Sole Mates: Steven Harrington and the Nike Air Force 1

Harrington discusses his lifelong love for the Air Force 1, from wearing it as a hip-hop loving teenager in Los Angeles to collaborating on it for Earth Day in 2018.

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Sole Mates is a weekly HYPEBEAST series that asks one simple question of its participants: “why do you love shoes?” Searching for a deeper meaning beyond hype, Sole Mates uncovers each subject’s sneaker origin story, letting them wax poetic on why a particular shoe means so much to them.

Steven Harrington knows a thing or two about Nike‘s Air Force 1. After all, it’s been with him for almost his entire life. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Harrington grew up in the ’80s loving hip-hop and skateboarding, affections that opened his mind to the wider scope of street culture and his eyes to what was on his feet. After starting with skate shoes, Harrington began emulating the footwear choices of his favorite musical artists like Dr. Dre — a man who was nary seen without a fresh pair of Forces. His love for the model has never subsided.

Since those blissful salad days, Harrington has taken the Air Force 1 along with him as he grew into an in-demand artist and designer who’s worked with everyone from Freddie Gibbs and Madlib to Molskine and L. Ercolani. The Air Force 1 even served as the centerpiece of his Earth Day-focused Nike footwear collection in 2018, one of many projects Harrington has worked with the Swoosh on. Although Harrington also professed a great deal of regard for models like the Air Max 1 and Air Max 90 to HYPEBEAST, he sees the Air Force 1 as the proverbial table-setter: the sneaker that paved the way for several Nike innovations after it.

In the latest installment of Sole Mates, Steven Harrington discusses becoming aware of the Air Force 1, how he prefers a crispy pair over a well-worn one — but has come to appreciate the latter more as he grows older — and the process behind his own Air Force 1 collaboration.

HYPEBEAST: Who or what got you into sneakers?

Steven Harrington: Skateboarding culture. For me, that was kind of a gateway into footwear being a very eye-catching way to present your personal interests and style. I was seven or eight years old. It was the Powell-Peralta days, right before footwear was specifically designed for skateboarding, and it was lots of Shoe Goo, duct-taping your sneakers so you could skate ‘em without them falling apart. Then Vision Street Wear came around, and I remember them making shoes with a big ollie pad on the side [the Canvas Hi-Top]. That was my first recollection of seeing a shoe not only from a function and comfort standpoint, but a style one as well.

How did you become aware of the Air Force 1?

The Air Force 1 came into play as part of the larger sphere of my interests, mainly hop hop and rap music. I’m a born-and-raised Los Angeles native, and the Air Force 1 played a gigantic role in the West Coast hip-hop scene when I was growing up in the ‘80s. The NWA guys would wear it, and Dr. Dre specifically was hardly ever seen in anything else. The interest I had in footwear from skateboarding budded into something greater, and the Air Force 1 was extremely enticing to me as a kid. The silhouette was much bigger and boxier than what I was used to, and it really captivated me. It’s been etched in my mind ever since!

It’s more than that too. I’m a massive fan of Air Max as well, and I know we’ve talked about it before [Steven participated in HYPEBEAST’s “What Max Means to Me” roundtable for Air Max Day]. I almost see the Air Force 1 as setting the table for Air Maxes. Of course, visible Air debuted in ‘87 with the Air Max 1, but — at least for me — the Air Force 1 was the first real impactful callout of Air tech and the idea of Air, even though I know it was first used on the Tailwind in the ‘70s. Not only that, but that outsole too! To me, it’s the quintessential sneaker.

“Comparing [the Air Force 1] to art, you have these real pivotal pieces of fine art, pop art, abstraction. If you think about design pieces from sneakers that you’re going to hold in that regard, the Air Force 1 outsole is up there for sure.”

For sure. You could make a very strong case for that being the most classic outsole pattern of all time.

Totally. Comparing it to art, you have these real pivotal pieces of fine art, pop art, abstraction. If you think about design pieces from sneakers that you’re going to hold in that regard, the Air Force 1 outsole is up there for sure. It almost has this 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe to me.

A love-hate part of my relationship with the Air Force 1, however is how the toebox gets worn in. That’s the one thing I don’t like — it ends up getting so creased and looks like a sneaker you’d see out on the side of the highway somewhere [laughs].

Do you think the Air Force 1 is a shoe that should only be worn to a certain extent? It seems like a lot of people today like ‘em pretty beat up, when in years past it was more about always having a crispy pair.

You know, it’s funny: my taste within that question has really shifted over time. I do think that certain footwear models almost have to be not cooked at all to look good. I’ll always have a love for fresh sh*t too. Now, though, I’ve hit this age where I kinda love everything really beat up, and a lot of that has to do with context: being conscious of a shoe’s history and story. In my travels, I’ve found that understanding [of context] to be most commonplace in Paris — you’ll see a lot of people artfully rocking well-worn sh*t there.

Are you/were you doing the Air Force 1 High, the Air Force 1 Low … the Air Force 1 Mid?!

Mostly the Lows, and I know this sounds kind of nerdy, but the Mids too [laughs]. Even to this day I have a few Mids, mainly the “Flax.” I like how it almost crosses into a Timberland kind of look.

Did your perspective on the Air Force 1 change after you collaborated on it?

Oh, yeah. With all my projects of that magnitude, there’s always an “I can’t believe it” moment, and on the Air Force 1 that was when I got a chance to essentially rip it apart and put it back together, then have it made of Flyleather. I was able to get a “look behind the curtain,” and felt like it was the shoe equivalent of pulling a pair of Levi’s apart and putting them back together. I saw firsthand how practical and functional the Air Force 1 is.

I also realized how much the wearer’s mind takes this very functional item and creates a story around it. Prior to all the SB Dunk hype, the desire for Air Jordans, the Air Force 1 was the shoe with a tale to tell — it got taken up by street culture and made it into this really awesome thing. It’s not just a sneaker, it’s a piece of design with a really amazing story.

Talk us through your collaborative process. Did you come in with a specific idea, or go with the flow?

Well for starters, I was like “it has to be white,” just cause that’s the classic. I wanted people to be able to rock it fresh, because that’s how it was worn when I was growing up. However, I also said to myself “let’s do something we haven’t seen from this model yet. Let’s freak it almost like it’s a custom with a big old airbrush hit.” I wanted the Nike team to embrace that custom DIY aspect.

We used a new technology to print the image on the side: one individual pattern would be placed on the Swoosh, the quarter, the midsole, and then all the pieces would eventually form a singular image. It wasn’t printed directly on the already-assembled shoe like usual, and from what I know that was the first time that Nike had done that on an Air Force 1.

I’ll be honest, when we first set off to do it I didn’t think [Nike] would be able to do it to the level I wanted because I needed it to be aligned perfectly, really crispy. And that aspect is what I’m most proud of, how sharp it looks.

How are sneakers and the stories they carry significant to you?

Without getting too existential, a lot has changed in this past year. A lot of what drives my pet purchases is how conscious the brand I’m buying from is, what the story is behind the product is or just what I’m looking to get out of the item. Within footwear, that’s becoming more and more important. Even with the Nike collection I worked on, sustainability was a massive part of it. I told Nike “hey guys, this is a very important topic. I know this can be made cool — why isn’t anyone out there trying to make it cool? That relevancy has a lot of influence, and it can be used for good.

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