There's long been an irreverence to Nike's footwear designs
, harking back to the early days when their rebel runners disrupted the status quo, but few shoes retain as much mystery as the Nike Air Safari. The shape, the materials, the colours and the pattern...what does it all mean? After all, this shoe may well be the totem of sneaker collector culture, attracting casual observers as well as the fanatics since its 1987 debut, subsequent disappearance and early 2000s revival. Emerging from a pivotal moment in Nike history—as the minds at Beaverton were set to let you see that air existed—the Safari dropped, blew a few minds and then left an audience clutching record sleeves and fan club publications to confirm that it ever happened.
To understand the thought process behind the shoe, you need to appreciate earlier experiments—Nike's culture of innovation has long followed Bill Bowerman's limitless approach to treading an unbeaten trail in terms of performance and design. Years prior, the Le Village design would take an iconic silhouette and add premium materials as an offering to casual fans unlikely to take on a track at any great speed, and the Air Leisure would let the non-athletes appreciate the benefits of air in an everyday context. Before that trail run turned into a full-blown Safari, experiments in oddball were emerging—the Nightrak's disco styling remains a flamboyant oddity and the Aloha brought Hawaiian shirt patterning to a running shoe upper. Conventionality never entered anyone's thought process. Nike's leisure pieces circa 1983/84 like the Wallabee-alike Bedouin and Vagabond might have failed commercially, but something stuck.
1987 was a year when everything changed— revolution. Everything that came before—those lightweight experiments with the emphasis on mesh, the hidden technologies in the sole unit, that outsole patterning that emerged from a breakfast brainstorm—fell into place to bring you the Air Revolution, Air Max and Trainer seemingly built to handle any sporting discipline. Perhaps the Air Max stole some of the Safari's shine, with that future styling shadowing its strange sibling, With that shoe, its appeal was clear, figuratively and literally. But what was the Safari? What was Tinker Hatfield and Mark Parker's plan with the shoe? It was billed as an "outrageous" walking shoe and casual runner, and alongside the strange looks, comfort was part of the sell-in. It wasn't cheap either, costing more dollars than running's new wave. But the Air Safari never seemed to get the campaign it deserved.
Tan that borders on orange, grey and brown isn't a normal palette, and the pattern was a shock to the system. Ostrich print embossed on a shoe? These were audacious times, but to let that lunacy spill onto footwear was daring. The comfort didn't just arrive because of the technology. That soft leather upper broke in immediately, and that sense of plush flamboyance was what justified both the irreverence and the price tag. Defying the everyman and woman RRP and neutral colors of walking designs like the Health Walker, but weightier than the Windrunner, which shared a bloodline here, it stood alone to some degree. There was a premium on premium around this time—the Air Force's second incarnation was advertised on the benefits of the flexible full-grain upper and the second Jordan was made in Italy. The Safari's original brief was to be a plush affair made from the very best materials and we even clocked a sketch of a loafer-style slip on take a few years back. This was actually based on a sofa that Tinker spotted in the mid 1980s, but we've seen a picture of a poison frog who coincidentally shares the same colours and pattern too.
If you picked up the UK Nike fan club magazine briefly freaked out at the Safari's appearance next to generation next in the Nike line before finding out you couldn't get hold of a pair, you weren't alone. Global distribution never really happened*, and by 1988, it just seemed to vanish. Another animal print experiment, 1987's Air Python—merging both Air Force and Jordan sequels together with added snake effect—would dart out, startle an audience then disappear. The Safari never even made the cut for 1988's advertisement showcase of 32 shoes in Nike's new artillery. When a "lost" product was this good, the byproduct could only ever be cult status.
It takes an eccentric to appreciate eccentricity, and in an era where LP covers were scrutinised by fanatics from the sweatsuit to the shout outs, Biz Markie's gold-dripping, velour-heavy attire within the artwork for 1988's 'Goin' Off' was set off by the Safari. A worldwide audience asked,"What the f*ck?"
Posdnuos from De La Soul was clocked wearing a pair too. The Safari was getting a street level marketing campaign, heavy on the mystique as well as the jewels. Ambling into rap's new conscious, creative aesthetic, where knowledge-of-self wasn't at the expense of a killer pair of sneakers, in mere months it was clear that the shoe had been a little forward-thinking, arriving just a little ahead of time, as a discerning audience were keen to accessorise with bolder, more offbeat looks and a spirit of experimentation ran parallel to hard rock attitudes. And thus, a legend took shape.
