Nike Air Max 95: The Story Behind the Revolutionary Runner

In honor of its 20th anniversary we explore the classic model’s origins, design and emergence in pop culture.

Footwear
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It’s been 20 years since Nike first debuted the classic Air Max 95, which marked a big shift in the performance running sneaker market at the time. With its distinct rippled design across its upper, gradient gray color scheme, and bright neon yellow accents, the original model was a bold, provocative silhouette that had not been preceded by any sneaker before its time. Nike brought on board Nike ACG designer Sergio Lozano to spearhead the project, a trained industrial designer whose four-year experience with tennis and training shoes would bring a fresh perspective to the Air Max family.


The ’90s Sneaker Market

In the early ’90s Nike Basketball was dominating the sneaker market, with the popularity of basketball shoes gaining traction well ahead of runners. Lozano positioned the revolutionary Air Max 95 project as a means to recapture the public’s attention towards the performance running category.


Initial Design

Lozano recalls, “I remembered something Tinker Hatfield used to always bring up while working on other projects, he would say, ‘Okay, so that’s a great design, but what’s your story?’” Inspiration for the 95 came to him one rainy day in Nike headquarters’ home of Beaverton, Oregon; “I was looking across the lake out into the trees and I began picturing the process of rain eroding the earth and thought it would be interesting if the perfect product was unearthed by erosion,” says Lozano. He took further influences from the anatomy of the human body, where the forms of human muscles and vertebrae were locked into the design. The final shoe had an upper with layered panels that resembled muscle fibers and flesh, Nylon eyelets that were fashioned after ribs, a midsole that took after the spine, and a gradient that resembled geographical striations of eroded rock walls.


New Color, New Swoosh

Lozano wanted to minimize the appearance of dirt, mud, and wear-and-tear that the shoe would achieve over time and use, so he prioritized the use of the gradient gray even when told that the colorway would not sell. The signature neon yellow shade too is a direct nod towards Nike’s race kit that continues to incorporate bright colors. This neon “Volt” colorway has since become a heritage-defining Nike color theme that is consistently reissued for other silhouettes.

The first 95 prototype didn’t have the Swoosh logo at all. Eventually it came to incorporate the minimal branding as a small accent, with an unconventional placement that could not distract attention from the undulating lines of the upper. Lozano told Sneaker Freaker, “from the design to the color to the little Swoosh, it all caused controversy. I had initially designed the shoe without a Swoosh because we believed the design was aesthetically strong… so we positioned it as a signature, a sign off on the shoe.”


Reception

The 95 was a brand new approach to runner cushioning by being the first-ever shoe to also feature the visible Air unit in the forefoot. It was also the first Air Max model to have a black midsole. Despite these innovations, the Air Max 95 was considered an outcast. Even the advertising was quite unconventional for Nike – check out this retro commercial advertising the bold atmos x Nike Air Max 95 2006 Supreme “Animal” silhouette that was made in collaboration with the Tokyo-based streetwear boutique.

With its unique colorway, Swoosh placement, and dual air-powered cushioning system, the unapologetically brash Air Max 95 quickly progressed into a youth culture icon. This was especially so throughout Europe and Australia. A smaller following in America includes much of the hip-hop community, with artists like Gucci Mane and Danny Brown having dropped bars about the sneaker. “I’ll kill you if you try me for my Air Max 95s,” rapped The Game in “Hate It Or Love It” (2005) as a direct reference to the Bloods adopting the Air Max 95 as their signature shoe, while the Crips had the Air Max 98s. Other fans of the beloved sneaker include 2 Chainz, Big Boi, Eminem, The Game, Busta Rhymes, DJ Khaled, Nelly, T.I., T-Pain, Wale, Spike Lee, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and J.R. Smith.


Notable Colorways and Collaborations

Though not the most often reiterated Nike model, the Air Max 95 has seen its share of vibrant colorways and modern collaborations, especially so throughout the 2000s. Colorways like the Air Max 95 “Black Grape” and the Air Max 95 Pure White/Black exhibit cleaner iterations of the sneaker, while special models like the NFL x Nike Air Max 95 “NFC East” Pack and the Air Max 95 “Country Camo” Japan exemplify the silhouette’s versatility in adopting bold themes.


The Air Max 95 Legacy

“The Air Max 95’s greatest strength, its individuality, was also its greatest hurdle,” Nike’s website states. As the first of its kind, the model considerably paved the way for other forthcoming silhouettes of similarly ostentatious designs, such as the Air Max Plus — known on the street and overseas as the Tuned 1 or TNs — that released in 1998. The subsequent Air Max 97 was also another iteration of the wavy-lined upper. In celebration of its 20th anniversary, Nike will be releasing the original model in its original box along with two new Air Max 95s: the Air Max 95 Ultra, designed by Air Max Ultra and Roshe One designer Dylan Raasch, and the Air Max 95 Ultra “Jacquard,” designed by Ben Yun. The Ultra “Jacquard” will be launched in the classic neon “Volt” as well as other colorways like Total Orange, Stealth Black, White/Grey and White/Blue. The new releases drop July 16.

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