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Air Apparent: How Virgil Abloh Reconstructed Sneaker Culture

Virgil Abloh brought new life to the Air Jordan 1 by tearing it up. In deconstructing the past, Abloh leaves a legacy set to inspire the future.

In 2013, most sneaker bloggers did not have post alerts set up for Kim Kardashian.

Before the phrase “Break the Internet” appeared aside the multimedia icon on the cover of Paper Magazine, Kardashian exploded the footwear world with one upload to Instagram. Posting a photo backstage at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, she shared support for then-boyfriend Kanye West as he prepared to take the Saturday Night Live stage to preview his upcoming album, Yeezus.

Set atop a litany of topical hashtags, Kim gave the world the first real look at the “Red October” Nike Air Yeezy 2 — a shoe smothered in hype, anticipation, and uncertainty.

Beneath the coveted kicks, a physical copy of Yeezus appeared in a fashion that would also evade retail shelves. Bearing abrasive artwork inspired by artist George Condo’s Mental States statues, the shoes were underscored by the preview of a product set to depict Kanye as completely unyoked.

Through one Instagram post, the clues were laid out: footwear was going to be louder, hip hop was going to be edgier, and Yeezus was going to be different.

And upon Yeezus‘s release date, fans found the album’s songs and artwork were also going to be different.

While Kanye West worked with legendary producer Rick Rubin to refine and reduce the abundant ideas of Yeezus into tactile terror, Donda creative director Virgil Abloh attempted to do the same for the project’s packaging and artwork.

Or lack thereof.

By removing all visuals, graphics, and branding, Abloh created an open casket sendoff to the physical platform of CDs as we know it. Through radical reduction, Virgil exposed the very soul, fiber, and silhouette of the medium that the youth went from buying in the ’90s to burning their own mixes in the ’00s.

A DJ himself, Abloh knew where music was going — sonically and aesthetically — even if the world wasn’t ready.

This was true for Yeezus and Virgil’s eventual explosion into footwear.

Footwear’s Futurist

Virgil Abloh may not have considered himself a sneakerhead. However, the best in the business could clearly see he was a visionary when it came to culture.

“The best creative people are willing to do things that are very unconventional and nontraditional,” former Jordan Brand VP Gentry Humphrey told Boardroom. “They’re willing to stand up for those things because they believe that they’re the right things to do if you’re trying to create a new vision for people.”

In 2017, four years after deconstructing the album art for the most defiant music Kanye West ever made, Nike tasked Abloh with bringing the same energy to the most brazen basketball shoe ever made: the Air Jordan 1.

Since setting the world on fire in 1985, the Air Jordan franchise reigned on-court through the lens of athletic accolades and fearless creativity.

For Virgil Abloh, a Chicago native himself, he was well versed in the aesthetic associated with Michael Jordan, whom he called his “childhood Superman.” Because of his upbringing, he was also not lost on the attachment to Air Jordans in their most foundational form: original models cut and colored just as they were when Mike wore them as a Bull.

Michael Jordan donning the iconic Nike Air Jordan 1 sneakers in 1985 ( Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

While the sneaker world salivated over archival colorways and one-to-one retro releases, Virgil ventured into the same sentiment sung out on the opening track of Yeezus:

“He’ll give us what we need / It may not be what we want.”

Arriving at the Beaverton brand headquarters, Abloh took an X-ACTO knife to a pair of Air Jordan 1 Highs, cutting apart the upper and thus exposing the raw materials just like the Yeezus cover.

Reduced by Virgil Abloh, his new Off-White x Air Jordan 1 was not only decidedly different, it was deconstructed and done. Essentially, it was finished by being unfinished.

Was Abloh’s undone homage crude or contemporary?

“Most people don’t know what they’re going to like in the future,” Humphrey said. “Unless you have people that are willing to take risks, step out there and help show them what it could be, they’ll only be comfortable with what they know today. Virgil was able to allow people to see things that they may not have ever had an opportunity to see and the best creatives are able to do that.”

Seeing into the future meant being inspired but not bound by the past.

A child of the Jordan era and steward of streetwear, Virgil expressed a strong hunch that the next generation of sneakerheads wanted to be designers just as much or more than they wanted to be ballers.

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For many, this was puzzling. To purists, dismantling a classic and calling it art was borderline blasphemous.

