How does a shoe from 1997 manage to stay looking futuristic almost 25 years later?
No, really, we’re asking. Because Nike has an astounding track record when it comes to designing sneakers that look and feel timeless. The Nike Cortez (1972), The Jordan 1 (1985), the Air Max 1 (1987), the Air Max 90 (1990) the Air Max 95 (1995), the SB Dunk (2002) — the list goes on. Even Nike’s discontinued silhouettes remain hype-worthy, and that’s all thanks to Nike consistently calling on the talents of some of footwear’s most innovative designers.
For the Nike Air Max 97, that designer was Christian Tresser, who had the revolutionary Reebok Aztrek under his belt and would eventually go on to work with Kanye West on the Yeezy 700 VX. Designing the Air Max 97 was no easy task, Tresser would be following up Tinker Hatfield’s revolutionary Air Max 95, which is still one of Nike’s most beloved silhouettes. But Tresser knocked it out of the park with a wavy futuristic design inspired by mountain landscapes — managing to evoke the sleek speed and look of a Japanese bullet train.
The sneaker looked next level in 1997 and even now, in 2021, it still manages to look like the footwear of the future. In celebration of one of Nike’s greatest silhouettes, we’re running through the greatest colorways of all time for the Air Max 97. Let’s dive in!
Nike Air Max 97 Silver Bullet, 1997
Kicking off our journey is the design that started it all, the Nike Air Max 97 Silver Bullet. Featuring a metallic silver upper with varsity red accents, the Silver Bullet was made to recall the Japanese Silver Bullet trains that helped to inspire the silhouette’s design.
Despite this being one of Nike’s most futuristic sneakers, the Silver Bullet looks refreshingly dated. It has a sort of 1980’s-view-of-the-future vibe to it.
Union Nike Air Max 97 One Time Only, 2005
Look at this thing! It’s kind of ridiculous. Made in collaboration with streetwear brand Union, the One Time Only combines the 97’s upper with the tooling of an Air Max 360. Released as part of Nike’s Clerks Pack, the One Time Only has a Saved by the Bell-esque colorway, mixing rave pink and military blue with elephant print paneling along the base.
Nike Air Max 97 Kashima Antlers, 2006
An early classic, 2006’s Kashima Antlers were released as part of Nike’s Sportswear pack in tribute to the Japanese football club, the Kashima Antlers. This iteration of the 97 features a mesh upper with leather overlays and an elephant print mudguard with a green-tinted Air Max unit.
Had Nike released colorways like this of the 97 stateside, it might not have taken 20 years for the silhouette to really get the love it deserves. It’s no wonder the 97 has long been popular with the best-dressed streetwear stylists of Japan.
Nike Air Max 97 Jacquard Rio de Janeiro, 2014
One of Nike’s most fun designs, the Air Max 97 Jacquard Rio de Janeiro is the only Air Max 97 that doesn’t strike us as looking futuristic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, the sneaker doesn’t look outdated by any means, instead the jacquard upper with its pixelated camo design manages to look like another sneaker entirely.
The 97’s trademark waves are less prominent in this design and come via a transparent overlay that seamlessly stretches into the sneaker’s mudguard.
UNDEFEATED Nike Air Max 97 Black, 2017
When Los Angeles-based label UNDEFEATED put their spin on the Air Max 97 they single-handedly created a whole audience of new fans for the silhouette. If you’ve been enjoying the Air Max 97s resurgence over the last few years, you have UNDEFEATED to thank for this sleek black, red, and green Gucci-inspired pair.
To this day, it’s one of the most valued 97 colorways on the aftermarket.
Nike Air Max 97 Sean Wotherspoon, 2017
Released as part of Nike’s Air Max 90, the Sean Wotherspoon’s are the sneakers that made Wotherspoon a household name amongst streetwear fanatics. Before Wotherspoon was known as streetwear’s corduroy king, he was just a scrappy kid who entered Nike’s design contest and managed to make one of the hottest sneakers of the 2010s.
Inspired by Wotherspoon’s love of Vintage 1980’s Nike caps, this Air Max 97 features a wavy corduroy upper sitting atop an Air Max 1 sole unit. Peep that stiched swoosh!
