Posted on December 08 2020
Initially founded as a footwear producer, Nike has grown to become one of the giants in the sportswear industry; a leading designer for high-profile sporting figures and at the forefront of athleisure trends in wider markets, Nike rightly takes its name from the Greek goddess of victory. Built on $1000 and a keen partnership between a coach and one of his track runners, the now-iconic billion-dollar brand has been sported by Olympians, politicians and Oscar winners, with the widely recognised tick featuring on bags to Times Square billboards.
Nike: A History
1950s: Early frustrations with running shoes
In the late 1950s, when the Nike of today was a distant dream for athletics coach Bill Bowerman and student runner Phil Knight, Bowerman became increasingly frustrated by existing running shoes, finding their heavy leather and metal construct to disadvantage his athletes at the University of Oregon. After unsuccessfully writing to several footwear manufacturers, he sought the advice of a local cobbler and began to tinker with the shoes. Using Phil Knight, an accomplished but not invaluable runner and therefore an appropriate ‘guinea pig’ (Knight), Bowerman tested the shoes, fitting a handmade pair with a white rubber-filmed material, likened to a wipeable tablecloth by the coach himself. Briefly the single owner of a Bowerman shoe, Knight was swiftly joined by Otis Davis, who spotted the prototype at practice and eventually went on to wear his own pair during his gold-medal-winning 400-meter race at the 1960 Olympics. Notably, Davis still maintains that Bowerman made the first pair for him, although this claim has been refuted by Knight and Nike.
Figure 1. Otis Davis crossing the finish line of the 1960 Olympic 400-meter final in a world record time of 44.9 seconds.
1960s: Blue Ribbon Sports and the Tiger Cortez
With a new decade came a more established method of production. As Bowerman became more experienced, he increasingly experimented with prototypes, drawing an outline and marking the measurements and individualities of his runners’ feet, before creating various shoes from materials including kangaroo leather, velvet and fish skin. Swiftly refining his methods, he began to contact and forge alliances with footwear companies, explaining ‘I now have the best shoe in the world – if I could just find some good American shoemaker to make it’ to a company in Portland in a 1960 letter requesting steel for spikes.
During this time, Knight, fresh out of Stanford’s MBA program, was keenly pursuing connections in Japan, as a fervent believer that the less expensive Japanese running shoe could perform just as well as those from Germany. Supported by his old coach, he secured the exportation of the popular Tiger shoes with Onitsuka in 1964, prompting both men to enter into a 50-50 business deal for ownership of Blue Ribbon Sports, their new company and the predecessor of Nike, on 25th January 1964.
Taking a trip to Japan for the 1964 Olympics, Bowerman extended his stay, allowing time for him to meet leading members of Onitsuka and tour the factories where he was able to share his designs and become familiar with the shoemaking process. Soon after, he had his first breakthrough. In the spring of 1965, Kenny Moore, another of Bowerman’s athletes and a future marathon runner, suffered a stress fracture following a misstep during a race. The injury prompted Bowerman to examine his shoes, the Onitsuka Tiger TG-22, and he was enraged when he realised how little support Moore had been given across the arch of his foot. That June, he sent Onitsuka instructions for a new shoe that featured a cushioned innersole and carefully positioned segments of firm rubber.
Figure 2. The Kenny Moore prototype designed by Bowerman.
Despite initial debate over the placement of the rubber, the shoes were made and Moore made a quick recovery. Fine-tuning the model, it was dubbed the Tiger Cortez; released in 1967, it became an instant favourite, praised for its comfort, sleek design and, above all, its stability and support.
Albeit a hit, the new success caused a rift between Blue Ribbon and Tiger, each accusing the other of operating selfishly, and eventually they announced a formal split in 1971. While Knight suggested ‘Dimension 6’, Blue Ribbon was rebranded as Nike Inc. and swiftly settled on a swoosh design for its new logo, illustrated by student Carolyn Davidson for $35. Kick started by the popularity of the newly labelled Nike Cortez, the brand launched its first advert campaign, called ‘There is no finish line’, propelling it into the limelight.
Figure 3. The evolution of the Nike logo
Around this time, Bowerman was in the early stages of developing his ‘Waffle Trainer’, called so due to the inspiration taken from a breakfast waffle maker. Featuring rubber studs on the soles, the new model placed Nike at the forefront of athletic footwear innovation, further cementing its dominance with the introduction of air pockets in the outsole of the 1978 Tailwind.
