Do you remember the Nike Air Max 2016? Can you even conjure up an image of the Air Max 2017 in your head? We won’t blame you if the answer is no. While the Air Max line has been responsible for millions of dollars in sneaker sales since its inception in 1987, recent models have not been entirely memorable. The revolution described in the first ad campaign around the shoes feels significantly less rebellious now. Gone are the days of iconic designs like the Air Max 90 and Air Max 95, and the now yearly main offerings in the franchise have felt somewhat stale since the big bag of the Air Max 2009.
If there’s anything that can reverse the trend it’s the Nike Air VaporMax ($190), a highly-touted model first unveiled at Nike’s Innovation Summit event in 2016 that’s set to release on Sunday, exactly 30 years after the debut of the original Air Max. The shoe has an exaggerated bubble on bottom paired with a sleek Flyknit upper, a combo that Nike claims results in the “most flexible Air Max ever.” The cushioning system is especially notable for its lack of foam—the traditional midsole is gone and the Flyknit upper sits directly on top of the Air bag. In removing a layer separating the foot and the sole, Nike hopes to address a design issue that’s been there for years.
“What’s different here is that the properties of Air are still there—that protection, that durability, that resiliency—but what’s been always elusive to us is that sensation of air,” said Nike VP of Innovation Kathy Gomez at an event for the VaporMax. “Nike Air Max hasn’t really felt like you can imagine it should feel like, and that’s what we unlocked here.”
While Nike’s been very focused on the tech aspects of this shoe, it’s clear how much the brand cares about things from a visual standpoint. In this regard, perhaps the best outcome for Nike with the VaporMax is for it to operate in a space like Adidas’ celebrated Ultra Boost, its home in sport recognized, but its place in casual wear much more salient. It’s mostly touted as a runner, but remember that the first pair to hit retail before Sunday’s wide launch was a fashion collaboration with Comme des Garçons. Nike Sportswear Design Director Nate Jobe says it’s the first time the brand has debuted a shoe like this through this lens.
“It's always been launching first as a performance-true product, and then later being adopted by culture,” Jobe told Sole Collector. “In this case, we worked directly with Rei [Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garçons,] in the beginning to have sport and style coming together in the beginning versus the end.”
All this is not to say that the VaporMax doesn’t have performance chops. Finite element analysis informs the patterns and tubes that shape the sole. The shoe’s been in development at Nike for seven years, with rigorous product testing throughout. Gomez speculates that it might be the most-tested Nike model ever, saying that around 350 athletes ran a total of 126,000 miles in them.
But even at a wear-test event for the shoe Nike reps aren’t shy about its casual appeal, mentioning that it falls somewhere between hardcore runner and lifestyle silhouette. While gushing about the VaporMax in 2016, Nike CEO Mark Parker referenced its spot between these lanes.
“It's a great example of an innovation that stands at the intersection of high-tech, pure function, and aesthetic beauty,” Parker said.
How well does the VaporMax deliver on Nike’s promise of the “running on air” sensation from a functional standpoint? When wearing the shoe, it’s difficult to separate oneself from all the marketing dollars spent convincing the wearer the sensation is there. Do I actually feel that Air underfoot, or do I just want to after hearing Parker’s eulogizing and eagerly anticipating the shoe for so many months? At least some of it is the former—on a run the shoe delivers a very bouncy ride that’s more present in the back half of the sole. The feeling of Air is certainly there to a greater extent than on any Air Max I’ve worn before. To really test the bubble, the wearer can bounce up and down on the heel for a piece of tactile evidence. The tubular Air sections toward the front aren’t as apparent, although one gets the idea the shoe would be too bouncy were the forefoot’s cushioning shaped the same way the heel’s is. Note that this isn’t the firm energy return feel of Adidas Boost; what the wearer gets with the VaporMax is something more exaggerated.
The fit of the Flyknit upper is snug, but not tight. The Flyknit material has more stretch to it than that of models like the Flyknit Racer, which is welcome given the somewhat constricting shape of the midfoot. (Think the stretchy stuff used on 2016’s Nike LunarEpic.)
The VaporMax is a statement product from Nike, that much was clear when the shoe was debuted at the brand’s Innovation Summit last year. The statement translates to the wearer too; it’s a visually striking model that almost demands the attention of onlookers with its alien sole. There’s an auditory element to the sneaker as an announcement as well, although that one is not totally positive. It’s a bit loud, the VaporMax’s big bubble still squeaking after a few days of regular wear.
The jumbo bubble also evokes a sense of fragility. The first thing many ask when seeing the sneaker is whether it can withstand the rigors of everyday wear without popping. But that fear has been there since the beginning—when designer Tinker Hatfield first developed Air Max, the feedback from Nike was that the exposed cushioning looked like it would pop, which wouldn't fly for consumers. Nike says it’s prepared for that fear on the VaporMax, where the bubble is more exposed to the elements than ever before, by testing it on the rugged trails of Colorado.
“We test a lot of things in Colorado,” Gomez explained. “There’s a great community of athletes and runners there, also lots of trails that can be really hard on the shoes, which we want to see. You can put a lot of miles on shoes in a short amount of time.”
Opposite efforts like the testing to prove the shoe’s worth while logging miles are moves like the color choices that highlight the shoe’s fashion aspirations. While Air Max designs of yesteryear leaned on bright accents to establish themselves, with colorways like the Air Max 1’s bold blue and red or the Air Max 90’s sharp infrared helping to change the look of running footwear, the VaporMax aims for something more subdued. Its debut colorway is a foggy mixture of flat platinum and grey with a metaphorical meaning.
“We wanted to reinforce the idea of running on air,” said Andres Harlow, VP/Creative Director of footwear for Nike Running. The idea is channeled through Flyknit material made to look like an actual cloud with blended neutral colors that are more intricate than they appear on first glance. Again style points are mentioned, the shoe’s lack of popping colors being a play toward contemporary palette trends.
As much as the VaporMax is able to win from a style perspective, one suspects it won’t quite end up with the performance accolades of the Adidas Ultra Boost. The short history of Boost suggests it's currently a more effective performance platform than Air, one with marathon wins to help back up all its claims. But maybe that doesn’t matter that much given that the majority of sportswear is not worn for its intended purpose.
Regardless of adoption by runners, the VaporMax is a win from Nike in this writer’s opinion in that it’s a reminder of what the brand can do to push the look of footwear forward. And beyond aesthetics, it feels how one imagines Air Max should. The win is especially big when one considers how much agreement there was about Adidas besting Nike with product in 2016. The shoe is a confirmation and realization of innovation, the brand’s favorite buzzword. And there’s more VaporMax to come—Parker has said that Nike is scaling the technology to bring it to a wider range of products. Through this, the brand will look to deliver on something else that Air Max has promised from the start: a revolution.