What Is The Nike Air Max?

Read the history of the Nike Air Max shoe, why it's popular, and where to get them.

What Is The Nike Air Max?

Nike Air Max

Not many sneakers have their own holiday, but Nike Air Maxes do.

Air Max Day, which happens every March, lets collectors and sneakerheads see what new models of this iconic shoe will be hitting the shelves.

This case study takes a look at everything revolving around the Nike Air Maxes since the first air-cushioned shoe hit the shelves in 1987.

History of Nike Air Max

It’s pretty easy to spot a pair of Air Maxes, as the functional-yet-stylish air pockets are visible on almost every iteration of the shoe. However, it wasn’t the first Air shoe that used air pocket technology.

Almost a decade before the first Air Max found its way to sneaker showrooms, the Nike Air Tailwind boasted three small air pockets inside the heel. It was first released in 1978 to a limited audience. Not all models of the Air Tailwind have pockets, unlike the Air Max line, but many do. The Air Tailwind could be called a big brother to the Air Max.

NASA and Nike

The first idea for the air cushions that would become the signature of the Air Max line was delivered to Nike by a NASA scientist more than 40 years ago. Space engineer Frank Rudy gained scientific popularity for creating a means to capture high-density gasses in a urethane bag. He believed foot comfort could really benefit from the technology.

Rudy was right. In addition to the functionality, the air pockets look cool. The combination of style and comfort made for a popular shoe line that, 34 years after the first shoe, is still one of the top-selling sneakers in the world.

That first shoe, now called The Air Max 1 (originally just “The Air Max”), was designed by a guy named Tinker Hatfield. Hatfield had done plenty of design work for Nike… but on their building structures as an architect. After four years of designing buildings at the brand’s Oregon facilities, he jumped over to designing kicks.

The Air Max wasn’t something that was being talked about in the main board rooms, and Hatfield refers to it as originally being a “renegade” shoe outside of his usual scope of work. He got the idea for the exposed air bubble from, you guessed it, a building. The building, called Centre Georges Pompidou and located in Paris, has exposed structural elements many referred to as an eyesore.

Hatfield liked the idea, and put it into work in his renegade shoe, with the exposed cushion bubble being the sneaker version of the functional parts of the “structure” being exposed for all to see. In both architecture and shoes, this style has stood the test of time.

Air Max Timeline

  • 1989: Two years after the first Air Max, the Air Max Light hit shelves using a different foam to make the shoes lighter.
  • 1992: The Air Max 180 took the air bubble as a style to new heights as the shoe used visible air pockets along the top of the sole.
  • 1994: The Air Max 2 built off the earlier models. The three-hole air pocket design on the heel has stood the test of time and can be found in many current Air Max models.

Following these releases, Air Max Day became a reality, with at least one new model — usually called Air Max [Year] like Air Max 96 — coming out each year since. Here are a few that really turned heads:

  • 1999: The Air Max Deluxe had wild color schemes that would also become popular with later issues of the sneaker.
  • 2006: The Air Max 360 took a more subtle and classy angle on the shoe. Like the 180, the air pockets are visible from all sides of the sleek 360s.
  • 2018: The Air Max 270 featured larger air pockets and a bolder design.
  • 2019: The Air Max 720 built on the bold look of the 270 and had the largest air cushion of the previous models. Today, most styles of the shoe use larger air pockets.

“Cool” is a subjective term, but here are a few reasons the Air Maxes are considered to be one of the coolest sneakers ever produced. The sales numbers confirm it.



Nike has always had a measurable dedication to comfort, and the Air Max line is a prime example. Each part of the sneaker is built on the NASA air pocket technology to create more comfort and less weight in the sneakers. With the new models, wearers truly are walking on air.


Even if the air pockets didn’t add comfort, they may be almost as iconic within the Nike brand as the Swoosh itself. This style has been mimicked by many, but with each new release, the Air Max team reinvents itself. Its continual innovation certainly played a huge role in the longevity of the Air Max.

Pop Culture

Rapper Eminem was part of a uber-limited release of the Air Max 97 Shady Records release, and the shoes sell for $50,000. The eight pairs made represent a microcosm of the influence that popular figures have on sneaker culture, especially in the arts.
Tom Holland’s favorite shoe is the Air Max 97; Anderson .Paak mentions the kicks often in his music. Travis Scott has a signature model out right now. In addition to these folks, other athletes and celebrities have signature Air Maxes.

Best Air Maxes

Here are some stats to help you decide which model of Air Max to buy next.

Most Expensive Air Maxes

To say that Air Max wearers are obsessive wouldn’t be unfair, and some of the most popular models — ones without signatures — can sell for amounts some people wouldn’t pay for a used car.

Currently, the 97 Air Maxes are popular in all colors, and you can get a new pair for around $200. The top-selling Nike shoe of all time is still the Air Force 1, with Air Maxes coming in at second. Nike had 9 of the top 10 selling shoe models in 2021.

Where to Buy Nike Air Max Sneakers Online

If you’re late to the Air Max party, check out new models at your local shoe store or Nike.com to get yourself started. If you catch the bug and want to get yourself some of the classic, iconic models, these sneaker resale sites will get you started:


StockX is an online marketplace with a huge selection of Nike shoes and other sneakers, with plenty of Air Maxes to choose from.


GOAT is another marketplace, and you can put a bunch of filters on your search to make sure you’re rocking the perfect pair of Air Maxes.


An oldie-but-goodie, eBay is another marketplace to find quality used sneakers.

Take Your Collection to the Max

With almost 40 years of technology helping to shape comfort, and an entire holiday for sneakerheads to contemplate, to say that the Air Max has molded shoe culture since well before the turn of the millennium wouldn’t be an understatement.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When did the first Nike Air Maxes come out?
The first iteration called simply The Air Max at its release (now referred to as The Air Max 1) was released in 1987.

What is the most popular Air Max?
When it comes to “favorite,” everyone has a different answer, but check out this article to decide yours!