HISTORY OF THE JORDAN FLIGHT SUIT
The inspiration behind 2017's classic Air Jordan 5 colorways
An evolution of an ‘80s sportswear staple, you know the Jordan Flight Suit by its colorful, breathable mesh panels.
It has a coordinating bomber jacket, toeing the line between functional uniform and flashy off-court gear. On one hand, it signifies belonging to a certain team, but on the other — it characterizes you as the star player.
Originally released in the classic black-and-red and black-and-royal colorways were first visualized in 1985 leading to the creation of a suit that has been iconic for years – including most recently at Jordan Brand’s New York City pop-up alongside the “Satin” Jordan 1’s.
According to Diane Katz, who designed the suit’s first iteration, the initial ideas for the suit began with her work on the tennis line.
During the 1984 world games, Nike designer Tom Derderian debuted the “Muscle” tight, a form-fitting shape with a contoured panel down the leg and color-blocking that called out the quadriceps and calf muscles. This suit was the first nylon/lycra tight to see daylight in a track and field event.
“The clothing industry was selling clothing,” Derderian says, “but we were selling an idea, an imagined function. The clothes had to look athletically intimidating. The design idea was that not only did form follow function, but the item had to actually function, and the design had to imply the function. Working with Diane Katz was a joy.”
Katz built on this concept for the Jordan line, loosening up the silhouette and implementing activewear fabrics like nylon taffeta and fleece cotton-polyester sweatpants and shorts.
“I then designed tops that worked with the bottoms, carrying the color-blocked design lines from the pants up the side-seams, to the chest and around the arms, to make a very streamlined look, that was different and wearable, and also became a ‘cool’ new look,” explains Katz. “I achieved a whole new look by changing fabrics and colors and designing specifically for basketball apparel needs.”
In addition to the coordinating tops and bottoms, Jordan purists remember the one-piece Flight Suit fondly. If you were at the 2015 OVO Fest you would have seen Drake looking retro-futuristic in a custom suit to match his white-and-gold AJ 8’s. For these rare garments, Katz drew upon her experience designing jumpsuits for the ski industry.
“It was simply a matter of designing a garment where I took the design lines from the bottoms, and connected that to the design lines from the tops, and – voila – made those lines and the color-blocking work to create that iconic garment,” Katz says. “Jumpsuits and overalls for skiwear were popular in those days, so it was not a radical concept. So with the concept of ‘Air Jordan’ and making him a ‘Flight Suit’ was a slam dunk!”
The Flight Suit left quite the impression on a young Darren Romanelli. More known under the moniker “Dr. Romanelli,” the vintage guru has regularly dipped into his archives of Nike sports apparel to make modern mash-ups. He even created a few versions mixing the Jordan Flight Suit with standard-issue military flight suits worn by ace pilots.
“I was a kid in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. For me, collecting Jordans was kind of a no-brainer. It was such a monumental moment for a kid obsessed with sneakers to see his career unfold, and the greatness come to life in front of me on TV,” he says. “The context that the swag had was affiliated with that movement: the shoes, the Flight Suits, the jumpers, the t-shirts — everything became such an important part of my youth, a key chapter of my life, molding me as a collector.”
Though Romanelli admits he did own a few Flight Suits, he never wore them regularly, treating them more like museum-worthy collector’s pieces than day-to-day casual gear.
For artist and GQ editor Mark Anthony Green, the Flight Suit’s heritage status was cemented with its intrinsic ties to Jordan Brand’s most recognizable motif, which first debuted on Tinker Hatfield’s Air Jordan 3. “If you look at the most iconic photo of Michael Jordan — where the Jumpman logo came from — he’s wearing the flight suit pants,” he points out.
The cultural impact of the Flight Suit was extended through Will Smith’s character in the 1990s TV production The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. “It’s the simplicity of the blocking and the fit,” explains Public School designer Maxwell Osborne. “It’s just a great style.”
Even though he appreciated it as a kid, Osborne wasn’t able to get one for himself back then. “My mother wouldn’t allow me to buy it,” he laments. But on a broader scale, the Flight Suit wasn’t just a flashy sportswear garment. It was a uniform for a superhero. The bold colorblocking, red and blue motifs and military inspiration solidified the larger-than-life stature of His Airness.
“In my opinion, he is the greatest. I still feel that. I guess the Flight Suit was such a nice complement to his greatness,” says Romanelli. “I just remember seeing the suit and the advertisements and thinking to myself: ‘Is he going to battle?’ You wouldn’t normally see a Flight Suit on a basketball player. I feel like it wasn’t only important — it was innovative yet disruptive at the same time, kind of like the whole Jordan Brand to me.”
So is it time for the Flight Suit to make a proper comeback? Romanelli thinks the timing would be right, noting the current popularity of brightly-colored track coordinates and the resurgence of vintage sportswear. Maxwell Osborne suggests rocking it with a classic pair of Jordan Is, paying respect where it’s due. Mark Anthony Green,suggests taking a bit of the edge off with low-tops like the pared-down Air Jordan 1 mid and a simple white tee.
The Air Jordan ‘Flight Suit’ and apparel will be available 7/1 at 10am ET on jordan.com