Off-White Nike Air Max 97 “The Ten,” 2017
Released as part of the second drop from Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten,” this Off-White iteration of the 97 features a white, cone, and ice blue colorway with a translucent outsole and an oversized Swoosh. Despite very minimal alternations to the original design, Abloh still managed to deliver a sneaker that looks markedly different from its source material.
If you’re a 97 stan, you either love what Abloh did with the shape or you hate it — there’s really no in-betweens here. On the inner side of the sneaker, the words “Off White for NIKE “Air Max 97” Beaverton, Oregon USA” are stamped, part of Abloh’s deconstructionist aesthetic. That stamp, it should be noted, is the worst part of the shoe. By far.
Cristiano Ronaldo Nike Air Max 97 Golden Patchwork, 2017
Made for football star Cristiano Ronaldo, the Golden Patchwork 97s were inspired by Ronaldo’s youth, back when he could only afford two pairs of shoes, one for play and one for school. When his rundown sneakers would get holes in them, his mom would patch them up and send him on his way. The Golden Patchwork consists of patched-up panels dipped in a celebratory golden colorway that reflect how Ronaldo didn’t let his impediments stop him from being one of the greatest players in the game.
Nike Air Max 97 Skepta, 2017
Designed by British-Nigerian rapper Skepta, this iteration of the 97 looks straight-up alien. Featuring a polyurethane-coated copper and rose gold upper composed of leather over black mesh, this design is meant to evoke both Morocco and London, by way of the braided tongue and the graphics meant to recall UK electric outlets.
It’s highly conceptual and super dorky in theory, but the execution is a sight to behold.
Off-White Nike Air Max 97 Black, 2018
It’s funny to think that with all of the eyes of the fashion world fixed on his every move, Virgil Abloh chose to follow “The Ten’s” 97 by simply giving us the same design in a black iteration. If you loved “The Ten’s” 97, all the same design touchstones are here — the translucent upper, the large swoosh, the stupid production stamp on the inner side. Only this time it has a sort of sinister Darth Vader vibe.
It’s amazing what a single color can do, but we prefer these to the all-white “The Ten” makeup.
Off-White Nike Aix Max 97 Serena, 2018
Made and named for Serena Williams and the 50th U.S. Open tournament, the Off-White 97 Serena features an elemental rose, black, barely rosé, and white colorway with a head-turning gradient midsole. Each pair comes equipped with Abloh’s signature zip-tie, this time in a hard to avoid Volt colorway.
Nike Air Max 97 Smokey Mauve, 2018
There isn’t an interesting story or collaboration behind Nike’s Smokey Mauve Air Max 97, it’s simply a beautiful looking shoe. That mix of smokey mauve, black midnight, and navy sail is the moodiest this silhouette has ever looked. We love it.
Nike Air Max 97 Desert Sky, 2018
Clearly Yeezy inspired, the 97 Desert Sky combines black desert, and sand royal tint for an aged-looking but eye-catching colorway. Our only gripe with this design is the weird, out-of-place stark black midsole that the sneaker sits atop. A white or off-white midsole would’ve been more complimentary. If contrast was the goal, a yellow or mint midsole would’ve added to the serene quality of the design.
But what do we know? (We only look at shoes all day.) This pair continues to exceed expectations — fetching a high price on aftermarket sites.
Nike Air Max 97 MSCHF x INRI Jesus Shoes, 2019
Made in collaboration with Brooklyn-based creative house MSCHF and the artist INRI this is easily the weirdest 97 colorway, ever. Aside from the Matthew 14:25 inscription at the toe box, the aptly named Jesus Shoes actually contain 60cc of holy water from the River Jordan.
It’s excessive and ridiculous sure, but with its clean white upper and light blue accents, it’s one of the finest Air Max 97 colorways of all time. It might even be the best.
Nike Air Max 97 Shanghai Kaleidoscope, 2019
Like the Sean Wotherspoon’s beloved colorway, the Air Max 97 Shanghai Kaleidoscope came about through a design contest set up by Nike. Ultimately six winners were chosen, but Cash Ru of Shanghai’s Shanghai Kaleidoscope rises above the rest.
It’s hard not to love this icy blue colorway which sits on a white middle with a crimson red swoosh accent. The triple heel tags are a bit excessive, but we dig Ru’s design work, which is just slightly distorted, like waves rippling in a pond.