Words: Gerald Flores

Illustrations: Michael Saintil

In the mid-’80s, the debut of the Black/Red Air Jordan I unleashed a bold declaration in the form of an unexpected color combination. It was the start of Jordan Brand’s 30+ year lineage in  groundbreaking footwear design supported by multiple technical and artistic initiatives including color-blocking.

The AJI has always been the perfect blank canvas. The simple application of color on its toe box helped signal the beginning of sneaker culture. The shoes started being spotted in more arenas than ever before — the streets, basketball courts, skate parks, music videos and album covers.

In its purest use, color-blocking is an art form. It collectively amplifies colors and silhouettes through clever placement and calculated materials. A color-block, particularly on sneakers, can often end up defining memories in someone’s life.

The original “Banned” colorway became symbolic of defiance, after it played an instrumental role in shifting sneaker rules in the league. There was also black and royal blue, which remains emblematic of flight, thanks to the iconic photo of a young MJ on an airport runway.

“The AJI is very graphic in nature, with its building and construction,” says Eric Sandy, Jordan Brand Sr. Color Designer. “It’s this perfect shoe with so many pieces. It gives you endless options for how to block it and bring new elements to it.”

A variety of AJI colorways were produced during the shoe’s original run — from Shadow Grey to a pack of metallic accents over an all-white base. The latter inspired a new collection of retros earlier this year.

When the brand applied the inverse of a shaded toe-box, it was equally well-received. A black mudguard with a white, perforated toe box, or “Black Toe,” has been the basis of additional AJI renditions, including 2017’s South Beach-exclusive “Rust Pink” and “Igloo” colorways. A red overlay on top of a white base became synonymous with Chicago and the spirit of Windy City natives.

Through color, Jordan Brand designers also painted lesser-known MJ stories. The “Shattered Backboard” AJI is one such example, a colorway derived from the basketball uniform that MJ wore while making a jaw-dropping dunk during an Italian exhibition game in 1985.

Color-blocking has been used to pay tribute, too. In 2016, the AJI got the mismatched “Top 3” treatment to honor the most iconic colorways of the AJI and MJ being drafted third overall in 1984.

As the AJI set the standard for how colorway combinations can transform sneakers, it also became a go-to for customizers and their one-of-one creations. The silhouette has also been a go-to for Jordan Brand collaborators. 

“It’s a challenge before you reach a point where you see something new that reminds you of something classic,” says Sandy. “People can choose their own reference points. OGs are always going to be timeless, but today’s youth will have their own OGs.”

Color-blocking is also used to refresh the iconic silhouette for today’s audiences while keeping it rooted in Jordan Brand DNA. Details like the red collar on the forthcoming AJI High OG “Smoke Grey” recall the “Bred,” “Black Toe,” “Chicago,” and Union predecessors, while other details make the shoe modern for a new generation.

“Our approach was to find a balance of references and newness. That’s the refresh — a place where heritage and something new can come together,” the designer says.

The next era of bold AJI statements arrives with fresh approaches to both color-blocking and the role of materials. “If you look at every AJI from 1985, they were all leather,” says Sandy. “But there are instances where we can take colors and have them become elevated, just by the texture of the material. We can heighten the senses through touch.”

Color is typically the first impression we get from a sneaker. It’s what we remember most about our favorite shoes. Whether it’s the new Court Purple or Pine Green AJIs, or evolving iconic Breds and Royals, color-blocking is still distinctly Jordan.

The Air Jordan I High OG “Smoke Grey” releases July 11 on SNKRS.

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'Smoke Grey'