Knives Out

In effect, cutting up an Air Jordan 1 with a knife and writing “AIR” on the Peter Moore icon was the equivalent of labeling the anatomy of Michelangelo’s David sculpture with a Sharpie or rubbing off the oil paint on a da Vinci portrait simply to expose the canvas.

It was punk. It was satirical. It was Virgil.

And most importantly, it was a call to action.

“The Jordan 1 was done in one design session,” Abloh noted in the 2017 Nike press release on the “Chicago” colorway that is currently listed on StockX for an asking price of $13,499. “Yes, we’re making a desired product, but by making a trip to your local store, and using tools you have at home, you could also make this shoe.”

Virgil Abloh at the Off-White Women’s Fall-Winter 2019/2020 Ready-to-Wear collection fashion show in Paris, 2019. (PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Seeing it and doing it was core to Abloh’s ethos as a creative and in line with Nike’s mantra as a brand for athletes. Whether or not that overlap was caught by the masses in the moment is tough to tell.

Upon the retail release of the Off-White x Air Jordan 1, sneakerheads worldwide lined up and camped out for a chance to own the first Air Jordan designed by Virgil Abloh.

Funny enough, his ironic intention was to tell the world they could just as easily make their own collaborations themselves. Even in the shoe’s press release, the brand bluntly stated that it was “designed to look accessible,” offering an on-the-nose blueprint of just where to hand-cut and reconstruct one’s own pair of Jordans.

The game was free even if the shoes retailed for $190.

Soon, the world came to find, it was signature Abloh.

“You Can Do it, Too”

For a kid that grew up listening to Jay-Z, Virgil’s Off-White x Air Jordan 1 was a “show you how to do this, son” statement to the next generation of kids.

And just the same, it was a “Death of Autotune” moment for an industry obsessed with synthetic materials and the past, even if it was relayed by the man who art directed 808s & Heartbreak only nine years prior.

Regardless of how one took it, the Off-White x Air Jordan 1’s mix of raw emotion and futurism was a status symbol not just for collectors, but to the entertainers that influenced Abloh.

Because of this, Abloh was permitted to reconstruct the Air Jordan 4, Air Jordan 5, and Air Jordan 2 Low under the Off-White umbrella.

In short order, everyone from A$AP Rocky to LeBron James to PJ Tucker championed Virgil on foot, validating the cool cachet of the designer who was just like them. Over the course of Virgil’s rise from art director for the Louis Vuitton Don to eventual creative director at Louis Vuitton, hip-hop culture absolutely flipped as Paris Fashion Week became Summer Jam and NBA tunnels turned into runways.

Suddenly, a visual artist from Chicago was the guy couture houses wanted to work with and rappers wanted to name drop.

As brands called him for collaborations and ballers asked him for his next pair of Air Jordans, Virgil never lost track of the audience he intended to inspire even as the industry obsessed with his moves.

At his core, Virgil’s heart was always set on that next generation of creative youth.

“I spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about the kid in the middle of nowhere who has a passion for design, much like I did,” Abloh said in the original press release for the Off-White x Air Jordan 1. “He or she needs a path like this to understand design.”

Virgil’s Legacy

In 2021, just years after the arrival of the Off-White x Air Jordan 1, only weeks after the launch of the Off-White x Air Jordan 2 Low and just days after Abloh’s untimely passing from cancer, it’s clear the next generation of sneakerheads consider Virgil with the same reverence as the icons of sport, fashion, and music before him.

Just as MJ asked Nike for patent leather on his sneakers years before they made it happen, Virgil Abloh possessed a defiant conviction to go against the grain and predict what’s next.

Not only does it make Abloh a 1-of-1, but it’s allowing Jordan Brand to connect to the same core kid Abloh aimed to speak to through a model that first hit stores 36 years ago.

For a man like Gentry Humphrey, who worked with Michael Jordan at Nike through his Bulls playing days in the 1990s and felt the wrath of resistance for new ideas at Jordan Brand in the 2000s, it’s clear Abloh kept the same energy in pushing the culture forward.

“I give him kudos for being a visionary that allowed people to see things different,” Humphrey concluded. “As generations go by, you want to stay connected. The consumer of today likes things a little different from their older brothers, they like things a bit different than their dads. For Jordan, we really had to make a concerted effort to deliver the future.”

Not everyone understood it at first. But the kids loved it from jump.

Through Abloh, Jordan delivered the future. And that’s why he’ll live forever.

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.