1980s: Rapid expansion
With the introduction of its first selection of apparel in 1979, Nike hit the 80s by storm, unsurprisingly deciding on its 1980 IPO and launching Nike International the year after. The era of ‘Let’s Get Physical’, Nike grew alongside the ever-rising fitness fanaticism of the decade, seeing sportswear not only developing its technologies, but also firmly entering into the world of fashion. By 1982, the brand had over 200 different kinds of shoe to its name, as well as a similar figure of marketed items of clothing, expanding its collection throughout the decade to include casual apparel for men and women, children’s shoes and kits for celebrated teams, such as the 1982 winning Aston Villa football squad.
Turning to Wieden+Kennedy as its primary advertising agency, Nike sought some iconic celebrity partnerships, notably with Michael Jordan in 1984, and established its legendary slogan: ‘Just Do It’. In 1987, the ‘Nike Air Max Shoe’ was released, using, as its name advertised, even more ‘Air’ than previous trainer models. Promoted with an advert set to The Beatles’ ‘Revolution’, the shoes were destined to cause an upsurge in appreciation for the Nike tick.
1990s: Establishing a firm place in pop. culture
Entering the 90s, Nike established and opened its headquarters and new NikeTown store in Portland, Oregon. Selling a full range of Nike products, NikeTown combined the excitement of the brand as well as an overwhelming sense of fun for fans and soon another was opened in Chicago, with the largest site being later built in the heart of London. Fuelling the brand hype, sales skyrocketed and in 1991 Nike’s revenue reached $3 billion and the company surpassed its main rival, Reebok, in the U.S. market.
Figure 4. Forrest Gump receiving a pair of the Nike Cortez
Signing figures such as Tiger Woods to become the face of its various sporting subdivisions, Nike also managed to stick its foot in the artistic world, featuring in high-profile films and music videos. In the 1994 classic, Forrest Gump, the Nike Cortez took pride of place, supporting Forrest across counties and states when he ‘for no particular reason […] decided to go for a little run’. Similar memorable, albeit widely different from the Alabaman running hero, Nike was a favourite of the Straight Outta Compton crew, with Dr. Dre remaining a significant fan of Air Force 1’s.
Figure 5. N.W.A. sporting their renowned street style.
2000s: A global leader
Acquiring one of its major competitors, Converse, in 2003, Nike’s international sales exceeded U.S. sales for the first time ever that year. From then on, it has continued to branch further out into other industries, teaming up with Apple, for example, to release the Nike+iPod sports kit in 2007; the beginning of a partnership that remains hugely proactive today, there are still significant developments in their joint technology, such as the Apple Watch.
Today, Nike is an established global leader, with influence in a wide variety of sports, fashion trends and technology. Born from paired passion and innovation of Bowerman and business acumen of Knight, the brand has continued to flourish for over fifty years.
Iconic Lines and Celebrity Collaborations
Approached by aerospace engineer Frank Rudy, Nike began investing in their air-infused cushioning and developed methods of capturing air to make shoes light and supportive, producing the aforementioned Nike Tailwind in 1979. Nike Air technology was swiftly implemented in athletic shoes for other sports, leading to the creation of the Nike Air Force and Nike Air Max range in 1982 and 1987 respectively. Since then, the Nike Air collections have broken firmly into everyday fashion; no longer just seen on sporting stars, people everywhere sport the famous soles.
A line that began with a rule-breaking basketball shoe, Air Jordan is one of the most popular Nike collections to date, with the Michael Jordan ‘Jumpman’ silhouette being an extremely sought over logo. Signing a deal with Nike in 1984, as encouraged by his agent and parents, Jordan teamed up with the brand to produce his very own shoe. Famed for his ability to jump in games, it was an appropriate coincidence that Nike was, at that point, placing great emphasis on their ‘air soles’, and so, with both partners spending their time either in or manipulating the air, the ‘Air Jordan’ was born.
Figure 6. Michael Jordan in his Air Jordans.
