Some athletic shoes transcend their performance roots and become a cultural phenomenon. The Nike Air Max Plus, released in 1998, is one such shoe.
This unique addition to the Air Max dynasty defined the era in which it debuted as well as those that followed. On sale somewhere in the world for close to two decades without any downtime and released in hundreds of colorways and variations in construction that include leather editions, Ultra makeovers and slip-ons, the ultimate accolade for the Air Max Plus was an unofficial rebrand — in some territories it’s better known by the two letters, “Tn,” that represent the Tuned Air it debuted — and the moniker is now standard issue at street level.
While the silhouette’s cult stature is well known, its origin is less established. Designed by industry veteran Sean McDowell, the shoe combines an unlikely aesthetic influence with a trio of never-before-employed manufacturing techniques. Here, McDowell shares his memories of creating the classic runner.
SETTING THE AESTHETIC
McDowell (albeit unknowingly) began conceptualizing the Air Max Plus before he even started his role at Nike.
“I hung out on the Florida beaches and just thought and sketched — it was one of my most creative times,” he remembers a vacation he took with friends between jobs. “One evening, it was turning to dusk, so the very blue sky was starting to fade to dark blue, and the palm trees were blowing in the wind.”
“I hung out on the Florida beaches and just thought and sketched — it was one of my most creative times.”
– Sean McDowell
That local beauty fired his imagination. “I sketched that out, and I thought, ‘It could make a quarter panel, like you could hold your foot down with those palm trees,” he says, filing that thought away for future use.
Shortly after and upon arrival to Nike in 1997, McDowell immediately took on the challenge of creating a new running shoe (and thus completing a nascent project for Foot Locker) that used a new Max Air innovation that implemented two opposing hemispheres to evolve the cushioning technology. Its working name was Sky Air, and more than 15 potential shoe sketches had been presented to the retailer. None had received the nod yet.
“As soon as I heard ‘sky,’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, I just saw this amazing sky in Florida,’” says McDowell, who resumed his sketching. “I did a sunset. I did a blue one. I did a purple one. I tried a couple of different colors and sky versions, some palm trees were a little more tech-y and very geometric, and others were waving.”
A whale inspired another of the key focal features of the Air Max Plus. “The shank is a modified whale tail,” says McDowell. “That tail coming out of the water is so iconic.”
McDowell’s lack of experience at the company was the key to the distinctive Swoosh on the Air Max Plus. He had never drawn a Swoosh before. He didn’t have a template for it. “No one had given me any guidance because it was my first few days,” he says. “The shape is a little bit off, and I put the border on the inside, when technically all the brand guidelines say to go outside.”
What the wearer saw was all-important too: “I wanted to put some emphasis on the top-down view,” says McDowell. “The palm trees looked good on the medial and lateral sides, but when it came to connecting them on the top it looked weird to have a straight line connecting them, so I thought, ‘What else could I do that’s a little more interesting?’”
Given the Air Max Plus’ colossal impact on fashion, it’s easy to forget that it was created to run in, with McDowell aiming to incorporate as many performance benefits as possible, including flex grooves through the forefoot and Nike’s best practices for the outsole. “Now it is a huge lifestyle shoe,” he says. “But it weighs less than 12 ounces. For a PU shoe, that’s very lightweight — especially for that time.”
“I wanted to put some emphasis on the top-down view.”
– Sean McDowell
As a keen athlete, Sean understood where challenging convention could yield new functionality. “I grew up a runner, and you learn to always run facing traffic so that cars can see you, and I thought, ‘But it’s weird they put reflectivity on the back of almost every shoe when you need reflectivity all the way up the front,” he says. “So I put bars of reflectivity going all the way up the forefoot, the vamp and the tongue.”
His commitment to detail extends to the distinctive outsole. “I called out the different hemispheres in the rubber because you couldn’t really see them on the medial side, so you didn’t know if there was any new technology,” he explains. He created color damns to draw more attention to the Tuned Air that was inside. He also added palm tree stripes in the shank and the Tn logo. “Those lines were pointing to the air bag, like this is the cool thing,” he says.
