With all the current Air Max talk, it’s worth talking about the oddities that are kept out of the celebratory storytelling time and time again. The Nike Air Max line was far broader than simply revolving around six or so silhouettes and some of the less-popular instalments and spinoffs are some of the maddest Nike design of the last decade and a half. While we were losing our minds over small swooshes on Air Max 1s and obsessing over 1985 basketball designs, Nike’s performance divisions got really really strange post-2000, building on the madness of the Alpha Project initiative.
As a result, some truly bizarre Air Max models that have never been seen since their debuts made brief appearances that have never been looked at with any real fondness. Much of it is ugly-looking on first glance, but these these things look like concept models rather than anything even mildly commercial. As far as I’m concerned, that’s something admirable. In an era of “WTF LOL” social media feedback and Emojis weeping with laughter, there’s a conservatism at work and if a shoe does’t sell out within six minutes, it’s a flop. The odds are against freakish footwear unless it has a high-end co-sign.
2002 was a strange year for shoes. Nobody talks about Tube Air any more. They pretend it never even happened, but it was at the heart of one of 2001’s Air Max and the Air Max 2002. It’s like the eccentric uncle that nobody wants at the family gathering because he’s going to get slaughtered and start morris dancing or playing a ukulele. While 2001’s main instalment in the series is considered to be a strange deconstructed oddity with only half the lacing that was just one of two flagships that year — an agreeably ambitious Air Max with Tube Air at the rear and a more conventional forefoot Visible Air unit, plus horizontal and vertical embossed on the upper, (the MAX on the toe was a bad move) that superseded it later that year can be considered an Air Max 2001 too. That model was accompanied by other weird models like the Air Max Tremble which was officially part of the Presto range. The Air Max 2002 expanded the Tube Air to minimise the standard forefoot visibility and had a mono-fit tongue/collar combo — barely anyone talks about it, at all. You might recall fleeting glimpses on the unpleasant C-Phaze and not-so-bad P-Phaze basketball designs around the same time.
Even stranger was the Air Max Dolce — at the start of 2002, this was the flagship Air Max of the moment and it was a laceless creation that looked like performance Hush Puppies with its tech-loafer look. Ambitious and peculiar, it’s odd, but managed to spawn the Air Max Dolce Light the following year that looked a little less troubling. In fact, the loafer concept was on several models of the era — the zip-up Fantaposite Max, Air Trainerposite Max (to a lesser extent), Air Max Specter and Air Max Amplify.
While for many, the 1998 Air Max Plus aka TN is one of the finest Air Max models ever (I concur), it’s easy to forget that the Air Max Plus spawned a series. The Air Max Plus 4 was truly unappealing and blocky, but the Air Max Plus 5, that carried a technology that looked like the flop Tube Air but was actually a TN unit is another bold entry that’s hardly attractive, but at least it’s agreeably unconventional compared to its predecessor, with that sock-like Turbulence-esque forefoot. That early 2003 release got plenty of shine when it was 50 Cent’s workout in lab conditions shoe of choice in the In da Club video that ran on every key music video channel almost permanently for a couple of months that year.
I’ve long assumed that Shox became a focal point for cushioning over Air Max in the early 2000s, and when the boing had been brought back to earth, Nike stripped things down and dropped the comparatively dull Air Max 2003 (an air unit from six years prior, really?) and seemed to scrap a modification to that same unit in early samples of the 2004. The 360 jump started things again. I’m not surprised that these curiosities aren’t used in a marketing narrative. Time has been unkind to them and we weren’t too enamoured with them in the first place. They’re tough to shoehorn into a sense of evolution too, but if you strip away the preoccupation with design from the past from this point, these are a perfect time capsule for a time when shoe design seemed to go insane. But we need to unearth these things on the off-chance that a 2025 audience decides that they’re ready for robo slip-ons all over again.