THE SUMMER OF THE AIR JORDAN 4
A look at the beginnings of Jordan's 1989 release as the brand heads into a hot AJ 4 season
Designer Tinker Hatfield has summed up the Air Jordan 4 with one word: utilitarian. This term humbly conjures a sense of pure use, but legions of collectors and casual fans alike consider this shoe to be one of the most beautiful examples of footwear design ever.
Diehard fans of specific chapters during the past three-and-a-half decades will loudly state the case for which Air Jordan matters most. In defining Air Jordan as a global bestseller, 1989’s AJ 4 is up there as one of the brand’s most pivotal releases.
The model born on the sketchpad as the Air Jordan/Flight emphasized breathability and managed to turn mesh, once a budget-minded proposition, into a premium touch with its urethane-coated netting. The use of Durabuck, a new nubuck-style performance fabric, on the iconic black editions gave it a lightweight resilience.
Multiport lace locks had nine holes on each side of the shoe for a tailored approach to fit, while a sole unit offered extra flexibility. At one point, at the suggestion of Nike’s now-vice president of special projects Sandy Bodecker, a snap-in buckle for extra forefoot support was sketched by Tinker as part of the shoe — one of a handful of unused concepts for a classic.
At a sporting level, this silhouette was present at the dramatic buzzer-beater on May 7, 1989 that broke hearts, set off celebrations and would cement Jordan’s legacy as the game’s greatest clutch performer. Having the word “Flight” on the shoe was fitting, given the way Jordan controlled his seemingly slow-motion, ultra-precise, improbable airborne moment. But sports was just part of the story with the AJ 4.
By 1989, hardcore punk and metal had fully embraced the Air Jordan line, and it also became apparent to naysayers that this hip-hop thing — now more lyrically advanced than ever, and operating coast to coast like Jordan himself — probably wasn’t a passing fad.
Spike Lee, already an instrumental player in Air Jordan’s marketing, brought the aesthetic, sound and politics of the culture to the big screen for his classic Do the Right Thing that year, and the AJ 4 played a memorable role. Given that filming took place in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood during the summer of 1988 — ahead of the shoe’s release on February 15, 1989 — eagle-eyed viewers might spot a few differences, like a perforated panel that earmarked it as a prototype pair.
And while previous chapters of the Air Jordan line had been colossal successes, they hadn’t all enjoyed a worldwide release. In some places, finding a pair of AJ 3’s was a costly, lengthy journey that might incur an import markup. For the 4, specific colorways were more widely available, and sold alongside matching apparel pieces. That distribution, and the campaigns around it, helped turn Michael Jordan into a household name far beyond America.
The AJ 4 continued to figure prominently in the footwear collector world long after it exited shelves in 1990, to make way for its aircraft-inspired successor. Later that decade, amid a new digital realm, shoe news and rumors began to spread on newsgroups, forums and simple-looking news sites.
One such rumor appeared on Japanese sites in 1998: The AJ 4 was set to return the next year. There were Air Jordan reissues of select models in the mid-1990s around Jordan’s first retirement, and a pre-millennial retro program was launched after his second exit from the game — starting with this edition.
Before 1999, special colorways of the Air Jordan line that broke with the tradition of those familiar quartets of OG makeups were available only to MJ or to lucky athletes gifted their own player editions.
The late 1999 introduction of the Retro+ editions in tasteful, tumbled leather combinations of black/cool grey and white/columbia blue seemed otherworldly. Branded with a Jumpman rather than the classic Nike Air logo, the Retro+ line was received cautiously at first — but the rest is history on top of history, as they became classics that spawned a completely new set of narratives.
Even in the new millennium, the AJ 4 wasn’t done making history for Jordan Brand. It became the first model to be reworked by an outside brand. Jordan Brand teamed up with Los Angeles-based boutique Undefeated in 2005 to create a very special, militaristic version of the AJ 4. It took its inspiration from the colors of a flight jacket, and a mere 72 pairs were made that were auctioned and raffled off. Today they’re still at the top of many most-wanted lists for collectors worldwide.
When Jordan Brand took a fresh look at some chapters in the Air Jordan line and started the Retro Remaster program in early 2015, with enhanced color options, cushioning, materials and shapes, some Retro+ AJ 4 favorites led the rollout.
From final-second heroism to those footwear firsts, the impact of the AJ 4 across cultures has spanned decades and demographics. The form that total function took remains a pivotal moment in both basketball history and the cult of the collector.
The Air Jordan 4 ‘Pure Platinum’ is set for release Sat 5/13.