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Air Jordan Has Entered the Influencer Age

How can Jordan Brand get a new era of consumers excited about sneakers made famous before they were alive? For Travis Scott, Virgil Abloh, and others, emulating the AJ1’s past means defining the future.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Air Jordan 1 is many things at once: It’s the first signature shoe for the greatest basketball player ever, the sneaker that changed collecting forever, and a classic that evokes nostalgia and connects generations. It’s also the most popular sneaker of today, with hundreds of different versions produced in the past decade. This week, with all things Michael Jordan returning to the public consciousness thanks to The Last Dance, The Ringer will explore the AJ1’s history, the resale market it still dominates, and how Nike and Jordan Brand are positioning the model for the future.

On December 3, 2017, P.J. Tucker did something in a game that normally wouldn’t generate much attention for an NBA player: He wore a shoe originally designed for basketball. This wasn’t any regular basketball sneaker, though. On that Sunday evening against the Lakers, the Rockets forward laced up a pair of Off-White Air Jordan 1 Chicagos, one of three AJ1s that came out of the collaboration between Nike and designer Virgil Abloh. The highly limited shoes, which originally retailed for $190, were virtually impossible for everyone from the average sneaker collector to even the wealthy and connected to land when they dropped on the SNKRS app two weeks earlier. Yet here was Tucker, pulling down boards in them as they were already trading for about $1,300 on the resale market. He even kept the shoes’ trademark zip tie intact. Tucker finished plus-15 that night as Houston extended its win streak to seven.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

It seemed like an iconic flex; Tucker hooped in a pair of shoes that many people wouldn’t even dare to take out of the box. And indeed, he says now that he wore those exclusive kicks as a statement: but not to assert himself as the league’s preeminent sneakerhead (his bona fides are well established in that area). Rather, he hoped to make a point to his nephew. The then-9-year-old had wanted a pair of Off-White Chicagos, Tucker says, but not to wear. He just thought they’d look cool on display. So Tucker inserted custom insoles—the AJ1s have never been the easiest shoes to play in, after all—and took to the court in the updated classics.

“It was such a big deal to him that he thought you just put them on your mantle, just like, ‘You got ’em,’” Tucker says. “I’m like, ‘No, like it’s all about wearing the shoes.’”

The story highlights the chasm between how different generations can approach sneakers, and specifically Air Jordans. The shoe’s namesake retired from basketball for the final time in 2003; he hit his last shot for the Bulls five years before that. Tucker, 35, and others who grew up watching MJ have vivid memories of his greatest moments. But younger generations know Jordan through YouTube clips, Space Jam, the Jumpman logo, and, more recently, ESPN’s The Last Dance. They didn’t see him dominate in real time in a pair of 14s, let alone the 1s.

There’s a challenge there for Jordan Brand: How can it get a new era of consumers excited about sneakers worn by someone whose greatest accomplishments predate their collective memory? But it also presents opportunities. The brand may no longer have the greatest basketball player ever showing off the shoes on a nightly basis, but it’s found a new group of influencers to reimagine its oldest silhouette, while developing some new tricks, too. Now, just like in 1985, the Air Jordan 1 is as much the shoe of the future as it is the one of the present.

In his prime, Michael Jordan was not only a preternaturally gifted basketball player; he was also a masterful spokesman. McDonald’s, Hanes, Gatorade, Wheaties, Chevrolet, and even Ball Park Franks are just some of the companies that sponsored MJ during the ’80s and ’90s. He had a theme song and a sidekick, and he navigated the worlds of commerce and media with aplomb, minus the occasional hiccup. And right from the beginning, he was pitch perfect when he spoke on behalf of a brand. His longtime agent David Falk once recalled how a young Michael responded to one of the 1980s’ most divisive questions: Coke or New Coke? Michael instantly responded, “‘Coke is Coke. They both taste great.’” MJ’s marketing instincts may have rivaled his basketball ones.

At the core of Michael Jordan Inc. sat his relationship with Nike. By 1997, Jordan Brand had become its own subsidiary, and by the time MJ retired in 1998, Nike accounted for 40 percent of sneaker sales in America—a far cry from 1984, when the company signed MJ as it was losing ground to competitors like Reebok. Jordan instantly helped turn around a struggling shoe manufacturer’s fortunes, while also revolutionizing how sneakers are designed, marketed, and released. Even today, years after his retirement, the memory of his on-court glories still helps power Nike’s sales—in 2019, Jordan Brand generated $3.14 billion in revenue for the company, up from $2.86 billion the fiscal year prior.

“Michael has two legacies: one on the court, and one on the feet,” says Jason Mayden, Jordan Brand’s former senior global design director. “Michael’s legacy has wearable art.”

