Market Research: Nike’s “Air Max ’95, Air Max 180, and Vapormax Flyknit 2”

Maya Binyam Considers The Default Swoosh And Nike Sneakers As Symbols of Movements

    Maya Binyam

    On January 20th of last year, after 230 people were kettle arrested, zip tied, packed into vans, and charged with conspiracy to riot, but before 2.6 million other people marched, buoyant, in a sea of pink hats, Trump supporters gathered for a ball.An entrance line snaked around DC like a chokehold, and a crowd of protesters (or in this case lonely people, each with their own scheme) gathered to watch the spectacle. The dresses, tuxedos, and people wearing them were so pristinely manicured as to appear garish; the most enduring enigma of consumerism is that rich people, so insistent on maintaining the illusion of infinite aesthetic choice, consistently make the wrong ones.

    A friend and I, moved by the ugly display, decided to incite a game of cat and mouse. From our coat pockets we procured squirt bottles filled with milk of magnesia, a cloudy liquid that acts as an effective relief for the burning sensation caused by tear gas. It seemed fitting that our antidote should be their source of ruin. Together we approached the patrons, sprayed their skirts and shoes and ties, and then retreated, only to repeat the same choreography further down the line. None of the guests reacted beyond a gasp, but the white woman next to me, with whom I’d become a “we” by virtue of the bifurcated scene, tapped me on the shoulder and said, in the affected tone of a schoolteacher dealing with naughty children, “This isn’t the resistance I want to be a part of.” I like to think that, had I said what was on my mind (“Who are you?”), her retort would have been as tepid as her initial address: “My feminism doesn’t include sentiments of reproach.”

    The point was not that my friend and I were acting ethically, or even wisely. The whole performance felt silly, which is why, after a day of stunted anger and thwarted action, it also felt good. The uniforms donned by Trump’s party-goers—black tie, red hat—were symbols of decadence, obviously, but also of a placating satisfaction with available modes of living. They became, for us, objects of resentment—we wanted to see them destroyed.

    When my Nikes arrived in the mail in late August, they were hardly symbols of anything. Out of a large cardboard box I unwrapped three smaller boxes, each containing a single pair of shoes. I decided, arbitrarily, that the VaporMax pair would be my running sneakers (I’m not a runner, but imagined the shoes would help me become one), the Air Max 95s would be my professional sneakers (again an arbitrary distinction: my office simulates comfort by dressing itself up as the kind of living room none of its employees can afford to keep at home), and the Air Max 180s would be the ones I would commit to keeping clean.

    Because I have owned, disgustingly, the same pair of sneakers for nearly a decade, and because this fact about my closet came to feel, after a few years, like a fact about my life, suddenly having not one, not two, but three new pairs of sneakers—and actually wearing them—felt like the first step in becoming someone not myself, which is to say: someone like everyone else. I mean this literally. Nearly everyone in New York wears Nikes, and the one person I interacted with who does not live in New York (my father) arrived in the city wearing Nikes, too. The only acquaintance to mis-recognize my shoes as unique, and therefore worthy of compliment, was Darren, the guy who does his laundry at the same time as me, and for whom any object proximate to our point of interaction is a potential topic of conversation. (Last month, when I was wearing a Porzingis jersey, he asked if I was a Knicks fan. When I said “no,” he asked what I thought of Donald Glover, Mikhail Bulgakov, the state of digital video art, etc.)

    Moving from home, to the laundromat, to work, to the movies, the gym, my therapist’s office, up and down the stairs of the subway—and between all of these ordinary places—felt comfortable. My arches were well-supported, and my choices had been made for me: by my editor, in the most immediate sense, but also by the comprehensive global advertising campaign that had, over the course of many years, made Nikes feel like the default option, by which I mean no option at all.

