Virgil Abloh found the perfect partner to express himself via footwear in Nike.
“Nike is progressive. They easily could have been like, ‘Don’t do this. You can’t have the heel counter exposed — that needs to be covered.’ Instead, they said, ‘We did a collaboration to find new space,’” Abloh told FN in 2017, about his take on the iconic Air Jordan 1 silhouette.
In May 2017, Abloh, who died today after a cancer battle, previewed the style at the Met Gala. It was an atypical version of the basketball-turned-lifestyle shoe created to showcase its features and functions. Abloh’s reimagining of the shoe had sneakerheads clamoring for a pair, and that energy was further fueled by A-list celebrities wearing early pairs including Roger Federer, A$AP Rocky and Bella Hadid.
It was his creativity, paired with the hype around the shoe, that earned Abloh’s Air Jordan 1 the coveted Shoe of the Year honor at the 2017 FN Achievement Awards.
“I know for Virgil, personally, that this collaboration fulfilled a lifelong dream of working with Nike,” famed designer Heron Preston said at the FNAAs, presenting the award to Abloh.
Not long before the awards, Abloh — while in FN’s office in New York City — said the Air Jordan 1 as it released to the public almost didn’t happen.
While walking through the airport in Newark, N.J., Abloh recalled that he spotted a pair of sneakers that resembled the look he had just finished designing. “I couldn’t tell if they were [Nike] Dunks or Jordans. The lightbulb went off in my head: What makes the shoes iconic is the colorway. That’s when I was like, I almost made a mistake,” Abloh explained.
He quickly called Nike to make changes, which presented a big problem for the athletic brand. “Internally, we were like, ‘Could we pull this off?’” Andy Caine, Nike’s VP of footwear design, recalled. “When you’re producing shoes, there’s a moment where you have to lock in everything to order the materials to produce the quantities. We were on top of that deadline, literally two days out.”
Ultimately, Nike and Abloh agreed that it needed to be done. “The powerful narrative from Virgil’s side, plus the color heritage of the Jordan 1 and the story of the original colorway being banned [by the NBA in 1985], linked and made a lot of sense,” Caine explained. “That’s where we came together and said, ‘Let’s drive this through.’”
Although the public was enamored with Abloh’s Air Jordan 1 , that excitement wasn’t lost on those who work at the brand. “There’s so much on this AJ1 that’s completely new yet completely familiar, and to me, that’s the magic. It has so much more depth than anyone has ever brought,” Caine told FN.
And Abloh’s Air Jordan 1 wasn’t the only look he created with Nike that would make headlines in 2017.
Abloh’s Air Jordan 1 would go on to become the statement look of a 10-shoe collaboration with Nike, dubbed “The Ten,” which the sportswear giant would reveal three months after its Met Gala debut in August 2017.
Billed as “reconstructed 10 Nike footwear icons,” the range was split into two themes. Nike said the first theme, which was named “Revealing,” was designed to look accessible. The second, dubbed “Ghosting,” was designed with translucent uppers “to further the idea of revealing and unite the second set of silhouettes through common material.”
The shoes chosen, although dominated by Nike looks, spanned the company’s footwear banners. In addition to the Air Jordan 1, the other non-Nike shoe that Abloh reimagined for the range was the Converse Chuck Taylor. The collection also featured new-look takes of the Air Max 90, Air Presto, Air VaporMax, Blazer Mid, Zoom Fly SP, Air Force 1 Low, React Hyperdunk 2017 and Air Max 97.
“The st Virgil [Abloh] did with [Nike] is fking incredible; the deconstruction, repurposing. And getting Nike to let him do that was huge. That’s one of the illest things I’ve seen in a long time. The [Jordan] 1 and the [Air] Presto are my favorites — I’m a huge Presto guy,” famed sneakerhead “Hawaii” Mike Salman told FN in 2017.
In the years since, Abloh and Nike delivered hit collaboration after hit collaboration. And as one would expect, sneakerheads did whatever they could to get their hands on a pair. After 2017, Abloh continued to reimagine several of the shoes from “The Ten,” including multiple takes of the Air Force 1, Blazer, Air Max 90 and Air Max 97, to name a few.
He also gave several other Nike Inc. staples new looks. For instance, Abloh — a soccer fan and player since childhood — delivered a collaborative Nike Football collection featuring the Nike Mercurial Vapor 360 boot, his bold takes on the Air Zoom Tempo Next% running shoe became instant standouts, the Air Jordan 4 “Sail” for women quickly became one of the most coveted sneakers in recent years and his new-look Air Jordan 5s were arguably two of the best sneakers released in 2020. And Nike delivered Abloh’s expansive Off-White x Nike Dunk range in August of this year, featuring 50 different iterations of the iconic sneaker.
Abloh also often delivered messaging that was just as impactful, if not more, than the product he created. For instance, Nike revealed the collaboration between tennis great Serena Williams and Abloh in May 2019 ahead of French Open. The superhero-themed look boasted a printed cape-jacket that featured the words “Mother, Champion, Queen, Goddess” in French throughout.
And the relationship extended beyond footwear and apparel. In January, Nike revealed “Icons,” a book done in collaboration with Abloh that provided sneakerheads a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of “The Ten,” which also revealed never-before-seen sneaker prototypes, which include Swooshes striped away from Air Jordans and reapplied with new materials. It also showcased original text messages between Abloh and Nike designers and looks from the Nike archives.
Abloh, the prolific designer who founded and built Off-White into a formidable brand and made a huge mark at Louis Vuitton as the men’s artistic director, died on Sunday at age 41. His death was confirmed by LVMH in a statement.
“We are heartbroken by the news of Virgil Abloh’s passing. Since 2016, Virgil has been a beloved member of the Nike, Jordan and Converse family. He was a creative force who shared a passion for challenging the status quo, pushing forward a new vision while inspiring multiple generations along the way. But more than a collaborator, colleague and prolific creative, Virgil was a husband, father, son, brother and friend. We are proud to call him family. We offer our condolences to the many who shared a connection. He will be greatly missed,” Nike wrote in a statement on Instagram.