History Class Air Jordans : Greatness Materialized Part 1

Publish date: October 29th 2017

Written by Travis Tong

Edited by Michelle La

Welcome to Vancouver Streetwear Community’s History Class. A segment dedicated to introducing history of the most iconic brands found on streetwear aficionados across the world.

In this edition, we will be providing insight on the iconic Air Jordan sneakers and their individual significance in sneaker history and design.


The year is 2017 — Air Jordan has become a household brand coveted across global streetwear communities and basketball enthusiasts. Distinguishable by its unique designs and its iconic Jumpman logo, Jordan Brand currently ranks second in the United States’ sportswear market share (11.9%) behind their parent company Nike. While the signature shoe line began with only Michael Jordan, the brand has since sponsored a plethora of athletes across different sports, and can be seen worn by celebrities as their ‘grails’. The influence of Air Jordan is undeniable. For sneaker collectors, both new and old, Air Jordan shoes have found resonance due to the brand’s exclusivity and rich history, with each shoe telling a different story.

Jordan Brand found its roots in 1980 when Nike first became a publicly traded company. This era proved to be the most defining and volatile years for the sportswear giant. Nike found itself failing to adapt to the 1980s’ aerobics craze and eventually had their first losses in 1984. Nike became desperate to regain its capture on the sportswear market.

With mass layovers threatening the fledgling sportswear giant, the universe heard Nike’s prayers.  Amidst the downturn, a fateful meeting had occurred that summer. David Falk, the representative for an up-and-coming basketball rookie named Michael Jordan, struck a deal with Nike’s director of marketing and VP, Rob Strasser, to give Jordan his own signature shoe line. Falk proposed the brand’s name as ‘Air Jordan’. This deal was historic because Jordan became the first basketball player to have a signature shoe line with a ground breaking figure of $2.5 million US dollars over five years. However, Michael Jordan remained unconvinced about the partnership until Nike’s creative director, Peter Moore, presented the Air Jordan 1 silhouette. The concept won Jordan over, who originally wanted to work with Converse and Adidas instead.    


Within sneaker history, it is widely remembered that the Air Jordan 1’s was a highly controversial shoe due to the original shoe sporting the bright red and jet black colorway of the Chicago Bulls. This went against the National Basketball Association (NBA) strict regulation of athletes only wearing tonal white footwear, and thus caused the sneaker to be banned. Contrary to this belief, the black/red Air Jordan 1 shoe were not the ones that had created the uproar. Before the Air Jordan 1 became court ready in November, Nike issued 25 custom pairs of their existing high-end Nike Air Ship sneaker for Jordan to play his rookie season in. With media attention on Nike and Jordan’s rebellion, Rob Strasser took advantage of the situation and marketed the Air Jordan 1 as a shoe so good on the court that the NBA had to ban it. Despite the high price tag of $65 USD, the Air Jordan 1 became a hit in the market.

However, misfortune soon followed Jordan Brand after its initial success. The Jumpman suffered a severe foot injury in third game of his sophomore year. Jordan was set back 64 straight regular-season games in the ’85-’86 season and faltered against the Boston Celtics during the Bull’s playoff run. With a lack of media exposure, the Air Jordan 2 had little to no recognition.

Hat Trick

In an unexpected turn, Rob Strasser and Peter Moore left Nike to start their own company in 1987 and were hell-bent on bringing Michael Jordan with them. With few options left, an architect turned designer named Tinker Hatfield picked up the heavily delayed Air Jordan 3 design, with the goal of salvaging Nike and Jordan’s relationship.

Unbeknownst to Hatfield and Jordan, this shoe was the catalyst that would forge their long-term friendship and would birth the rise of Air Jordan.

The Air Jordan 3, adorned with a ‘glove leather’ and rubber construction, featured a unique elephant print that accented the side of the shoe. Becoming the first mid-cut basketball sneaker, the Jordan 3 also took the title of being the first Air Jordan to have a visible Air unit much like the Air Max line and debuted the Jumpman logo, which is now prevalent across every Jordan sneaker. Hatfield’s aptitude for design and careful attention to Jordan’s demands for the shoe proved fruitful. An unimpressed Michael Jordan infamously walked in four hours late for the reveal meeting. However, Hatfield’s ingenuity impressed the star, and he was sold when Hatfield presented Air Jordan 3 matching apparel.

With Jordan winning the 1988 NBA slam-dunk contest, the Air Jordan 3 was extremely well received by the public. Thus, began Hatfield’s legacy as Nike’s most influential designer.


The following years, Tinker Hatfield would become inspired by Michael Jordan’s personality and continued to help create Air Jordan’s successful line of shoes that each held a unique message.

In 1989, Nike challenged Tinker Hatfield to create a breathable shoe with better ankle support. This resulted in the Air Jordan 4. It’s cement accents, lace ‘wings’, and a plastic dipped mesh design would became the go-to shoes for Michael Jordan’s ’88 -‘89 season. While they were initially considered ‘ugly’ by many, the shoes became immortalized after being worn by Michael Jordan when he made “The Shot” — a historic moment in the NBA when Jordan scored a series-winning shot from 18 feet away against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Made famous by Will Smith’s popular sitcom ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ the Air Jordan 5’s was a great step forward in Air Jordan sneaker technology. Distinguishable by its shark-teeth accents, the Air Jordan 5’s was the first Jordan shoe with a clear rubber sole and a foam upper build. Tinker Hatfield modeled the 5 after a World War II fighter plane, as he used the ace pilot as a metaphor to how Michael Jordan maneuvered the basketball court.

The Threepeat

Six years into his career, Michael Jordan had finally did it. Wearing the Air Jordan VI, the Chicago Bulls star carried his team to decimate the Los Angeles’ Lakers to win his first NBA Finals and MVP title in the 1990 – 1991 season. The Bulls repeated the feat in the 1991-1992 season against the Portland Trailblazers.

Hatfield, inspired by Michael Jordan’s sports car, wanted to create a basketball shoe that conveyed speed and sleekness. With an all new blueprint that prioritized ankle stability and ease of wear, the Jordan VI’s aesthetic is ingrained in Jordans that followed.

In Jordan’s conquest to become a worldwide icon, his seventh signature sneaker aided him in winning the men’s basketball gold medal during the 1992 Summer Olympics held in Barcelona. Drawing from Western African tribal markings, Hatfield’s Jordan VII established itself as its own independent brand. The sneaker maestro omitted Nike branding and the visible Air unit on this sneaker.  

The Jumpman seemed unstoppable as he entered his ’92-’93 season. Jordan now wearing the colorful Jordan VIII sneaker finished the season with a ‘threepeat’ victory. Jordan’s reputation as a legend was cemented by being the first NBA player to win three consecutive finals.

Leave a Response