BY Joe Scanlan in Profiles | 06 JAN 95
Featured in
Issue 20

Niketown, USA

Celebrating ten years of Air Jordans

BY Joe Scanlan in Profiles | 06 JAN 95

Remember Neo Geo? Haim Steinbach's shelf units, Jeff Koons' basketballs, Ashley Bickerton's tech-fetishes? Remember Hal Foster and how the 'Damaged Goods' show claimed to confuse and challenge the boundaries separating high art from mass production, museum installation from commodity display? Now, a decade later, Neo Geo's retrenchment to high art systems and values is taken as evidence of the movement's conceptual skid, greased, perhaps, by the trackless art market and the works' own accelerated shelf life. I would argue that Neo Geo did not fail so much as it was out-hustled, out-innovated and outclassed by the arena it claimed to have entered - the real world of product innovation, design, marketing and display.

A case in point is the ten-year retrospective of Air Jordan basketball shoes in Niketown, a five-storey museum and retail store that was Chicago's most visited institution last year. Why run all over town to the Shedd aquarium, the Art Institute, or the museums of science and natural history when Niketown offers cultural artefacts, innovative technology, and live fish? Better still, after learning all about the shoes worn by Bo Jackson, or Andre Agassi's shorts, you can walk into the next room and buy them; not postcards, not replicas, but the things themselves.

NIKE Inc.'s masterpiece is the Air Jordan line of basketball shoes, products that have maintained an indifference to social reality that almost qualifies them as art. They were the first basketball shoes to retail for more than $100; the first to have a role in a major motion picture (Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing); and the first that people literally killed for. In Niketown a special room is set aside for Michael 'Air' Jordan and these shoes. A Memphis-style display case holds ten Plexiglas sarcophagi, each containing an autographed pair of Air Jordans actually worn by the man himself. A basketball goal hangs at regulation height from the ceiling, and the floor is an actual hardwood basketball court replica. A 28' photomural of Jordan in full regalia looms above. The sound of cheering fans cycles on and off every ten minutes - long enough for a sales clerk to ask if I need any help. (I'm considering spending $130 on a pair of Air Jordan 10s - not to wear, to store away. NIKE has informed me that early model Air Jordans are going for $1,200 in Japan.) The crowd roars. The cash register rings. Another artefact sold.

Tinker Hatfield has designed Air Jordans since their inception in 1985, but Jordan has been involved from the beginning. As the story goes, it was Jordan and his agent who pitched the concept of the shoe to NIKE. Meeting regularly with Hatfield, NIKE's public relations staff, and product engineers, Jordan gives performance feedback and makes aesthetic suggestions. (Could it have been the player's influence that led to the dropping of the NIKE logo from the shoe, in favour of the AJ marque alone?)

Of all the shoes, AJ 5 and 6 mark the ultimate combination of Hatfield innovation and Jordan intellect. Although AJ 5 returned to the idea of structurally compartmentalising the upper, this regression is counteracted by an ostentatious display of synthetic materials, aerospace lacing, and a 'see-through' heel - a running shoe innovation that is the benchmark of NIKE technology. The idea of being able to see through a shoe's most critical performance area exalts the shoe's technology at the same time as revealing its signature ingredient: air. The see-through sole fused the key innovation, material, and namesake of Air Jordans into one brilliant, functional pun: we already knew who Air was, now we could see what air did. AJ 6 took this levity and playfully grounded it in brawny, earth-bound muscle.

AJ 6's profile is reminiscent of early Jaguars and Porsches in that all its shapes are inverted and downward flowing, more about using gravity and traction than escaping from them. The look of speed has been sacrificed for the feel of power; surface flash has been discarded like a T-shirt from the Incredible Hulk. Strangest of all is a low-slung heel and ankle panel that looks like an inverted pigeon wing, and a heavy looking all-black sole with roadster flames spurting backwards from its mid-section.

By June of 1993 Michael Jordan had won two Olympic gold medals, three Most Valuable Player awards, seven consecutive league scoring titles, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and nine consecutive All-Star game appearances. In addition, his team, the Chicago Bulls, had won three consecutive world championships. But then came 'the troubled shoe,' Air Jordan 9. Rendered in black and grey Nu-Buck with a sickly, multi-coloured tongue, it looks more like a hiking boot than a basketball shoe. The breathing holes in the uppers are scarce compared to previous models, and the see-through sole has been sealed up, entombed. The shoe looks tough, moody, impenetrable, and is the only model to have a polypropylene finger-loop stitched to the heel for greater ease in pulling them on. Jordan never had to worry about doing that, though, as he retired from professional basketball just one week before the season was to start.

It's conceivable that being the most influential figure for NIKE's deleterious sociology played a part in Jordan's decision to retire. NIKE Inc. has been rightly criticised for baiting a generation of predominantly Black youths with the proposition that basketball is a way out of the inner city, but in the end Michael Jordan was the casualty of the socio-economic crossfire. While his Gatorade endorsements encouraged kids to 'Be Like Mike', his NIKE ads averred that 'It's Gotta Be The Shoes', which adds up to: be like Mike, but, Mike's the way he is because of the shoes he wears, so ... that'll be $100, please. Every time he made an incredible basket, he sold another 1,000 pairs. At some point, perhaps, Jordan's athletic skill and commercial manipulation became too indistinguishable, incompatible, or just plain out of control.