaginings. They put out artist-collaborations, and release uncountable “special editions” for every hot rapper/celebrity/athlete. I don’t know how, but Nike manages to own “cool” despite being the monolith of athletic apparel. Usually indie-minded hipsters just want a piece of the best too, I suppose.
To other sneaker companies and their enthusiasts: it’s not my fault Nike is always a step ahead, makes iller product and consequently has iller retro product. Step your game up, and cats will follow… (but it wouldn’t hurt for Nike to release a string of shitty product at the same time) And I see you, adidas, signed up Gilby and Chauncey along with your T-Mac, Duncan and KG — now you just gotta make better shoes.