Drawing on that legacy has been crucial for Jordan. The brand has produced many retros in the past 20 years as the demand for rereleases skyrocketed, and many of those new-again sneakers draw on Michael’s past, from the Breds, to the Defining Moments AJ1s, to the Shattered Backboards. But to reach a new generation of consumers—and the type of consumer who may not be as invested in that history—the brand has worked to find new ways to position the shoe. And as with many of the retros, it’s about hitting on the right narrative that will resonate, says Gentry Humphrey, Jordan’s vice president of footwear.

There’s perhaps no greater example of that approach than the brand’s relationship with Travis Scott. Since the beginning of 2019, the rapper has dropped 12 collaborations (including family-and-friend exclusives) with Nike. The most high profile of those have been his Air Jordans (though his SB Dunk is certainly in the conversation), and none are as visually striking as his first AJ1.

The Cactus Jack Highs do something that’s typically seen only on factory defects: They reverse the signature swoosh, at once operating within the confines of the most recognizable silhouette in sneakers and taking it in a direction no AJ1 designer had previously. They’re audacious, yet undeniable; flamboyant, yet subdued with muted colors. They’re an iconoclastic approach to the Jordan 1, which in a sense feels like a continuation of the first pair of Air Jordans, the ones Nike marketed as being banned by the NBA, even though that story appears to have featured some reimagining of its own.

Humphrey says that letting Scott flex his creative muscles was important for Jordan: They wanted to capitalize on not only his popularity, but his entrepreneurial spirit, which is something that resonates with younger consumers.

“This is just our ability to stay connected with some of the key influencers of today, to collaborate with them and put subtle twists on classic models that make them relevant with consumers that really had no connection to Michael back in the day,” Humphrey says. “It really allows us to stay relevant with a classic model when we stay connected with influencers like Travis.”

The idea of rappers and celebrities pushing sneakers—and even Jordans—certainly isn’t new. Nelly’s “Air Force Ones” turns 18 next month and Run DMC’s ode to the three stripes predates that by 16 years, while Eminem’s Jordan 4s and Jay-Z’s Reebok line proved the power of musicians as shoe pitch people. The difference now is they have a greater say in what’s happening across the industry: Adidas sometimes seems as though it has as many artists signed to the brand as it does basketball players, and Kanye West just became a billionaire almost entirely thanks to his Yeezy empire (though maybe his basketball prowess helped). The Cactus Jack 1s are just one of the most visible ways Jordan Brand can stay connected to younger people.

“They don’t know Jordan,” says writer and actress Lena Waithe, who recently created the sneaker-culture show You Ain’t Got These for Quibi. “They know Yeezy. They know Big Sean. They know Nipsey. They know Travis. You know what I’m saying? They’re like, ‘OK, we worship y’all.’ And what do those guys worship? Kicks.”

The idea also extends into the world of fashion, where Humphrey says that Jordan Brand has capitalized on the AJ1’s legacy as a shoe that works as both everyday footwear and upscale design. It’s part of the reason why the brand let designer Virgil Abloh also reimagine the AJ1 by deconstructing a pair with an X-Acto knife and piecing it back together. (Abloh, who grew up in Rockford, Illinois, in the 1980s, has previously said that he was able to reinvent the Jordan 1 because the new era allows for more freedom: “Kids on Instagram are Photoshopping checks backwards. It’s just cultures moving.”)

But the Abloh collaboration is just the most prominent manifestation of Jordan Brand’s high-fashion overtures. One of the more popular drops of the past few years was the collaboration with streetwear shop Union Los Angeles, 2019 brought the release of the Comme des Garçons pack, and pairs of Dior 1s were originally slated for an April release before they were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Or, take the Milan 1 Mids, which dropped in February: Thirty-four years after the Jordan 2 polarized sneakerheads in part because of its “Made in Italy” backstory, the brand has paid homage to the country’s fashion roots.

“[The Air Jordan 1] is the mainstay of our business,” Humphrey says. “We’ll continue to provide it in multiple ways from very, very classic models that people can wear every single day to super-fashionable models where people want to wear a couture fashion.”

It’s a far cry from Mayden’s experience designing AJ1s and other models for the company when he was hired by the brand in the early 2000s, just as the throwback market was finding its footing. Back then, he says he often had to deal with the “retro police”: people who wanted rereleased models to be similar to the original versions, down to the stitching. Now, Jordan Brand has a lot more freedom to try new things with its most classic silhouette.

“You’re not competing against history,” Mayden says. “You’re now trying to give people a sense of where you’re headed. It’s more, ‘What’s the future-leaning aesthetic? Who are the heroes of now? The Travis Scotts, the Virgils, those people.”

The Milans may hint at the future of the original Air Jordan in more ways than one. In addition to nodding to European fashion, the shoes are an example of what Humphrey says is one of Jordan Brand’s key goals for the silhouette going forward: positioning low and mid versions of the 1 as flagship products alongside the highs.