According to sporting legends, the NBA banned the first model of Jordan’s trainers, stating that it violated the league 51 percent rule; clad in ‘devil colours’, the shoes were criticised for the abundance of red and black and lack of white that they featured. Reportedly, Jordan was fined $5,000 for every game that he played in the shoes, but NBA did not hinder the campaign. With the publicity soaring as a result of the disputes, Nike gladly covered the bill, selling $70 million worth of the shoes in 1985; creating a legacy, the scandal simply added to the allure of being like Michael Jordan.
Celebrity endorsements and collaborations
As well as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, Nike has endorsed and collaborated with some significant names. Signing another great NBA deal with LeBron James in 2003, the brand began to pursue figures from a wide range of sports. Over the last two decades, the likes of Serena Williams have collaborated with them, seeing her designing forward-thinking tennis outfits for women that skilfully straddle efficiency and fashion, and world-renowned footballers, including Ronaldo and Neymar, have sported the logo.
Additionally, Nike has partnered with artists and recognised fans of the swoosh. Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott have designed their own models and, most recently, Drake has dropped a collection. Proven to be versatile, Nike is no longer just for athletes.
Are you an expert?
Before the 90s, the Nike tag went through a handful of style alterations. One of the earliest tags you will find is the Nike pinwheel. Largely used in the 70s and early 80s, it is the rarest of the Nike collections today. Used at a similar time, the Nike orange tag, featuring a blue spellout logo and an orange swoosh, could also be found on pieces up until around the mid-80s, overtaken by the Nike blue tag in a similar design, but using navy and grey. Following this, the Nike silver tag, showing a silver box with a classic logo in red, was used until the mid-90s when it phased into a black and red combination.
Figure 7. Nike labels. See the bottom four for the pre-90s tags.
In the 90s, the tag stuck to four main block colours: navy, red, white and black. Variations of these can be found, from a white tag with a navy and red logo, to a monochrome arrangement, but they almost invariably showcased the spellout design. Some of the most popular Nike T-shirts can be found in this era, predominantly in the decade between 1995 and 2005 when the graphics became a little less busy and more embroidered designs were featured. If you are interested in this prime decade, the other label to look out for is the early 2000s grey label; in grey and white, it often has the swoosh logo.
The question that causes confusion for athleisure fans everywhere: is it ‘Nike’ or ‘Nikey’? If you have had this exact debate, then, fear not, the answer was confirmed by chairman Phillip Knight in 2014, fifty years after Blue Ribbon Sports was founded. The correct way is in fact ‘Nikey’.
But why? Given its Ancient Greek origin, Nike is not pronounced in the way we may think, commonly mistaken to rhyme with the English word ‘bike’. If we were to be exact, it should sounds like ‘nee-keh’, but as the English pronunciation of Ancient Greek changed over the centuries, vowel sounds altered and today we would say ‘nye-kee’.
Schexnayder, C. J. ‘Otis Davis’. Encyclopedia of Alabama, 7 Sep. 2012, www.encyclopediaofalabama.org /article/h-3314. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.
‘Bill Bowerman: Nike’s Original Innovator’. Nike News, 2 Sep. 2015, news.nike.com/news/bill- bowerman-nike-s-original-innovator. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.
‘Nike Logo Evolution – The $35 Swoosh’. The Logo Creative, 20 Aug. 2018. Medium, medium.com/ @thelogocreative/nike-logo-evolution-the-35-swoosh-54bea24fee43. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.
Johnson, Patrick. ‘Nike Brings Back the OG Forrest Gump Cortez’. Sneaker News, 23 Feb. 2015, sneakernews.com/2015/02/23/nike-brings-back-og-forrest-gump-cortez/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
Johns, Nikara. ‘Straight Outta Compton: N.W.A.’s Sneaker Style’. Footwear News, 7 Aug. 2015, footwearnews.com/2015/fashion/entertainment/straight-outta-compton-nwa-sneakers-style-dr- dre-photos-50310/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
Kim, John. ‘Michael Jordan Through the years – Air Jordan 1’. Sneaker News, 4 Nov. 2010, sneakernews. com/2010/11/04/michael-jordan-through-the-years-air-jordan-1/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
Sanchez, Mellany. ‘Stuff I want to look at again’. Work hard for this, workhardforthis.tumblr.com/post /128783666891/vintage-nike. Accessed. 18 Nov. 2020.
Check out the Thrifted Nike collection:
Specifically interested in Air Jordan?
Thrifted.com – the UK & Europe’s leading vintage clothing store and America’s best online thrift store