Nike Air Tuned Max 99: Charting the Return of a Reclusive Subcultural Icon

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Widely regarded as the golden era of sneakers, the ’90s was a particularly formative period not only for its spate of genre-pushing designs, but for how it permeated all levels of culture. Thanks to the rise of stars such as Michael Jordan and the popularization of sports culture, sneakers became a means of expressing a belonging to something far greater, and in some cases, far more nuanced.

For one of the first times in modern history, millions around the world were given a common medium. A medium that transcended nationality and geographical location, to unite over a shared passion. With the industry’s fascination with hypermodernitydoing a lot to surge the amazement that surrounded sneakers at the time, subcultures found favor in runs of space-age colors and shapes. Soon cemented as key subcultural hallmarks, proceeding releases were imbued with deep — oftentimes relatable — narrative.

Yet while Nike and other footwear giants continue to build from such cultural legitimacy, few re-releases have been able to shake the stigma of simple being “an object of nostalgia.” But for series such as Nike’s Tuned, and more specifically, the Air Tuned Max 99, this stigma is close to non-existent. Initially released in 1999, the Air Tuned Max is regarded as one of the most revolutionary models to release in that decade. Characterized by its use of Tuned Air technology — an advancement seen on the Nike Air Max Plus just one year before — the silhouette featured the first full-length Air system. It was this combination of innovation and cutting-edge aesthetic that soon saw the design grow into a fan favorite that conquered enthusiasts worldwide.

What the Air Tuned Max 99 and select others from the century presented us with was a formula. A formula for designs that embodied the most innovative aspects of performance, while still being “cool” and aesthetic enough to bolster the expressive needs of subculture. Despite being a core addition to Nike’s propriety Tuned series, the design was never released in high quantities. And when compared to the rapid release of cornerstone silhouettes such as the Air Max Plus Tn, its numbers are miniscule.

Despite this, the Air Tuned Max 99 perfectly combined the qualities that made sneakers of that decade great, while simultaneously furthering the need for foundational models. It expertly married high-performance components with the space-age design cues that millions of fans associated with the “future”. Featuring a multi-panel upper and supportive cage underlays, the silhouette’s bold, wave-like tooling system served as the precursor for many modern designs, with hints of it still seen today.

But beyond its many obvious advancements and distinctly modern appeal, the Air Tuned Max 99 still felt attainable. It somehow set itself apart from the limited craze that often overshadows the relevancy of other sneakers, urging people to buy into it not because everyone wanted it, but because it was the perfect combination of everything a sneaker should have been. It lent itself to the everyday wardrobe without disrupting it, and underscored the autonomy of the wearer. Even though it was not the Air Max Plus Tn or Air Max 90, it still signaled a certain subcultural savvy, without forcing one into a box. The fact that it was neither here nor there made the Air Tuned Max 99 incredibly unique.

Fast forward to today, and the Air Tuned Max 99 is slowly moving back into the forefront of popular opinion. From a small selection of well considered re-releases, to notable co-signs from the likes of Skepta who presented a take on the design’s famous “Celery” colorway in 2017, the Air Tuned Max 99 is brimming with nostalgia, while not feeling outdated, but as relevant today as it was some 20 years ago.