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The sneaker of subcultures: the history of the Nike Air Max Plus 'Tn'

The silhouette symbol of the chav aesthetic protagonist of the latest Supreme collab

The sneaker of subcultures: the history of the Nike Air Max Plus 'Tn' The silhouette symbol of the chav aesthetic protagonist of the latest Supreme collab
Julien Boudet
Julien Boudet

For its latest collaboration with Nike, Supreme has chosen to work on a historic sneaker, an example not only of the technological innovation in which the Beaverton brand is unparalleled but also of the cultural impact that a shoe can have on the social fabric of very different (and distant) countries.
The history of the Nike Air Max Plus, better known as Nike Tn, is a story of coincidences, of almost unconscious innovation and of sensational commercial success, closely linked to well-defined and identifiable social groups. 

A sunset in Florida 

In 1997 Nike was working on a project, called Sky Air, with its most important retailer, Foot Locker. The sportswear giant was asked to create a new running shoe that included the Tuned Air technology, the latest innovation from the Air Max family that focused on the use of two hemispheres put in the sole and in the Air Unit to optimize the stability of the wearer and reduce the pressure on the heel. Of the more than fifteen proposals that Nike presented to FL, all were rejected. 

Sean McDowell, a name who would later write the history of the Swoosh, had just arrived at Nike when he was asked to design a shoe that would satisfy Foot Locker and the fans of the brand. It was when he heard the name of the project that McDowell remembered the sketches he had made during a vacation in Florida looking at the sunset, that sky tinged with shades of blue, interrupted by the black silhouettes of the palm trees blowing in the wind. And it was from that memory that the creation of the Nike Air Max Plus originated. 

In terms of production and design, the silhouette represents a unicum in the history of the brand, not only for that very divisive aesthetic. McDowell, for example, designed freehand the Swoosh that decorates the sneaker laterally, that in fact is a little bit off, slimmer and longer than usual. "No one had given me any guidance because it was my first few days. The shape is a little bit off, and I put the border on the inside when technically all the brand guidelines say to go outside" said the designer. The nautical inspiration of the shoe can be found in the welded exoskeleton that covers the upper, with those black plastic inserts to symbolize the profile of the palm trees at sunset. One of the shoe's most distinctive details remains the shank decorating the heel, which for McDowell was supposed to represent the tail of a whale, "the most iconic part of the animal". (It's ironic that in France and Italy the shoe would later be known as 'shark'). 
It should not be forgotten that the TN was born as a running shoe, and in fact, compared to other lifestyle shoes, it remains much lighter. Details in a reflective fabric were then inserted throughout the upper, an introduction proposed by McDowell, a runner himself, and essential to ensure that the runners were visible from the cars coming towards during night running sessions. McDowell was forced to insert the hexagonal logo bearing the TN branding - which later became the symbol of the shoe - placing it on the heel and on the sole of the sneaker. 

The biggest challenge in making the shoe was the colour gradient of the upper, that particular shade that had never been done by Nike. Perhaps also thanks (or because of) to his lack of experience and a certain recklessness, McDowell flew to Asia, to the factories of the brand, to understand how to get that specific shade. Thanks to a 'sublimated' effect, it was enough to colour the fabric with a lighter shade and print the darker shades on it. The first three colourways with which the silhouette was released remain the most iconic because they represented a new start in the sneaker game and a turning point for Nike, that saw in just one sneaker its most important innovations. 

"I want this shoe" 

When the executives at Foot Locker saw the sneaker for the first time they were so impressed that they cancelled focus groups and marketing research, opting instead for an unprecedented strategy. At school exit time, a pair of Nike Air Max Plus was placed on a shelf in an FL store, among other sneakers. Within ten minutes a small crowd had already gathered around the shoes, young boys asking what they were, how much they cost, how to buy them. Success had begun. 

When the Air Max Plus was launched in 1998, the Air Max of the year was supposed to be the 98, but there was no competition. Not only because the Air Max 98 was more expensive, but above all, because it did not feature any kind of innovation or new technology that could justify such a high price. While the Air Max Plus was not cheap either, it came out at a price of $125, it was a silhouette so new and different from everything else that it thrived. 


Chavs and eshays 

The success of the shoe is linked to very specific social contexts, to that audience of young boys, loyal customers of Foot Locker, usually belonging to lower-middle social classes, even more often raised in social housing and difficult neighbourhoods. 

