In my last retro breakdown, I took you on the Penny Hardaway’s journey and how all of the shoes in his signature line were a culmination that led to and led from the Foamposite. His signature line was a full-on evolution, a rarity amongst signature shoes, especially in the ’90s.
Penny represented the growth of youth and the shift of design culture at Nike. With Penny, The Swoosh had a new direction, but it wasn’t the first shift Nike had ever taken.
If you go back a few years before the Penny I to 1993, you will find a shoe that goes by the name of the Air Force Max. The footwear world had never seen anything like it. Something so bold, so broad, so active, so dope, so ill and so FORCEful. A shoe that straight throws you through the window of a bar and has absolutely no regrets about it. A shoe that was perfect for one man, Charles Barkley.
Every hero needs a villain, and Barkley embraced that role with open arms. For years Chuck was the face of Nike’s FORCE Line. A category of basketball footwear that embraced the work horses of the court.
The Force Line had the players that let nothing get in the way of what they were trying to accomplish. These players were the exact opposite of what the reigning signature footwear champion Michael Jordan represented, agile flight. It isn’t easy to create footwear for brutish athletes like Charles Barkley.
Very few consumers see that athlete-type as fast and dynamic and therefore don’t place themselves in their shoes, both literally and figuratively. This category has had very few lines be successful. Outside of Shaq, Charles Barkley is the only big man to really move units.
While Barkley had some dope shoes, for the most part his signature line wasn’t that memorable. He had eight shoes — six of them were official signature shoes, while two of them were editions that he was the face of (much like Kyrie Irving and this year’s Hyperdunk). Only three of those shoes — the Air Force Max, the Air Max CB, and the Air Max CB34 — were really iconic and encompassed everything that Barkley was and what he represented on the court. What I am speaking to is the personality of Chuck and the brash opinions he became to be known by.
So you are probably asking yourself, how does a shoe represent brash opinions? Well, with form language of course!
If you examine those three models, everything is exaggerated. The proportions are larger and stronger. The overlays are double-stitched. The perforations are larger. And most importantly, the whole shoe was locked down by a midfoot strap on both the Air Force Max and the Air Max CB34 or with an advanced-lace gillie system on the Air Max CB. The most dominating visual feature of the three that signified that this line wasn’t for the weak at court was the forefoot midsole that featured supportive “teeth” outriggers that locked the foot in place and supported it during directional changes.
Each of these elements was designed with the intent to be dramatic and have personality to them. Just like Barkley, they lived up to their bark as they functioned perfectly with whatever-sized athlete wore them.
Like every good product the designers in Beaverton create, form follows function. And once you have the function like the Barkley line did, it was time to make that function yell. The form language of the shoes was already larger, so to help amplify that story, the colorways always featured high-contrasting colors that really played up the size of the objects.
In particular was the midsole teeth. Notice the teeth being white, while the midsole was black to really make them pop. Thus becoming one of the highlights of the shoe.
While the Barkley line wasn’t as impactful as other signature lines in the sense of changing design culture, it did change how we look at athletes and what their voice can bring to the game. Barkley was the first athlete to really have his personality brought to life in footwear, which was a trait that was 20 years ahead of its time. Much like Barkley’s game, his footwear was brash and raw. Without it, we wouldn’t have any character in the signature game.
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