INSPIRED BY THE AJ 2, THE AIR JORDAN 32 TAKES FLIGHT
The evolution of performance x luxury footwear
Ahead of the introduction of the Air Jordan 32, let’s take a moment to look back at its inspiration: a shoe released more than 30 years ago that was way ahead of its time. In the spirit of the AJ 31 – for which lead designer Tate Kuerbis hearkened all the way back to the first ever Jordans – the design team looked to the essence of the Air Jordan 2 for inspiration.
When it came to birthing a new kind of sportswear aesthetic, the team behind the Air Jordan line wasn’t necessarily winging it, but they were taking a leap into unknown territory.
With more time than before to create a bespoke product for its signature athlete, Bruce Kilgore (the man behind icons like the bestselling Air Force 1) and his team gave the AJ 2 a unique appearance. Even at street level, high-end was the statement look of the time. The fashion houses had begun to create their own sneaker designs, so this had to be a truly tailored object of desire. It was the birth of performance luxury.
In fact, this was such an ambitious project that the shoe excised the Swoosh to let the innovative look speak for itself. Coming at a time when warring companies were looking to spotlight their branding as much as possible, it was a bold decision.
Taking inspiration from Michael Jordan’s evolving, record-setting game, plus his escalating taste for the finer things in life, the AJ 2 was a unique shoe—the first proof that Jordan’s signature shoes would evolve dramatically to reflect their muse. Perhaps fittingly, this vast visual departure had a very old world feel. While it was designed in America, the shoe used new rubber manufacturing techniques pioneered by a Spanish company, with a luxurious leather upper made in Italy. This premium product reflected Jordan’s personal style at the time, but it also broke ground with new innovations.
Jordan’s game, of course, was the driving force. That pioneering sole, with its full-length air unit, was created to let Jordan be as close to the court as possible — part of a very specific set of needs he expressed from the very beginning. A distinctive dual-hardness molded heel counter and Dynamic Fit straps secured the foot. And after the monotone outsole of part one, the dual color traction pattern with its center-of-pressure heel was a flashy upgrade.
But beyond the court, this was a transitional time in fashion, where expensive experiments in head-to-toe dressing—from ready-to-wear to ostentatious, bespoke creativity—led the way. So there was a ready-made audience for the shoe’s iguana-like embossed panels and full-grain performance leather when it debuted in late 1986. Billed as being styled by the mysterious Giorgio Franco on the box, the AJ 2s became a statement on the street.
Italian craftsmanship connected this design to a new wave of boldly monogrammed high-end gear, channeling city style and informing it too. Several rappers, DJs, dancers and producers wore matching pairs of highs or lows. It made a few movie appearances as well. Almost a decade before the AJ 11, Nike officials were already speculating that this one could be worn with a tux.
Production numbers (the shoe was only sold in a handful of stores for its first few months on the market), price, plus a look that was unlike any basketball shoe seen before made it a cult classic. Its legacy, however, is colossal, laying the cultural groundwork for a revolution when it came time for the AJ 3s.
Footballer and sneaker aficionado Marco Materazzi remembers the Air Jordan 2 as “an absolute style changer, a futuristic signature”. He explains “It means a lot of things to me. It was a dream to own a pair during my adolescence and it’s one of the retro shoes that I most love wearing, even for its connection to Italy.”
While Materazzi’s connection to the shoe was very much at a performance level, the style resonated most. He continues: “What I really love [about the] AJ 2 is the fit on the ankle and its stability, but the geometric spirit of its design triggers my emotions as a sneakerhead.”
Unlike its predecessor’s full roll of colorways, which hit double figures, the II dropped in only a duo of makeups in its high and low forms. While finding a pair of mint-condition 1986/87 originals with polyurethane soles that haven’t cracked over time is pretty much impossible, several later editions have added to its colorful history. A fall 1995 retro brought back two highs and one low. Carmelo Anthony, newly signed to Nike, wore a special player edition at the close of his rookie season. And in 2007, former children’s hospital patient’s reinterpretation of the 2 was the first Air Jordan to be part of the popular fundraising program.
Those were just a few firsts for the silhouette. The AJ 2s made perfect sense for the 2010 introduction of the BIN 23 project—special, limited, ultra-premium versions of iconic Air Jordan silhouettes released for connoisseurs in low numbers. The supple chocolate leather of this release, finished with a wax seal logo, celebrated the design’s origins. That same year, NYC-based DJ, director, designer and consultant Vashtie Kola was the first female collaborator on a Jordan shoe when she reworked the AJ 2 for her Pastelle edition. And Southside Chicago–bred designer Don C started his series of Just Don editions in 2015, amplifying that premium heritage with Italian leathers and quilting.
For the AJ 32, Kuerbis expanded on a world that the shoe’s predecessor forged. “We wanted to take some of that thinking into the 32, where it can really cross over from the court to sneaker culture to the streets, where you could wear it with jeans,” he says. “It feels like more than just a performance basketball shoe.”
Kuerbis was inspired by other Italian exports, such as the country’s famed car industry. “You could see the engine, but the way they disguise it, it’s kind of hidden, but you could look inside and see the engine. And even the interior,” he enthuses, “you go and look at the detailing of the leathers and they are beautiful; the stitching at the seams, the piping, the color pops. The blend of having this high-performance car, but it’s done in such a beautiful restricted elegance way—it’s really amazing.”
Having been with the company for more than 20 years, the designer reiterates the need for dual purpose. “It’s probably more important now than any other time since I’ve been here. You go through years of where it’s strictly about performance, performance, performance, and that’s all you want to show, and I think it’s kind of fun how the shoes flowed and how they changed over time. But, I think the young person these days is looking for much more than just a performance shoe. They want to go out, and they want to make a statement on the street.”