Since it’s introduction in 1985 the Air Jordan line has been one of the most famous, sought after, iconic signature shoe lines in the world. Go back to where it all began and check out Eastbay’s history of the first 15 Air Jordan’s ever made.
The shoe that began it all. The very first Air Jordan was designed by Peter Moore and released in 1985. What really sold Michael Jordan on the shoe was how thinned down the midsole was, which he requested because he wanted his feet to be lower to the ground in order to “feel the court.” Many colorways were made, but none were more famous than the OG black and red style which drew the ire of league commissioner David Stern who sent a letter to Nike warning them the shoes violated league rules.
Following up a shoe as iconic as the AJ 1 was always going to be a challenge, but it was one that designers Bruce Kilgore and Peter Moore rose to meet. Released in 1986, Nike wanted the AJ 2 to be an exclusive, premium shoe. To accomplish this, the shoe was made in Italy and Nike limited the release to only 30 stores. The shoe was also stripped of the Nike Swoosh in favor of the iconic Wings emblem. Though MJ only played 18 games in the AJ 2 due to injury, he did wear them on his way to winning the dunk contest in Seattle.
After two successful releases, Nike was going through several changes. Bruce Kilgore and Peter Moore were leaving to form their own company, and there was a real fear that Michael Jordan would leave with them. In stepped a young designer named Tinker Hatfield who really honed in on what MJ wanted in order to create one of Michael’s favorite shoes, the AJ III. The Nike Swoosh was once again dropped, but this time in favor of the now-instantly recognizable Jumpman logo. In one of the most famous marketing campaigns ever, Nike paired MJ with director Spike Lee who would play the iconic character Mars Blackmon.
With Tinker Hatfield now firmly entrenched as the lead designer of the Air Jordan line, he focused more on the performance aspect of the shoe. Released in 1989, the IV was more streamlined and lightweight than the III. Featuring several signature details, including mesh netting on the side panels and tongue to improve breathability, the IV wasn’t well received by the public initially, but is now well-known for being the shoe Jordan was wearing when he hit “The Shot.”
Tinker was back at it again with the AJ V, pushing boundaries on how well a basketball shoe could perform. Drawing inspiration from the aggressive look of WW2 fighter jets featuring the “shark mouth” design, Tinker placed several cartoonish teeth along the side of the shoe. He also brought over the visible Zoom Air unit from previous generations. In addition, the shoe was a mainstay on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and came to really encapsulate early ’90s fashion.
After bumping up against Detroit in the playoffs the season before, MJ finally broke through to win his first championship, and he did it all in the Air Jordan VI. Designed by Tinker, the VI was released in 1991 and drew on inspiration from MJ’s German sportscar. One of the more noticeable changes was the loop Tinker added on the heel after MJ complained he was struggling to put on previous versions of the shoe. By this point, the Air Jordan line had fully permeated pop culture and the VI was no different with comedian Jerry Seinfeld rocking them on “Seinfeld.”
Comedic Rockstar Bugs Bunny introduced himself to the line with the Air Jordan VII. It was the first time Bugs was used in the marketing campaign, paving the way for “Space Jam.” Rather than taking inspiration from a car or airplane, Tinker drew from West African tribal art with bold, colorful lines running across the midsole. The VII was the first shoe to feature no external Nike branding whatsoever, drawing a stark line between the Jordan line and Nike. Despite the separation between the two brands, the VII’s design leaned heavily on the ethos of the Huarache line.
Michael Jordan was on a roll in 1993. He was still tearing up the league, averaging 32 ppg on his way to a seventh-straight scoring title, all while leading Chicago to a third consecutive title. While MJ was pushing the limits of greatness on the court, Tinker was busy working to deliver a brand-new Air Jordan. The VIII featured several characteristics never before seen including a chromatic midsole and unique lockdown straps. It also had the only appearance of a carpeted Jumpman logo and was the heaviest shoe ever in the line.
The Air Jordan IX has the unique designation of being the only shoe Jordan himself never wore. After walking away from the game to play baseball, Tinker and Nike scrambled to design a shoe to carry on the legacy while also setting the tone moving forward. The result was a sleeker, more streamlined shoe that featured the debut of the one-pull lacing system. Though Jordan would never wear the AJ IX in a game, players such as Ray Allen, Mitch Richmond, and BJ Armstrong all wore exclusive versions of the shoe throughout the season.
With MJ still playing baseball, Tinker and Nike proceeded in designing the Air Jordan X under the assumption Jordan would never return. As a result, the X was the first shoe that didn’t receive MJ’s explicit approval. There weren’t a lot of frills with the X – the only real signature details were on the outsole where Tinker had listed accomplishments for every year Jordan was in the league. Of course, it was during this season that MJ announced he would be returning to the court where he guided Chicago to the playoffs in the X’s.
The Air Jordan XI is one of the, if not the, most beloved models of the entire line. Tinker has said it’s his favorite design, and it has certainly continued to be popular with sneakerheads of every generation. With MJ fully back in the fold, he requested a shoe that had a bit more class, so he would be able to wear the shoe with a suit. Tinker accomplished this by using patent leather – a first for a basketball shoe. In addition to making the shoe stronger on the court, patent leather also added that touch of class MJ was looking for. Tinker wanted the shoe to look like a convertible with its sleek design. The shoe also graced the big screen as MJ wore them as he led the Tune Squad to victory in “Space Jam”.
Coming off the wildly successful XI, Tinker had his work cut out for him. For inspiration, he turned to women’s fashion, something MJ had been a big proponent of in the past. He modeled the AJ XII after a 19th century women’s shoe called the “Nisshoki” and also included some elements from Japan’s “Rising Sun” to create a really clean shoe. Famously, Jordan was wearing the XII when he played in the “Flu Game” where he led Chicago to victory over Utah.
For the XIII Tinker wanted to highlight Jordan’s predatory nature on the court. He chose a panther as his inspiration and designed the outsole, so it looked a panther’s paw. Unbeknownst to Tinker, one of Michael Jordan’s lesser known nicknames was “Black Cat,” something his friends called him because of the power and ferocity he played with.
Once again, drawing on inspiration from MJ’s collection of exotic cars, Tinker modeled elements of design from Jordan’s Ferrari. Released in 1998, the XIV is regarded as one of the most comfortable Air Jordans ever created. It’s also the last signature model Jordan ever wore during his run with Chicago.
With Jordan retired for the second time, there was concern about whether the Air Jordan line would have the same impact. Thankfully, Tinker stuck around to shepherd the brand through the change. For the XV Tinker looked to mimic Jordan’s otherworldly, jaw-dropping style of play, Tinker purposefully designed the tongue to protrude. He also took inspiration from the X-15 fighter jet.