How Nike's Air Jordan 1 became — and remained — the most prized lifestyle sneaker
- Nike on Saturday will release the Air Jordan 1 Chicago "Lost and Found"
- Some collectors consider it the "most iconic sneaker of all time."
Michael Jordan first wore the Air Jordan 1 nearly four decades ago, an eternity in the fast-moving world of sneakers and fashion.
On Saturday, Nike will re-release the shoe in its infamous Chicago Bulls colors. And even though Nike is releasing a reported 500,000 pairs, it will likely sell out in minutes.
"The Air Jordan 1 is the most iconic sneaker of all time," said Jordan Geller, a sneaker collector and former owner of the ShoeZeum who in 2020 sold a pair worn by Jordan for a record $560,000. "The white, black, and red shoes are instantly recognizable and are a part of American pop culture."
Shoe collectors, analysts, and industry watchers said the sneaker's rich backstory, Nike's ability to manage scarcity, recent blockbuster collaborations, and "The Last Dance" documentary have kept the sneaker atop the wishlist for sneakerheads.
More than a third of trades since October 1 on Tradeblock, an app that lets collectors trade sneakers, have included a Jordan 1. The closets of Tradeblock members contain more than 250,000 pairs of Jordan 1s, according to the company.
On eBay, sneaker collectors this year searched for Jordan 1s, on average, over 100,000 times a day, an 11% increase over 2021.
The "Lost and Found" is already on track to also be one of the year's best-selling Jordan 1s on StockX, even though demand is softening for some non-original colors of the sneaker.
The silhouette was "essentially a lock to sell out in any colorway in 2019, 2020, and early 2021," said Dylan Dittrich, head of research at Altan Insights and author of the book "Sneakonomic Growth," which tracks the growth of sneakers as an asset class.
"That's been less the case this year, as several releases no longer sell through with immediacy, and some secondary market prices reflect softness."
The Air Jordan 1 Chicago "Lost and Found" colorway will prove to be different.
"The demand for the Chicago colorway on a Jordan 1 will always remain for some because it's a true grail pair that surpasses all others," said TJ Keasal, a sneaker and sportswear digital creator.
"An instant hit"
While Michael Jordan's Nike deal is the gold standard for athlete endorsements, it didn't start that way.
"Initially, there were many more critics than there were enthusiasts of Nike's decision to give Michael Jordan a large sneaker deal before he played a single game in 1985," said Tradeblock cofounder and CEO Mbiyimoh "Beems" Ghogomu.
As Jordan soared on NBA courts, his first signature shoe took off. Nike released the shoe nationally in March 1985. It sold $130 million of them in the first year. If the shoe and associated apparel had been a standalone company, it would have been the fifth-largest sneaker company in the world, the Washington Post reported in a sweeping story about Jordan's Nike deal in 1992.
"They were an instant hit," Geller said. "One thing about the shoes that makes them so iconic is that they released in a variety of colors. Before the Air Jordan came out, most basketball shoes were very plain. They were usually white and black, white and navy, or white and gray."
The Jordan 1 also helped stop a rare Nike slump. In the mid-80s, Nike had whiffed on the aerobics boom and fallen behind Reebok.
"By the spring of 1984, things were going to hell," cofounder Phil Knight said in a 1993 Harvard Business School case study.
By the late '80s, Nike had introduced an entire suite of Air products, including the Air Max, and the Jordan brand continued to grow. Between 1988 and 1991, Nike averaged a 36% annual sales increase. Nike also regained the industry lead from Reebok, a lead that it's never relinquished.
"Jordan's rise propelled the Air Jordan 1, resulting in nationwide demand and in making the shoes a must-have for sneakerheads," Ghogomu said. "The silhouette blew up even more on the market when it went from being seen as a sneaker catered to basketball players to an everyday-wear sneaker once skaters got a hold of them."
It's since become a fashion staple, appearing on red carpets, the feet of NFL football players, musicians, and celebrities. When it's released in stores, long lines have formed outside of Foot Locker, Champs Sports, and boutiques with sneakerheads desperate to grab a pair.
Scarcity, storytelling, collaborations and the "Last Dance"
After 1985, The Air Jordan 1 didn't re-release in original specs until 1994. Nike would not retro the shoe again until 2015, although a near-original version released in 2013.
"All of those releases are coveted by sneaker collectors and the 'Lost and Found' Air Jordan 1 will be as well," Geller said.
"Nike has approached the Chicago colorway a little differently with far less retro releases, adding to the allure of owning a rare piece of sneaker history directly tied to the GOAT himself," Keasal added. "Nike maintained demand two ways: scarcity and nostalgia."
While the shoe will sell out instantly, Wedbush Securities analyst Tom Nikic said the drop is "less about what this launch does for the actual (profit and loss statement) of the company and more about what it means for the health of the brand."
Nike has continued to lean into the storytelling around the shoe. This year's version comes with a "Lost and Found" theme that harkens back to the early days of sneaker collecting, when prized shoes could be found in the dusty backrooms of sporting goods stores. The "Lost and Found" even comes in an aged-looking box with a handwritten receipt.
In the past few years, Nike collaborated with some fashion and music icons on limited-edition versions of the Jordan 1, including Virgil Abloh and Travis Scott. Nike even released a "Trophy Room" version in 2021 in partnership with Marcus Jordan, one of Michael Jordan's sons and a sneaker boutique owner.
Abloh's Off-White "Chicago" released in 2017. It last sold on StockX for $4,335.
The final piece of the continued success of the Jordan 1 is the 2020 documentary "The Last Dance," which introduced Jordan to a new wave of sneaker collectors.
"'The Last Dance' documentary comes into play for the current generation," Keasal said. "Younger collectors or Air Jordan fans have never seen Jordan play live, but add in the perfect storm of this larger-than-life viewing experience with the world essentially reliving the greatest to play the game with an intimate look we'd never seen."
The boost from the "Last Dance" even got the attention of Nike CEO John Donahoe, who mentioned it on a June 2020 earnings call with stock analysts.
"The Jordan Brand resonated deeply in (the quarter) with the airing of ESPN's The Last Dance documentary," he said. "The response we saw from the cultural conversation around each episode to the rapid sell-through of the AJ5 Fire Red demonstrated the love for the Jordan brand all over the world."
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