It's curious that the third Jordan's elephant print—another Tinker creation arriving that year—would use another exotic animal effect, embossed again, and employed with a similar material mix to alter sneaker aesthetics for the greater good. That had a substantial campaign behind it and it was a commercial success and a fan favorite. The world was ready for strange brilliance at that point. The Safari had been a shoe a year ahead of itself. An era of fades, spray effects and individualism on courts, tracks and pitches kicked in, as professional athletes asserted their individuality and redefined the aesthetics of performance.
Beyond the temples that held spectators and sportspeople, a must-have mindset would help cement the next generation of collector culture, where expendable income, easy access to information and an inquiring mind would elevate the Safari to the position of a rarely-seen classic—spotted in the aesthetic sense, but never spotted in public. Even the most obsessive collectors, fittingly, treated it as big game—the one that got away. 13 years after its debut, the internet would treat the Safari with reverence, a master-class in subversive, forward-thinking design, and and the king of an electronic jungle in terms of footwear one-upmanship. Just a glimpse of that pattern could instigate some kind of mania.
We at Crooked are pretty obsessed with this shoe, because our extortionately expensive edition in the original Crooked Tongues store was a site centre piece back in 2001. It's still locked away somewhere too (we've only seen another pair—at Philadelphia's Ubiq and their's gets extra points for still bearing the plastic Nike Air tag). For that reason, the shoe has a certain mystique that no amount of retros or pattern rinsing can dull entirely.
Some situations need to simmer to reach an optimum serving state—16 years passed before Nike issued the Safari again in 2003, with the Biz DJing at its NYC launch event. On the shelves and still not a cheap sneaker, it was public again in those original colours. Truth be told, there was a sense that a wider audience still wasn't quite ready for what Tinker had created and they hit the sale shops and TK Maxx with a vengeance. Maybe this one needs a little context to shift from the shelves, rather than arriving in big numbers with an £85 RRP. The previous year Tokyo's collaboration kings atmos fused the Safari aesthetic with the Air Max 87 silhouette to bring together the best of both worlds and unite a niche design with the shoe that put it in the shade to some degree—this opened a floodgate.
Following the Safari's return to the fold, new colorways appeared (including one themed on the Mowabb—another wildlife concept from Tinker, with the salmon look on the mood board) plus that pattern or those colours appearing on Dunks, Air Force 1s, Wildwoods, the overlooked Oasis, Air Max 90, Flight 89s, Terminator, Lava Domes, SB Tres, Delta Forces, Air Trainer 1s and much more...even the muted court decorum of the Wimbledon got some print on the heel. That excludes the shirts, Windrunner jackets and other apparel. The Safari was making up for lost time. Then it ended up on Ronaldo's boot and an affiliated Lunar Gato before becoming part of the Nike Air Force 1's NIKEiD options. It's also the Air Safari and Air Trainer 1's 25th birthdays, so they're getting the full treatment here and the Safari itself is going on iD. We get a Lunar variation (jury's out here), strange Nylon-aided VNTG versions and pared down Deconstruct editions this year, but there's no substitute for the real thing.
In all the Safari hype, we forgot to talk about the Air Trainer 1, but you know the stories, don't you? The inspiration, the belligerent John McEnroe stubbornly picking a new cross training release over a tennis-specific shoe and the First Take edition that dropped in 2004 and the Zoom remix that's one of the finest Nike updates ever. Oh yeah, and Cash Money and Marvelous on the 'Play It Kool' cover. We loved the 2001 Safari themed makeup of that shoe that was for the few that know, alluding without resorting to the patterns. The 2012 Safari version of the Air Trainer 1 is a little more overt, but it's still appropriately drug dealer fresh in this makeover. The materials are decent too. Sadly, we haven;'t got the 2003 or OG Safaris side by side to compare the Air Safari, but that black leather isn't quite as good as the 2003 versions and the toebox is decent but not as insanely stretchy and soft as the last retro. That doesn't mean they're inaccurate or inferior in quality by any means (we've handled the OG and 2003s together and there were marked differences).
Thus ends this lecture—we know the Safari print has lost its impact with overkill (like the elephant print), but in this form, it's pretty much a perfect shoe. Twinned with the AT1, this is a smart little birthday double act that's aided by some hangtags that offer a one-paragraph history lesson. The Air Trainer 1s should be in the Crooked Tongues store tomorrow and the Air Safari should be arriving next week in Quickstrike/NRG quantities.
*Though there were sightings in select Cobra Sports stores between 1987 and 1988.