From the dawn of the retro boom in the early 2000s, Jordan typically treated high-top AJ1s as the premium products in its collection, with lows and mids often making up the general releases that could be found in the mall. But, Humphrey says, there’s been a conscious effort in the past few years to boost the other cuts’ profile. That bears out in the numbers: In 2016, just four of the 40 AJ1s released were lows, and none were mids. Of the 80 released in 2019, 35 were mids and 17 were lows. In the past six months alone, Jordan Brand has dropped notable mids including the Milans, a classic Chicago colorway, a collaboration with streetwear brand Clot, and an AJ1 personal edition for Luka Doncic. The recently released lows may be even more ambitious: The list of limited drops has included Paris 1 Lows, a version tied to the Quai 54 streetball tournament in France, and a pair of Travis Scotts. While those Cactus Jacks don’t resell for as much as the highs (around $700 for the lows compared with more than $1,000), its existence shows that Jordan Brand isn’t afraid to use the model as a signature shoe.

“We were able to gather a lot of momentum on those models as well,” Humphrey says of the lows and mids. “That allowed us to expand and grow in the marketplace because some folks didn’t want to wear high tops.”

That versatility has been crucial while Jordan Brand has worked to discover what resonates in foreign markets, an ever-growing part of its business, Humphrey says. And one geographic location more than any other is driving that growth: Asia. According to financial figures provided by Nike, revenue in the Greater China market grew 42 percent in the 2019 fiscal year. The country has increasingly embraced sneaker culture in the past few years, and now boasts a resale market that is valued at more than $1 billion. Jordan has capitalized on the increasing interest by opening flagship stores and sponsoring Guo Ailun, a seven-time Chinese Basketball Association All-Star who became the first player from the country to sign with the brand.

The NBA may be reeling from the fallout from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors in October, but the market for basketball sneakers is in better shape than ever. And Matt Cohen, vice president of business development for Culver City, California–based sneaker marketplace GOAT, says that’s been only great news for Jordan Brand and its flagship shoe, even despite some COVID 19–related disruptions that affected brick-and-mortar sales in Asia during Nike’s last fiscal quarter.

“The last couple of years, the demand from China has fueled unprecedented growth in the Jordan 1 silhouette,” Cohen says. “The brand has responded to that by coming out with more and more.”

Moe Wagner remembers one of the first times he understood Michael Jordan’s greatness: It came while watching the 1991 NBA Finals, when MJ caught a pass from forward Cliff Levingston near the top of the key and drove toward three Laker defenders. Jordan went above the rim with the ball in his right hand, brought it back down, switched to his left, and laid it off the glass.

“It looks unnecessary to go down again, but he makes it look so easy,” Wagner says today.

Wagner, however, didn’t experience Jordan’s famous hand-switch layup in real time: Rather, the Berlin native watched it on YouTube in the mid-2000s.

The 23-year-old Washington Wizards center represents two sides of the new generation whom Jordan Brand is trying to reach with Air Jordan 1: He grew up outside of the U.S., and he did so during a time when Michael Jordan the Player was spoken about like a mythical figure, not someone fans could watch live. But Jordan still resonated with Wagner, who says that watching videos like the ’91 Finals clip helped him bond with his father, an MJ obsessive who passed down his fandom to his son. “Even though you’re in Germany and you’re not necessarily in the States, the first thing you learn about basketball is Michael Jordan—regardless of what era you live,” says Wagner, who signed with Jordan Brand in 2018.

That connection also extended to Jordan’s shoes: Wagner’s first Air Jordans were a pair of 11s, but he slowly gravitated toward the AJ1. That’s not an atypical experience, he says. The original’s ability to transcend uses, seamlessly moving from everyday wear to fashion accessory, is part of the appeal. But so is the Air Jordan 1’s story—it’s the genesis shoe from a man who would go on to have so many iconic kicks, and one first worn by MJ when he was younger than Wagner is today.

“That’s the classic one,” Wagner says. “I think every generation connects to that shoe the most.”

With each passing year, P.J. Tucker plays alongside more and more guys like Wagner, who weren’t around for Michael’s heyday. At 35, he’s among the sport’s more veteran players—he was born exactly 13 years before his youngest teammate, center Isaiah Hartenstein—and one of only a handful who were alive to watch the entirety of the Bulls’ ’90s glory.

But, Tucker says, the younger guys typically have a love of Air Jordans—and in many cases, specifically the AJ1s.

“It’s interesting to me kids now that have no idea,” Tucker says. “They’ve never turned on NBC and seen Jordan and heard, ‘At 6-foot-6, from North Carolina.’ They didn’t experience that.”

