By Drew Hammell
1996: a year like none other in terms of sneaker greatness. Michael Jordan was back to dominating with the Chicago Bulls in the Air Jordan XI, Barry Sanders was stymying defenders in the Air Zoom Turf, Andre Agassi won Olympic gold in the Air Zoom Challenge, and Ken Griffey, Jr. was crushing baseballs in the Air Griffey Max.
There were so many memorable models that year – one that is often overlooked, however, is the Air Max running shoe (now known as the Air Max 96). Granted, the Air Max 96 had a tough act to follow; the previous year’s Air Max 95 quickly became one of the most iconic shoes in Nike history. For some reason, the design was just a little off, and sneaker lovers didn’t fall in love with it like other ‘96 models.
Marketed with an in-your-face ad campaign during the summer of ’96, the Air Max 96 was set up perfectly to take center stage in the sneaker world. The gritty multi-page print ad featured star athletes like Scottie Pippen, Michael Johnson, and Lisa Leslie – all who dominated at the ’96 Olympic games. However, the stars weren’t seen wearing the Air Max 96 much. On top of that, Nike was in the middle of their “don’t actually show the shoe so that you want it more” TV commercial phase, which ended up backfiring for the AM96.
Technically, the Air Max 96 was advanced for its time. Retailing for $140, it featured a synthetic leather and mesh upper, with an overlay strapping system and a stretch inner-sleeve for fit and support. A new anatomically designed dual-pressure heel Air-Sole unit with a lateral crash pad system cushioned and guided the foot upon impact. There was also a visible Air-Sole unit in the forefoot for added comfort.
The jagged tooth-inspired upper of the Air Max 96 was aesthetically pleasing, but the colors were perhaps not edgy enough to match the gritty advertising. Initially releasing in a white/navy/green colorway for men and white/photo blue/varsity royal colorway for women, they just didn’t seem to have the bite needed to win over the masses. The AM96 would go on sale rather quickly, and didn’t retro until twenty years later. The 2016 version had a major difference compared to the original – it featured an Air Max 95 Ultra sole. This sole was lighter and had better cushioning, but obviously took away from the aura of the original. Sneakerheads cried out in disgust: they wanted to see the bigger, chunkier OG Air sole, even if it meant less comfort and more weight.
There’s been an interesting turn of events since the uproar for bigger Air in 2016: Nike has responded, with models like the VaporMax debuting last year, and the Air Max 270 coming out this year. Both models feature very visible Air-Sole units, but without the bulky weight. The appeal of big Air bubbles is obvious – sneaker enthusiasts want to see and feel the cushioning underneath their feet. That was always the attractiveness of Nike Air in the ‘90s, and it’s a sentiment that isn’t going to fade away anytime soon. Though the Air Max 96 wasn’t the most famous model in an era full of classics, it still deserves its place on the pedestal of great Nike runners. It was the second Nike runner to feature heel and forefoot visible Air, and helped pave the way for full-length visible Air, which in turn paved the way for today’s latest and greatest cushioning innovations.
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