Thanks to Baltimore, Air Force 1 still flying

The Baltimore Sun

In the 2002 hit "Air Force Ones," the rapper Nelly extolled his love for the sneaker in the song's title: "I need two pair," he drawled. "Give me two pair."

Clearly Nelly is not from Baltimore. If he were, he'd have far more than just two pairs.

Nike is launching a major promotion for the 25th anniversary of its Air Force 1 - a sneaker that Baltimore had a major role in saving and helping to become an urban fashion sensation of the past generation.

In contrast to the product hype often manufactured on Madison Avenue, the sneaker's following grew initially by word of mouth, before the Internet and with little TV advertising. The shoe originated in 1982, when Nike sales were one-15th what they are now and its future endorsement king, Michael Jordan, was still a freshman at the University of North Carolina.

Curiously, the buzz for the Air Force 1 centered in Baltimore, far from the major fashion centers and the only place where the model was sold for a time after it was all but discontinued.

"No city is as important to the Air Force 1 as Baltimore," Nike acknowledged in a booklet it sent to retailers recently for the 25th anniversary promotion. "The city rebirthed the shoe and set in motion a series of events that would change the way sneakers were perceived in the marketplace."

Nelly's two pairs wouldn't suffice for Melvin Bartee, for example. He has amassed at least 100 pairs of the $80 sneakers over the years, their orange boxes stacked to the ceiling in the basement of his East Baltimore home. "I don't even go down there to look for a pair anymore. I just buy new ones," said Bartee, 41, a youth basketball coach at the Cecil-Kirk Recreational Center.

Keith Holly of West Baltimore said he has at least 50 pairs of Air Force 1's. He buys them two at a time, wears them twice, maybe three times, then gives them away.

And even a trans-Atlantic distance couldn't stem Michael Boateng's passion for Air Force 1's. When he attended high school in West Africa, Boateng, now 29, said, "My parents mailed me the new ones when they came out."

While Nike helped shape the modern athletic wear industry with its line named for Jordan, the lesser-known Air Force 1 model has been the Oregon company's biggest seller, footwear expert John Shanley said. The shoe generated roughly $1 billion a year for the company at its peak, about $600 million in more recent years.

"I remember going to the malls at 7 a.m. and kids would be in line for those shoes," said Shanley, a New York-based analyst who covers the athletic wear industry for Susquehanna Financial Group. "There's no other shoe that ever created that kind of thing. Maybe some of the Jordans."

In 1982, Nike introduced the Air Force 1 as a high-performance basketball shoe. Moses Malone, who became the first basketball player to go directly to the pros from high school after declining an offer to play at the University of Maryland, was one of the first to wear the sneakers, starting a fad in urban areas.

"Back then, shoes had a limited run," Nike spokesman KeJuan Wilkins said. "They'd come out and then they'd go away forever."

By 1983, Nike was ready to discontinue the model for newer styles. But three Baltimore-area retailers at the time - Charley Rudo Sports, Cinderella Shoes and Downtown Locker Room - banded together to implore Nike executives to reconsider.

"The shoes were blowing out of my store," recalled Harold Rudo, then the footwear buyer for his father's store, Charley Rudo Sports. "I flew out to [Nike's headquarters in] Portland, Oregon, and met with the second-in-command."

Rudo and cohorts from the other two sporting goods stores persuaded Nike initially to continue selling two styles of Air Force 1's - white with royal blue, and white with chocolate brown - but only in their stores in Baltimore.

The first weekend the sneakers were re-introduced in Baltimore, Rudo said, he sold more than 100 pairs.

"Then, we started popping out new styles, color by color by color by color. We brought out one to two colors a month," said Rudo, who is known even today as "Mr. Shoe." "We were exclusive, the Three Amigos."

In pre-Internet days, word of mouth propelled sneaker-heads along the East Coast to Baltimore for Air Force 1's.

"We had people coming from New York, Washington, D.C.," Rudo said. "They were coming from all over Pennsylvania. They knew we had 'em, and they'd all come running to Baltimore to buy them from us."