That experience isn’t just limited to the locker room. One of the biggest names in the sneaker resale market is Ben Kapelushnik, who sells under the name Benjamin Kickz and functions as something of a sneaker concierge to the stars. The 20-year-old currently has more than 1 million Instagram followers, and he’s built his business at least partially on the back of Air Jordans: He told Vice in 2016 that he connected with his most famous client, DJ Khaled, with a pair of Pantone Jordan 11s.

Kapelushnik operates in what’s becoming more and more of a young person’s game. That requires learning a lot about both Michael Jordan and his sneakers—which in a way, becomes another means of continuing the legacy of each.

“I don’t know if Michael Jordan means as much to him as he does to me, but Benjamin Kickz knows that if you’re going to be into the sneaker game, you’ve got to know about Jordan,” Waithe says.

The influencers become essential in passing down the heritage of Jordan and his shoes to younger generations, says Kenneth Myers Jr., who has collected Air Jordan 1s and documents his devotion to the silhouette on the Instagram account mr_unloved1s. Myers says he hosts sneaker meetups in his hometown of North Charlestown, South Carolina, that draw a mix of longtime and burgeoning collectors. The number of the latter has grown in recent years as shoes like the Off-Whites and the Cactus Jacks have captured the public consciousness. Myers says that sneaker purists may get upset when they see Kylie Jenner in a pair of MF Doom SB Dunks or AJ1 Shadows, because as a new adopter, it gives off the impression that she’s more passionate about the clout than the shoes themselves, but she may draw in a different, possibly younger person to sneaker culture.

“[Someone who] looks up to Kylie Jenner is loving the fact that she’s rocking these sneakers, and is going to become a huge sneakerhead because of that,” Myers says.

Like Moe Wagner, Kia Nurse grew up in the 2000s outside of the U.S. (in Hamilton, Ontario) and formed a connection to Michael Jordan through his sneakers and YouTube highlights (she was particularly enamored of the free throw line dunk). But the 24-year-old WNBA All-Star also shares a small, but important first with Tucker despite him being 12 years her senior: She was the first person to ever debut a specific pair of Air Jordans on the court. Except, in Nurse’s case, it was the AJ 34.

Kia Nurse debuts the “Blue Void” Jordan 34 : B. Terrell / WNBA Kicks

Posted by SoleCollector on Sunday, September 8, 2019

The New York Liberty guard, who also wore the AJ1 Satin Black Toes during WNBA All-Star festivities in July, signed to Jordan Brand last year alongside her teammate Asia Durr. They became the second and third WNBA players to join the brand, following the 2011 addition of Maya Moore. In September, Nurse became the first basketball player in any league to wear the latest signature shoe bearing Michael Jordan’s name when she stepped into a pair of Blue Voids.

“I got to be the first player to ever debut the 34 on court, and I’m a women’s basketball player,” Nurse says. “I did it in the WNBA. That was something that you don’t see very often, something that’s truly special.”

Signing Nurse and Durr and having Nurse subsequently debut the AJ 34 are just some of the ways that Jordan Brand has increased its outreach to women. The Nike subsidiary has also reimagined classic silhouettes in the past two years to meet a growing demand, resulting in eye-popping releases like Melody Ehsani’s Fearless AJ1s, which are every bit as subversive as the Cactus Jacks or the Off-Whites. Jordan has also created a women’s division within the subsidiary to focus on growing its offerings. Thus far, those efforts have paid off: The Brand said in February that it saw triple-digit increase in sales for women’s apparel and shoes in its 2019 fiscal year.

Those moves may also have an impact outside of sales. In 2018, the brand recreated the famous Michael Jordan “wings” poster with Moore, positioning the former WNBA MVP as something of an heir (Air?) apparent. That resonated with at least one young fan in a big way.

“Watching the response to that, watching the young girl who went and posed, it felt like I could be her, seeing people that look like you transforming the game,” Nurse says. “Jordan is doing that on the women’s side, especially.”

And that may be Michael Jordan’s greatest legacy: the idea of transforming the game, whether with a basketball, with a sneaker, or with something else. Mayden, the former lead designer for the brand, says we too often get caught up on the past when we discuss Jordan. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and it fuels so much of the narrative around him. We see it in his sneakers, when his most popular signature shoe remains the original one he wore in 1985, and we see it in the discussion around The Last Dance, which is taking us through his final great run in painstaking detail. But Michael himself didn’t get where he did by emulating his idols—he did so by taking the foundation they laid and building upon it. He became greater than any of them on the court, and he pushed his off-court brand to levels never seen before. The original Jordan 1s became such a force because they were so revolutionary, not because they harkened back to a bygone era. Kia Nurse, Travis Scott, and Virgil Abloh aren’t just keeping MJ’s legacy alive. They’re forging their own. And in their own way, they’re becoming the Michael Jordans of the future.

“To honor him is to do something now, to do something that people will celebrate 30, 40, 50 years from now,” Mayden says. “That’s what he pushed all of us to think about.”

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