    Because the shoes had no meaning of their own, I let them become vessels for the events of my life. Nothing happened, but the shoes made my nothing manifest. I increased my weekly running mileage from zero to ten, numbers that were insignificant until I saw Darren on my commute and was able to sprint to the next train car unseen. That’s when things started really changing. Boring things became new boring things. I quit my job and got on a flight, but when I landed I was at my childhood home. My sneakers were feeling worn in; I was beginning to get attached.

    How strange it was, then, that by virtue of a single marketing decision, my shoes, whose only meaning had been that which I had ascribed to them, and whose existence I imagined to be an extension of my own, should suddenly be mobilized in a signifying battle against the state. As nearly everyone now knows, last month Nike unveiled its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, a series of black-and-white photographs of high profile athletes, including Serena Williams, LeBron James, and, most notably, Colin Kaepernick. By sporting Kaepernick’s image alongside the phrase “Just Do It”, Nike facilitated an aesthetic exchange: he invested their signature slogan with meaning, and they became a symbol for his movement. Kaepernick’s enemy, accordingly, became Nike’s, too. White nationalists lit tiny fires within the soles of their fashion sneakers, and the Mississippi Police Department, alongside the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, announced that it would no longer purchase the company’s gear. With a single image, Nike convinced an entire consumer base it was a metonym not only for anti-racism, but for blackness itself. Its products, like good politics, were cool, and profits followed suit. In just two days online orders rose by 31%, and stocks were valued at an all-time high. By the end of the month, the company’s overall value had increased by $6 billion.

    For nearly every micro-generation since the inception of the “Just Do It” campaign, there exists the Nike scandal it grew up with. In 1992, just four years after Nike launched ads featuring Michael Jordan and Spike Lee in an effort to rectify its status as the highest grossing shoe brand in the U.S., Jeff Ballinger (also an editor of Behind the Swoosh) published an exposé of the company’s reliance on unpaid labor. Nike was subsequently found to have violated wage law in Indonesia, China, Vietnam, and Mexico. Four years later, in 1996, the company was revealed to be using child labor in Cambodia and Pakistan. Later still, it was accused of evading taxes by routing profits to an offshore account in the Caribbean. By 1998, executives themselves had to admit that the brand was invested with the bad feelings invoked by its labor practices. “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse,” announced then-chairman and CEO Phil Knight. “I truly believe the American consumer doesn’t want to buy products made under abusive conditions.”

    “For nearly every micro-generation since the inception of the “Just Do It” campaign, there exists the Nike scandal it grew up with.”

    Nikes have always been a product of unpaid labor, but only varyingly a symbol of one. Now they are a symbol of anti-racism, an affiliation that will remain meaningless so long as their material manifestation is bound up in theft. The checkmark is an image, but it is also a stitched thing, one that has been rejected by cops and embraced by CEOs, but is increasingly produced by the people that both of those representatives––of law enforcement, on one hand, and corporate activism on the other––are trying to address, but also often kill. Thirty-seven states allow private corporations to contract prison labor; in the wake of the Nike sweatshop protests, former Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix urged Nike to bring its malfeasance stateside, a suggestion they have since obliged. “There won’t be any transportation costs,” Mannix insisted. “We’re offering you competitive prison labor [right here].”

    Objects bear the legacy of their means of production, but accrue meaning beyond their physical apparition as well. “In rejecting the proximity of certain objects,” writes feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, “we define the places we know we do not wish to go, the things we do not wish to have, touch, taste, hear, feel, see, those things we do not want to keep within reach.” Feelings, especially the most basic (like, dislike), are sticky. They circulate in strange ways, and often attach themselves irrationally, like a joke. I laughed when I saw the video of a guy shredding his Air Maxes, the same shoes I had on my feet. My sneakers are my enemies, but my enemy’s enemies are my sneakers, too.

    Maya Binyam is a writer living in New York. She's a senior editor of Triple Canopy and an editor of The New Inquiry.

    This article is part of our Sneaker Week 2018. Click here for more.

    • Text: Maya Binyam