Why Air Jordans are more than just shoes

A signed pair of sneakers that Michael Jordan wore during his rookie season recently sold at Sotheby’s for $560,000, an all-time record for a pair of sneakers.

Yes, a pair of sneakers sold for $560,000 — let that sink in.

Granted, these aren’t just ANY sneakers, and the timing was certainly ideal for Jordy Geller, the famed shoe collector. On the heels of the final episode of “The Last Dance,” Geller decided it was time to part ways with the 1984-85 rookie season shoes — mostly because of mass hysteria.

Credit: Sotheby’s

“I decided to sell because now is the right time,” Geller told Action Network. “Your tweets about Michael Jordan memorabilia convinced me to sell them.”

This wasn’t the seller’s first time at the auction house, either. “Jordy always has a great sense of timing for these things,” Brahm Wachter, Sotheby’s director of eCommerce development, told In The Know. “We are extremely excited about today’s record-breaking result!”

Wachter explained that after the previously record-breaking sale of the Nike Moon Shoe in 2019, Sotheby’s wanted to raise the stakes. “We wanted to set the bar even higher for our second sneaker sale. We saw tremendous bidding up until the moment the sale closed, with the value more than doubling in the final hour alone.”

He continued, “That, coupled with strong international bidding from six countries on four continents, shows not only the incredible appeal of Michael Jordan as one of the most recognizable and legendary athletes of all time, but also that sneaker collecting is truly a global and growing market.”

The history of Air Jordans is not only a masterclass in marketing, but also a realization of African-American influence on fashion. Jordan signed a five-year endorsement deal with Nike in 1985, a deal that was reportedly worth $2.5 million (plus royalties). With a $500,000 annual payout for Jordan for each year, Nike projected a sales goal of $3 million over the first three years of the Air Jordan.

The shoe made $126 million in the first year alone.

Credit: Getty Images

The cultural impact of Air Jordans would be one that extended beyond the basketball courts, especially since that’s not where it started in the first place. Basketball sneakers, up to that point, had been part of the subculture — basketball players, urban youth and hip-hop culture — and not mainstream.

Inner-city youth and communities around the world saw themselves in Michael Jordan during a time when rap music was exploding on the scene, Black cinema and shows were challenging pre-conceived notions of Blackness and the need for a fashion upheaval demanded designers be more in touch with those pushing the culture forward.

It was never about the shoes. It’s about what the shoes stood for.

Shoes have always been political: In 1965, “I Spy” was the first weekly TV drama to feature a Black actor in a lead role. The character, a CIA agent going undercover as a tennis coach, wore white Adidas sneakers.

Then there was the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, during which American gold medalist sprinter Tommie Smith and his bronze medal-winning teammate, John Carlos, removed their Puma Suedes and took to the medal podium in their bare feet to symbolize African-American poverty. They also raised their fists to represent Black power and the human rights movement at large.

The ’70s and ’80s were all about music, and sneakers had a role even in that. “In the 1970s, New Yorkers in the basketball and hip-hop community changed the perception of sneakers from sports equipment to tools for cultural expression,” sneaker historian Bobbito Garcia explains in the “Out of the Box” catalog. “The progenitors of sneaker culture were predominantly … kids of color who grew up in a depressed economic era.”

Today, you have brands such as Off-White, Balenciaga, Yeezy and countless others that are presenting sneaker culture to the masses, democratizing who has access to power in fashion by stripping what the uniform of success is supposed to look like. However, Nike Air Jordans started what we would eventually come to know as “sneaker culture” and the contributions of the Black aesthetic and swag to the world.

If you liked this post, check out the best white sneakers you can shop right now.

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