Now, the Air Max Plus is synonymous with that Tn Air logo, but the hexagonal branding was a surprise at the time for McDowell, who was a week into the sketches, and felt as though everything was coming together nicely. “I didn’t know where we were supposed to put it, but they told me it was a really big deal and I needed to feature it prominently.”
McDowell’s break between jobs was also critical in the designer’s decision to stray from traditional colorways. He visualized telling a night-to-day story for the introductory trio of Air Max Plus makeups. “We didn’t have color specialists, so the first three shoes are a really great part of the story,” he says. “The first shoe was dusk, the second was almost all black with a little bit of red [they used reflective mesh from the Jordan XIII] to represent stars in the night sky, and the third was bright orange and yellow to depict sunrise the next morning.”
DIALING THE TECH
The Air Max Plus would prove to deliver a number of firsts, beginning with the debut of a striking sublimated treatment.
While his sketches were deeply imaginative, McDowell remembers being optimistic about bringing them to life. “I drew the fade and everyone was like, ‘You’ll never be able to do that, you can’t find a material like that.’ And I said, ‘We’ll just sublimate it,’” he recalls. But they had never done that before.
Recalling the fire-like fade on the Nike Flame spike (the sibling of the cult classic Omega Flame shoe of the early 1980s) he’d run in as a young man, the designer felt the treatment was a possibility. “They were doing it in apparel, so I thought it would be pretty easy,” says McDowell. They started with the lightest blue and printed a darker blue over it. “The first sample was perfect,” he says.
I drew the fade and everyone was like, ‘You’ll never be able to do that, you can’t find a material like that.’
– Sean McDowell
Construction of the upper, as McDowell had sketched it, also challenged old ways. Specifically, the welding had never been done before. “But we had done little logos, so I suggested making the whole shoe out of thin welded TPU,” he recalls. Still — two weeks out from his meeting with Foot Locker — there were questions as to whether he could build it. “I was told, ‘Fly to Asia, make the samples, and hopefully the meeting goes well,’” he said.
McDowell made the long journey to the factory facilities, but received bad news. “They told it was too big to weld,” he says. “It would take too much power and either melt the fabric or wouldn’t bond.” Rather than give up on it, McDowell suggested doing three separate welds. They tried it and it immediately worked. “That was a big win,” he says.
While the shoe proved possible from a production standpoint, it still needed its crucial retailer co-sign. After meetings that McDowell attended alongside future NIKE, Inc. president and CEO Mark Parker, a Foot Locker executive suggested an offbeat experiment in market research: put the shoe on a shelf at the store right when school lets out and see what happens.
“Five or 10 minutes later, there were like 10 kids flocking to the shoe asking, ‘What is this? How do I get it?’’ recalls McDowell. “The associates were looking around like, ‘I’ve never seen that thing before, I don’t know how much it costs, I don’t know where it came from.’ while the kids were running around like, ‘I want to buy this thing.’ They were almost frantic. I was beaming.”
From there, the shoe launched to almost immediate international appeal. And while McDowell understood it early, one example of dedication to the silhouette is front and center in his mind. “I saw somebody who got their whole foot tattooed in the pattern of the Tuned Air. The bottom of their foot has the outsole,” he says.” The stripes and Swoosh on the sides, black all the way up the back with the Tn logo on the back. It’s wild.”
“I saw somebody who got their whole foot tattooed in the pattern of the Tuned Air.”
In the two decades since the Nike Air Max Plus hit shelves, the fandom McDowell describes has hit peaks and valleys. The silhouette remains a cult favorite in New York — bubbling up into the mainstream from time to time. In Paris and London, it’s a staple. And Down Under, Melbourne and Sydney profit from a steady stream of regional exclusive colorways.
Despite its overt technicality, for Tn fans, the shoe carries only a simple connotation: Classic.
You can pick up the Nike Air Max Plus at Shelflife.