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Nike Sportswear: The Story of the Nike Air Huarache

What do Jerry Seinfeld, Mexican culture, and water-skiing have in common? Answer: they have all played a critical role in the success of one of the world’s most recognisable shoes, the Nike Air Huarache. After its inaugural launch in 1991, the shoe turned 30 last year. After three decades, the distinctive-looking model has continued to be a top seller in the Nike lineup and is a favourite among footwear enthusiasts and collectors alike.

To rewind a little bit, Huaraches originate from the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and Yucatán in Mexico. It is rumoured that the lightweight, breathable shoes predate the European colonisation of the country. The term “huarache” comes from the Tarascan word “kwarachi” from the Purépecha people in Jalisco, and refers to the handmade woven shoes typically worn by farmworkers and indigenous groups. The weaving technique of the Huarache is rooted in Aztec culture and has since been inherited and improved over many generations.

Nike Sportswear: The Story of the Nike Air Huarache | Always in Colour

The Nike Air version, which was originally designed for running, has a unique origin story. It all began when designer Tinker Hatfield, who is a fan of water-skiing, drew the initial sketches of the shoe. His goal was to craft a running shoe that was devoid of superficial additions and instead focused on the bare essentials. The incorporation of sock-like neoprene, in both function and style, was key to his first drawings. This material would keep the shoe lightweight (9.5 ounces) while giving it a low-key appearance, sans Swoosh. As legend has it, Hatfield came up with his initial drawings after thinking about how he popped his feet into a slalom water ski, which included a neoprene bootie.

Understandably so, the shoe turned a lot of heads back in 1991 when it was initially released. After all, it lacked a Swoosh, which made it immediately less identifiable by Nike fans. Up until that point, the design was completely different from what Nike had previously released.

Nike Sportswear: The Story of the Nike Air Huarache | Always in Colour

However, when it came to comfort and functionality as a running shoe, it was impossible to give any negative criticism of it. The first 5,000 pairs were specifically sent to marathon runners, who provided nothing but positive feedback. The neoprene did a phenomenal job of hugging the runner’s feet, earning the shoe the famous marketing tagline, “Have you hugged your foot today?” In addition to the neoprene, Hatfield utilised a sturdy saddle to supplement the bootie housed beneath. These features are highly sought out in a running shoe, which needs to provide stability and support to avoid injury.

As is common in fashion, celebrity endorsement does wonders for building a brand’s image. Pop culture did this for the Air Huarache, due to two massive household names of the ‘90s - Jerry Seinfeld and Will Smith. Seinfeld’s sitcom, which was beginning to explode in popularity, had been picked up by NBC several years earlier. Smith’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was finding comparable success as well. With both celebrities sporting the shoes on multiple episodes, the Huarache became firmly cemented as a legit shoe from a street credit perspective.

Nike Sportswear: The Story of the Nike Air Huarache | Always in Colour

Additionally, Olympian sprinter Michael Johnson was the focal point of one of Nike’s most famous advertising campaigns to market the shoe on a global level. Between Seinfeld, Smith, Johnson, and other celebrities, the trajectory of shoe sales began to skyrocket.

A year after the shoe’s release, Nike leveraged the momentum of its popularity by introducing the Air Flight Huarache. The shoe exploded onto the basketball scene and was embraced by the famous “Michigan Fab Five”, a University of Michigan team which included future NBA greats such as Jalen Rose and Chris Webber.

Nike Sportswear: The Story of the Nike Air Huarache | Always in Colour

Aside from the Air Flight version, there have been dozens of Air Huarache variants over the years. Also in 1992, the Nike Air Tech Challenge Huarache was conceptualised by tennis legend Andre Agassi. Originally billed as the Air Challenge Huarache, this model featured one of the first marriages between visible Nike Air cushioning and Huarache tech.

Nike Sportswear: The Story of the Nike Air Huarache | Always in Colour

Another ultra-popular version was the Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4. This basketball model was designed by Eric Avar and is considered one of the best shoes for the court of all time. This model, along with the Huarache 2K5, was one of Kobe Bryant’s (RIP) preferred sneakers before he got his own Nike signature line. Supplementing these varieties, there have also been various collaborations with other brands over the years, such as the “Desert Oak” variety with Stussy in 2021.

Whether you are hoping to get some running shoes to use around your neighbourhood or are a die-hard collector of classic footwear, the Nike Air Huarache will continue to be a go-to for those who are looking for a quality product. Any shoe that has thrived for 31 years is sure to please, so consider treating yourself to a pair and continue to turn heads today, tomorrow, and forever.

Shop all Nike Sportswear at Always in Colour.

Text: Elliott Wright

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