While in Italy the phenomenon meets its maximum expansion in the suburbs of large cities, in France it's linked to the Parisian suburbs and the city of Marseille. Julien Boudet, one of the most influential photographers in the fashion industry, has always had a particular fascination for this sneaker, a great source of inspiration for him throughout the years. He told nss magazine the impact that the Nike silhouette had in France, where he grew up. 

When it came out, I was 14 years old, in high school, it was literally a revolution, because we were already dreaming of Air Maxes (back then one of the most popular/recent was the Air Max Triax) but when we saw the design and colourways of the TN we were all obsessed with it. The fact that it was only available at Foot Locker (the closest location from us was about 1,5-hour drive which seemed like a 6-hour flight at our age) and that it was very expensive (1000 francs - about 150 euros) made it so different from all the other Nikes we knew. It was quickly associated with a certain type of kids who were listening to French hip hop and wearing full tracksuits (mostly Lacoste) with caps. The "Lacoste TN" style was born. 

Julien Boudet
Julien Boudet

In England the shoe became part of a larger phenomenon, of a trend, that of chavs that goes far beyond aesthetics, to connect instead to social and class stereotypes. Before their return on TikTok, where they are made fun of for the way they speak and for their make-up, that of the chavs was a deeply English phenomenon born in the early 2000s: young working-class kids who lived in public housing, spoke in slang and with a very strong accent, known for their aggressive attitude, not only towards their peers but also towards the teachers, which often resulted in fights and brawls. The chavs also became a cultural phenomenon, making themselves known for their uniform made of tracksuits - by Nike, Sergio Tacchini, Kappa - caps, puffer jackets, preferably by The North Face, and Nike Tn, all items in which it was essential that the logos were clear and easy to see, to give a precise image of ​​themselves. 

But even more than in the United Kingdom it was in Australia, and in particular in the suburbs of Sydney, that the Nike Air Max Plus characterized those young groups of boys, the so-called eshays or lads, that are not very different from the chavs. The eshays also belonged to working-class families,  grew up in social housing, wandered around in small groups of boys, almost all males, all with an aggressive attitude. The Australian chavs, unlike the English ones, engaged in small criminal activities, in particular to robbery, so much so that even today if an eshay wears a pair of Nike Tn everyone will say that he stole them. The uniform of this Australian subculture is made of rugby polo shirts, preferably striped, cotton sweatshirts (Nautica is the favourite brand), tracksuit shorts, crossbody bags, better if by Nike, Armani or Gucci, even better if fake, and the unmissable Nike Air Max Plus on their feet. For the eshays, sportswear becomes the symbol of a certain status quo, the representation of everything they wanted but at the same time that was precluded for them, but that they were so eager to get that they were willing to break the law. 


The legacy

Over the course of these 22 years, the sneaker has been the protagonist of hundreds of re-editions, revived in new colours and reiterations, remaining one of the best-selling models of Nike (and of Foot Locker, even if no longer the exclusive retailer). It should not be forgotten that the technical component of the Tn, the Tuned Air, remained such a revolutionary innovation that it was only replaced in 2006, with the introduction of 360 technology

Many releases of the shoe were regional, proving how the shoe's impact was very different in the markets where it was sold. In the United States, for example, the success of the sneaker was muted, and the silhouette was appreciated by a more niche sneakerhead audience than in the rest of the world. In France, the sneaker was recently the protagonist of the collaboration between Paris St-Germain and Olympique Marseille, two pivotal cities in the history of the shoe. But the UK is perhaps the place where the sneaker's legacy remains the strongest. Just think of the success of Skepta, that in the Shutdown video represents exactly those British roadmen, little neighbourhood thugs who smoked weed, often with a pair of Nike Tn on their feet. Also Skepta, for his collaboration with the Swoosh, made the hexagonal logo of Tn his own, transforming it into Sk. An aesthetic that lives on in the photographs of Vicky Grout, a very young English photographer who portrays the grime and garage scene like no one else, or updated in the image and in the work carried out by Slowthai, not by chance chosen as the face of the campaign for the re-edition of the sneaker in 2018. 

In a market filled with products that now all look alike, where hype and reselling determine the success of a sneaker, the story of the Nike Air Max Plus 'Tn' proves how a simple pair of shoes can have deep consequences and effects on society, on the people who belong to it, on the social context where they grew up and from which they struggle to surface.