Why the Nike Air Max BW Is Making a Comeback in 2016

Uncovering the little-known story of the runt of the Air Max litter.

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The month of March marks the once-a-year worldwide celebration of the Nike Air Max that is Air Max Day. 2016 in particular commemorates the 25th birthday of the Nike Air Max BW — also known as the Air Max Classic or Air Max IV — and the ”Big Window” has never been better poised to make a comeback than during this year. In comparison to its iconic cousins, the Air Max 1, Air Max 90 and Air Max 95, the Air Max BW garners comparatively little attention. As father of the Air Max line, Tinker Hatfield, once said that the design of every new Air Max is an attempt at surpassing the success of its predecessors. However, to be quite frank, the Air Max BW has yet to fulfill this requirement. So, was the “Big Window” relegated to this sad fate from the moment it was born, or will history allow it a second chance to realize its full potential?

The Plight of the Lost

Firstly, let’s travel back in time to the year that the Nike Air Max BW was born, in 1991. As you might know, 1991 was a fundamental year to the current cultural trajectory we find ourselves on — it was then that the World Wide Web became public; Nirvana released their influential and bestselling album, NevermindTerminator 2: Judgement Day rocked the box office; and the year that Michael Jordan won his first NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls. You might ascribe the obscurity of the BW to these concurrent, world-changing events that overshadowed its release, but then you would be kidding yourself. The previous year saw worldwide sneaker circles captivated under the spell of the Air Max 90’s Infrared accents and heart-shaped sole element, and the launch of the Air Max 180 shortly after that of the BW quickly stole the spotlight from the latter, what with the higher volume Air unit of the 180. Sandwiched in between these two big releases, the BW was effectively cannibalized by its own siblings.

Of course, to blame the BW’s misfortune on bad timing would be too simplistic. For a fuller picture, we must also examine the BW itself. That year, Nike chose to put the Air Max BW up for sale internationally, a move which should have been followed by a massive marketing push but ultimately fizzled out. This is in stark contrast to the innovative Wieden+Kennedy promotional campaign for its successor, the Air Max 180, where illustrators such as Ralph Steadman, Charles Anderson, Andre Francois, Takenobu Igarashi and Alfonse Holtgreve were commissioned to create eye-catching print and TV advertisements alongside Industrial Light & Magic and acclaimed director David Cronenberg. Seeing as how most of the Swoosh’s marketing dollars had been dedicated to the 180, it’s easy to see why the Air Max BW had been snubbed. Similarly in 2005, when Nike launched its large-scale “Powerwall” series celebrating three decades of the Air Max, the BW was nowhere to be found.

Persian to the Rescue

Now, we’re not saying that the Air Max BW amounted to nothing, nor blaming Nike for being biased to other Air Max models. The “Big Window” might not have been the most popular or respected model, but like any other Air Max, it had its own quirky character while continuing to pass down its family’s reputation for excellence. Much of the BW’s initial flavor can be attributed to its OG release in the violet Persian colorway — a distinct hue that made it unique within the realm of sneakers. At the time of the OG release, it came with many desirable knick-knacks, such as a Nike International Collection brochure that explained the science and technology in the BW design, as well as the novel Dri-FIT apparel technology of the time. Its shoe box was also distinctive, featuring a diagonal strip pattern reminiscent of OFF-WHITE that diehard sneakerheads still relish to this day.

Excluding this year, the Persian colorway has been re-released five times, in 2000, 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2013. The 2000 release is regarded as the most accurate to the original, with all the other releases featuring small variations on the size of the Air unit and the recognizable contour line on the upper. Because of this, it’s no big surprise that Nike has chosen to re-release the Air Max BW Persian OG for the upcoming 2016 Air Max Day, which underlines the more prestigious role that the Air Max BW is stepping up to this year.

