If you have any memories of 1991 – whether they’re T2 and Tribe’s second album or ‘Suburban Commando’ and Vanilla Ice’s debut LP on tape – there’s a fair chance that the Nike Air 180 is embedded in your pysche somewhere. Some shoes just appeared — a few ads here, an appearance on Tim Allen’s feet and a ‘Grange Hill’ shoe-theft subplot and they were sold to you. The 180’s arrival was hyped to the hilt back when only the most nerdish knew about the internet. Back in February of that year, the assault began and it was something very different to anything we’d seen before: eschewing the bold and brash for something pleasantly cryptic, W+K employed some less orthodox partners for the launch. Now, you pretty much expect artists to be recruited for a product’s release or an anniversary – William Burroughs and Dennis Hopper in ads, ESPO getting up on the Nike dollar, the UNDFTD billboard project, the White Dunk release and the STASH AF1 helped tread that path before it became a little too well-trod.
The Nike 180 campaign’s TV spots by Industrial Light & Magic, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Italian animation legend Guido Manuli and body-horror auteur David Cronenberg were unorthodox, but the print campaign’s pick of artists was equally offbeat. The legendary Ralph Steadman (who had already worked with Nike UK on some running press print ads), another satirist in the shape of André François, graphic designers Alfons Holtgreve and Takenobu Igarash, plus Charles S. Anderson Design (who designed several other posters for the campaign too) delivered some good interpretations of 180 spirit (how good would a 180 gallery show have been?) to the point where we hit fever pitch waiting for the shoe to arrive in local sports shops.
As the product of several years of research, with Bruce Kilgore applying a 180 unit to an Air Max 90 silhouette in some 1989 sketches (there’s also some images of Kilgore’s Shox application on 90 silhouettes that death back to the early 1990s), Kilgore and Hatfield’s shoe has aged very well indeed. That White/Ultramarine/Solar Red makeup harked back to the the White/Royal Blue/Radiant Pink Air Mariah PR from the previous year and is replicated on an underrated (and brilliantly named) Air Apparent in 1991 too, but the pricetag and distracting debut of the Huarache and Air Max BW (were we the only people that never treated the 180 as an Air Max?) consigned it to fondly remembered history. Maybe the scale of that ad campaign dwarfed the neoprene fit and slimline looks of the shoe they were promoted. We always wondered whether the Avia lawsuit circa 1992 over the Cantilever sole was what brought 180 to a close.
When the Nike 180 rerelease was announced back in 2004, we realised just how hyped people were for it and that Steadman bunny made a comeback too. Was the genie-toed retro a fair representation of the OG? Not really. And that visible air on the outsole shrunk a great deal (a post court case alteration?). Then they were part of History of Air, were a star of the London NIKEiD studio, got retroed again, appeared on TK Maxx shelves, got the Lunarlon treatment and were reintroduced with a yellowed sole last week as part of the OG pack — those sold with the quickness. In a digital era, the big budget print and TV campaign is redundant, but we still maintain that the 180 is a key moment in Nike reestablishing their dominance in a new decade and a memorable moment in “event” footwear, back when we weren’t exactly starved of superior, progressive shoe designs. Check out the 8-page OG advertorial below, alongside some other imagery.