Eventually, Nike concluded that Baltimore was on to something. About 10 years after the shoes' exclusive run in Baltimore, the company re-released the Air Force 1 nationally in the mid-1990s.

"This is something that is now on a global level," said Wilkins, the company spokesman. "People in Japan love the Air Force 1. People in Brazil love the Air Force 1. To think that it really started in Baltimore is kind of amazing. ... It has moved from being a performance shoe to a cultural icon."

Until Nike announced a 25th anniversary promotional campaign for the Air Force 1, only a select few were aware of Baltimore's role in popularizing the model early on.

"So often you think of L.A., New York, Chicago for this kind of thing," said Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

While Nike poured millions into promoting its Jordan line, it barely advertised the Air Force 1, lending the sneaker an underground appeal. Like Converse's canvas Chuck Taylors and Adidas' Superstar model, Nike's Air Force 1 became a phenomenon with a clean, simple look. As more colors were added, buyers continued to clamor for the shoe because no matter the outfit, there was an Air Force 1 to go with it.

"You can basically get any color to match your clothes, whatever you feel like wearing," said Boateng of East Baltimore. "I've worn 'em to church. I'll be wearing a blazer and then I'll have on my Air Forces."

Today, there are more than 1,700 different styles of Air Force 1's, although the shoe is essentially the same as in 1982 - unusual for Nike sneakers, even Air Jordans. There are versions in patent leather, multi-colored styles and some designed by graffiti artists. Wealthy rap artists and celebrities often take a pair of Air Force 1's and upgrade the "swoosh" with designer monograms, such as Louis Vuitton's signature LVs.

After-purchase customization of the Air Force 1 has become a cottage industry for some city artists and retailers.

Dwayne Gillard, 27, of West Baltimore, had one of his five pairs of white-on-white Air Force 1's professionally decorated at Mondawmin Mall with "Hundred Grand Federation," the logo for his side business as a rapper.

"You gotta have a pair of Air Force 1's. You put 'em on at night, and I swear you look like your feet are glowing," Gillard said. "Then you gotta have a second pair. The second pair you gotta get somebody to customize 'em for you. The third pair is the backup for that first pair. And the fourth and fifth is for when nobody's selling them no more. I got five right now because I know come May, I'm not gonna be able to find 'em."

Baltimore retailers sometimes struggle to meet demand, said Jeffrey Bowden, a spokesman for DTLR, formerly the Downtown Locker Room, which now operates from Atlanta to Chicago.

"It's absolutely a phenomenon," Bowden said. "It's clearly the Baltimore shoe. There were times there where it was hard for us to keep them in stock, through all sizes, from kids' all the way up to men's.

"That real hard-core demographic, they're like, 'Hey, I need a new pair of Airs,' just because they got a scuff on them. And they've got to have every color when they come out," he said. "I'm even guilty of that. I've had hundreds over the years."

Nike officials can't explain why the shoe has had such a foothold in Baltimore, but they are grateful for the love.

To promote the 25th anniversary version of the Air Force 1 - and the just-released Air Force 25 sneaker - the company built a pricey in-store display at DTLR in Mondawmin Mall, one of the first stores to originally sell the Air Force 1, Nike said.

The display shows players of the past in flight jumpsuits, such as Malone, beside a "second coming" of current stars such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, who are promoting the new Air Force 25s.

Local sellers don't expect the relationship to wane anytime soon.

"Twenty years from now ... it's going to be the same thing," said Greg Vaughan, manager of Mondawmin Mall's DTLR and a former salesman at Charley Rudo Sports, one of the three stores that saved the shoe. "I'm watching generations of kids growing right into it."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

Shoes shine

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of its Air Force 1 sneaker and to unveil its new Air Force 25, Nike will host a party from 5 to 7 tonight at the Downtown Locker Room store at Mondawmin Mall, 2401 Liberty Heights Ave. The event, to be MC'd by radio personality Big Tigger, will feature hip-hop star Juelz Santana, DJ Biz Markie and cast members from HBO's The Wire.

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