The Role of Gabber Culture

Tom Nijhuis’ “/1995” collection.
While the BW was largely neglected throughout much of its history, the sneaker did experience its moment of fame in the most unexpected of places: the Gabber subculture of the Netherlands. An unfamiliar term to many, Gabber was the amalgamation of old school hip-hop and British skinhead culture in Holland and Belgium during the ’90s. Devotees of Gabber culture called themselves “Gabbers,” and defined themselves by their taste for hardcore techno music, their shaved heads, bomber jackets, colorful tracksuits by the Italian brand Australian, and the Nike Air Max BW. In the same way that B-boys embraced the PUMA Suede Fat Lace, the Nike Air Max BW came to define the Gabber culture more deeply than any other sneaker of the time. Their unique style would go on to inspire big names such as Tom Nijhuis, Gosha Rubchinskiy and Raf Simons.

More specifically, the Spring/Summer 2000 “Summa Cum Laude” collection of Raf Simons’ eponymous label was heavily inspired by Gabber, and a retrospective of the brand by photographer Willy Vanderperre in collaboration with 032c magazine in 2014 once again brought the subculture’s aesthetic to the fashion consciousness. A collaboration this month between Carhartt and prominent techno DJ, Moodymann, also referenced Gabber, as did Gosha Rubchinskiy in his Spring/Summer 2014 collection, inviting DJ ZHIT VREDNO to supply the show’s Gabber-inspired soudntrack. There’s no doubt that Gabber’s continued relevance provides a substantial basis for the return of the Air Max BW to the forefront of fashion — don’t be surprised if you see the sneaker on the runways of Raf Simons and Gosha Rubchinskiy in the very near future.

Leveraging Grime to Become the New Air Force 1

This is not the only time that the Air Max BW has appeared in a subculture either. Just last week, Skepta took to Instagram to unveil his “Blacklisted” Air Max BW designed in collaboration with Nike. Before this, the few memorable collaborations that the Big Window had seen were with graffiti artist Stash, Nintendo, and British sneaker retailer size? This time, the subculture of grime music had become the newest frontier for the sneaker.

Emerging in England in the early 2000s, grime can be said to have had the same bumpy road to recognition as the Air Max BW. In the same way that the Big Window was neglected by Nike, grime music was overlooked by the British mainstream in some part due to its lack of recognition for emerging music, culminating in the #BritsSoWhite fiasco this year at the BRIT Music Awards. What’s worse, it took an outsider, Kanye West, to divert British attention back to grime when he invited the likes of Stormzy, Jammer and Novelist onto the stage for his “All Day” debut performance at last year’s BRIT Awards. Grime’s poster boy and co-founder of the Boy Better Know label, Skepta, was also on stage that night.

That the banner holder of grime — who also recently signed Drake to his label — was able to gain Nike’s seal of approval is not only a marker of the Swoosh’s foresight, but it was also a masterstroke in stimulating sales amongst lovers of a particular music genre. Nike has had some successful examples of this strategy in the past: Nelly’s 2002 single “Air Force Ones” spurned a sneaker buying frenzy upon its release; and when Fat Joe was shown buying 24 pairs of Air Force 1s at the MTV Video Music Awards, the sneaker was completely sold out at most stores across the nation the very next day. Just imagine how the Air Max BW’s popularity would skyrocket if both Skepta and Drake wore it onstage.

Skepta’s Nike Air Max BW “Blacklisted.”
Looking back on 29 years of Air Max history, it’s apparent that not all members of the lineage can achieve the same degree of greatness at the Air Max 1, 90, 95 and 97. Much like a music concert, not every member of the troupe gets a solo performance center stage, but there are those in the chorus who fill out the harmony, making the sum greater than its parts. This much can be said of the Nike Air Max BW and its cousins, the Air Max Burst, Air Max², Air Max Deluxe, Air Max 2000, Air Max Majikan, Air Max Specter and the like — nobody can deny the part that they had to play in making the Air Max line what it is today. However, for the Big Window, 2016 is already shaping up to be the banner year it never had, with Nike bringing to market a flurry of new colorways in the lead-up to Air Max Day. With a promising lineage, an overlooked but colorful history, and all the chops to make it as a standalone design, we’re putting our cards on the Nike Air Max BW this year.

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