The designer has reconstructed 10 Nike footwear icons.
Virgil Abloh’s relationship to Nike began long before he first visited the company’s world headquarters in October 2016 to start a new collaboration. As a teenager, living in Rockford, Illinois, he and his friends sketched shoe ideas and mailed them to Nike. “We were enamored with Air Jordans,” says Abloh, who is now 36 and based between Milan and Chicago. “Michael Jordan was larger than life — he was Superman to me. My entire design background and ethos came from the ‘90s.”
Abloh took his early design education — drawn from athletic footwear, hip-hop and rock album covers and graffiti, he says — and merged it with formal training in architecture and engineering. Now a successful creative director, DJ, designer and founder of the brand, OFF-WHITE, Abloh blurs the lines of various creative processes, rewriting the rules of fashion and design and injecting humor and DIY elements into his practice.
“By the time I made my first trip to Beaverton, I immediately wanted to make something,” Abloh says. “I didn't wait all those years just to have meetings at Nike.” During the first visit, he rebuilt a pair of triple-black Air Force 1 Low shoes using an X-ACTO knife and drew on them with markers, initiating one-offs for his staff to wear at that December’s Design Miami/, where he presented OFF-WHITE furniture.
This exercise became a quick turn of 12 Air Force 1s, all handmade by Matt Kilgore at Nike’s Blue Ribbon Studios. (Kilgore is the son of Bruce Kilgore, who designed the original Air Force 1 in 1982.) Abloh wanted the tongue’s inner foam exposed, a silver Swoosh with thick, obvious stitching and text nodding to the shoe’s origins in Beaverton, Oregon.
Establishing this reconstructed design language, combined with Abloh’s urgency to fulfill a life-long dream, would ultimately lead to The Ten, a collaborative exploration of 10 Nike footwear silhouettes.
“What we're talking about here is larger than sneakers, it’s larger than design culture,” says Abloh. “It’s nothing short of state-of-the-art design. These 10 shoes have broken barriers in performance and style. To me, they are on the same level as a sculpture of David or the Mona Lisa. You can debate it all you want, but they mean something. And that's what's important.”
The 10 shoes were divided into two themes. The first, “REVEALING,” was designed to look accessible: hand-cut, open-source and reconstructed. It includes the Air Jordan I, Nike Air Max 90, Nike Air Presto, Nike Air VaporMax and Nike Blazer Mid.
The second, “GHOSTING,” was designed with translucent uppers to further the idea of revealing and unite the second set of silhouettes through common material. It includes the Converse Chuck Taylor, Nike Zoom Fly SP, Nike Air Force 1 Low, Nike React Hyperdunk 2017 and Nike Air Max 97.
Abloh’s quick pace was an ideal match for a rapid Nike Direct timeline, resulting in one of the fastest collaborations Nike has ever completed: 10 shoes in about 10 months from ideation to release. The project officially began with the task of re-imagining five Nike footwear icons — the Air Jordan I, Air Max 90, Air Presto, Nike Air VaporMax and Blazer Mid — within a breakneck schedule. “Most of the creative decisions were made in the first three hours, while actual design and iteration took two to three days,” recalls Abloh. “The Jordan I was done in one design session. I work in a very like dream-like state. I see it, and it's done.”
Like with the initial Air Force 1 exercise, the X-ACTO knife was central to this design process. Abloh used it to reveal the foam within each shoes’ respective tongues (and move their Nike labels), move the Swoosh placements (and, at times, enlarge them) and add pops of color through orange tabs (in various locations per shoe).
The “REVEALING” aspect of this series was also satisfied through tongue-in-cheek text placements, such as “AIR” on the lateral side of the Nike Air VaporMax, Air Jordan I and Air Presto (referring to Nike Air technology) and “SHOELACES” on the shoe strings.
Though the designs look complex, Abloh says he truly wants this process — opening up the figurative guts of a shoe to reveal the innovation within — to feel approachable. “Yes, we're making a desired product, but by making a trip to your local store, and using tools you have at home, you could also make this shoe,” says Abloh.
This approach articulates a Just Do It mentality — one rooted in working hard to realize one’s own potential. “I spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about the kid in the middle of nowhere who has a passion for design, much like I did,” Abloh says. “He or she needs a path like this to understand design.”
Abloh’s work on the Nike Air VaporMax, within the “REVEALING” set, presented an exciting challenge, because, at the time, the shoe hadn’t been released yet. Two more unreleased silhouettes, the Nike Zoom Fly SP and Nike React Hyperdunk 2017, were similarly stimulating in their newness and potential. Abloh was inspired by the cutting-edge cushioning innovations of Breaking2’s Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite running shoe and basketball’s React Hyperdunk 2017, and decided to introduce an evolution of the reveal called “GHOSTING” using translucent uppers. With these five shoes, including basketball icons that preceded the Hyperdunk (the Converse Chuck Taylor and Nike Air Force 1 Low), and a running icon that preceded the Vaporfly Elite (the Nike Air Max 97), Abloh says he wanted to use a common, semi-revealing material to unite their combined 94-year history.
“My high school years were made up of playing soccer, skateboarding and biking year-round,” says Abloh. “What I've learned from playing sports and also being obsessed with design is that there is an inherent style and focus that exists amongst athletes and designers alike: What propels them to be the best comes from deep within.”
The open-source nature of The Ten, through a reconstruction of footwear released by Converse, Inc. since 1923, and Nike, Inc. from 1972 to the present, speaks to the true longevity of shoes that have defined sport and sneaker culture. They’ve stood the test of time, and through The Ten, have become collective catalysts from which to understand not just footwear design, but all design.
“In one gesture, I wanted to underscore how the design system and manufacturing of Nike are so perfect,” says Abloh. “By combining these shoes with design that amplifies their ‘handmade’ quality, we’re intensifying the human element and expanding the emotional connection of these 10 icons.”
Nike will host “Nike Off Campus” events in New York City and London to celebrate The Ten through presentations of the full collection and exchanges about the ideas that inspired it. "Nike Off Campus" will take place in New York City from September 6 to 8 at 23 Wall Street and from September 14 to 17 at various locations in East London.
The first five icons of The Ten — the Air Jordan I, Nike Blazer, Nike Air Presto, Nike Air Max 90 and Nike Air VaporMax — will be pre-released at NikeLab stores in New York City (Sept. 9-13), London (Sept. 18-22), Milan (Sept. 21-25) and Paris (Sept. 26-30).
The full collection including all ten silhouettes will be available in November at NikeLab stores and select retailers worldwide.