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Fine Print: A Brief Look at Nike Air Safari History

    Nike Air Safari History

    Fine Print: Nike Air Safari History

    It seems that the time of the Nike Air Safari is here again. Journeying back to a year that was arguably Nike’s best, we take a look at Nike Air Safari history.

    Nike’s story in the sneaker world consists of foundational designs. Their catalog is full of groundbreaking aesthetics, and that’s putting it mildly. Of course, this isn’t a distinction that Nike earns overnight.

    A simple scan at the Swoosh brand’s background show’s a different story, one of experimentation. It shows a tendency for trial and error.

    Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Nike’s background belies persistence. One instance involves a print that takes inspiration from a certain shoe.

    There are still several versions of the Nike Air Safari available to buy at select retailers such as Flight Club.


    The Safari print is right up there with other iconic looks for Nike. It stands as one of the most recognizable and successful aesthetic in sneaker history.

    Moreover, it also proves through time to be very dynamic, visually speaking. Yet, this all begs the question: where did this come from?

    By now, it will be no surprise to hear that it all starts with Tinker Hatfield. In fact, Nike Air Safari history kicks off during Tinker’s time in New York City. This trip is one more for business than pleasure, though.

    Shortly before jumping on a plane to NYC, the legendary Nike designer introduces an interesting design. He has a somewhat sudden idea that clashes with Nike’s model for success up to that point in its existence.

    Specifically, Tinker introduces the design of a fairly minimalist runner. At first glance, it looks as though it comes with all of the trappings of running sneaker design.

    It is a closer look at the schematics that starts to make Nike executives a bit nervous. As it turns out, this particular running shoe replaces much of the functional approach with notes of luxury.

    Making His Case

    Now, there is a good reason for Nike executives to show some concerned reactions. The design itself doesn’t look like anything that would break too many barriers in a modern context.

    But, at the time, this shoe’s look and build are extraordinary for a relatively intense focus on style. The sections that are usually in breathable mesh take on an animal skin.

    The midfoot area, a section of functional importance, sports thin layers in Tinker’s design. The list goes on. The point here is to take an athletic shoe and “purposely making it non-athletic..”

    Now, even though the shoe’s initial scribbles of design make people nervous, there are other matters to consider. The primary problem after presenting the design is that Tinker hasn’t decided what the materials should be.

    Of course, for your average performance sneaker, this isn’t a very serious issue. Nike spends most of its early days leading the charge in fabric advances.

    Breathability, flexibility, if it has to do with a shoe, Nike is the front-runner in the late 80s. With Tinker making it clear that he wants to go in a different direction, it feels almost like starting from scratch.

    Sole Searching

    So, of course, Tinker does what he always does when looking for inspiration: he wanders. After landing in NYC, the iconic designer goes on a customary stroll around the city, looking for some sort of inspiration.

    Eventually, a particular furniture store catches his eye. This isn’t just some ordinary purveyor. It is, as he puts it, “the kind that you have to get buzzed in.”

    But, it isn’t a random shop either. Tinker saw something on display that really caught his eye. Specifically, it is a couch that is covered in authentic ostrich skin.

    Of course, when they realize he isn’t here to buy anything, the shop owners see Tinker out of the store. But, he spends enough time in there to arrive at a conclusion.

    Rushing back to Nike HQ, the legendary designer has an idea he cannot get out of his head: a design that actually centres around the material.

    Much like his initial scribblings, this is a brand new mode of thinking for Nike. Each of the brand’s past drops, up to 1987, is about meeting functional needs.

    After falling in love with this couch in a luxury furniture store, Tinker wants this shoe to be all about the material. In a way, this is where Nike Air Safari history truly begins.

    Faux Fashion

    Back at HQ and buzzing with ideas, Tinker manages to make the Air Safari a reality. Ostrich skin is his inspiration, but that’s not what he goes for. What the designer wants is a faux version of the material.

    It’s reasonable to question this decision initially. After all, why not simply go for the premium material. That makes much more sense if the goal is to aim for luxury and style. Yet, there’s more to it than that.

    Tinker’s inspiration comes from more than the ostrich skin itself. It comes from what it represents visually. Along with its feel and emphasis on luxury, Tinker fascinates over the couch’s bold look.

    One of the main design principles behind the Air Safari is the visual appeal. Tinker wants this shoe to be more aesthetically stunning than it is functional appeal So, the Safari print comes about as his interpretation of faux ostrich skin.

    Release Tension

    The context matters in the case of Nike Air Safari history. Specifically, the year of release for this model holds significance. 1987 is still considered one of the iconic years in Nike’s story.

    This should come as little surprise to most OG Nike heads. 1987 is the year when the brand releases the Air Max 1, kicking off the legendary series of runners.

    It’s also the release year of the Air Jordan 2, the first Jordan model to go without the Swoosh as part of its design. If you take just those two developments, 1987 earns its place of reverence. But, as is always the case with Nike, there’s more.

    The Safari model releases this year as part of the Nike Air Pack. If you are ever looking for a line-up of shoes that accurately summarizes Nike in the 80s, this is it.

    The pack includes the Air Max 1, Air Trainer, Air Sock, and the Air Safari. Though those other three drops are an indication of Nike’s unwavering focus on function, the Safari becomes even more of a highlight in contrast.

    To note, the overall look of the Safari stands as an outright classic in today’s context. Opinions from both the production and consumption side on its original debut, however, are not quite so positive.

    After seeing initial hesitation with his design, Tinker deals with a debut that is less than stellar. The Air Max 1 takes off. A major part of that success is the introduction of visible Air cushioning, getting recognition for both its functional and gimmicky appeal.

    The shoe markets itself as a runner’s best friend, which puts the Air Safari in something of an awkward position. Standing next to the AM1, how is a shoe that is stripping away most functional elements going to sell?

    Selling Point

    The less-than-excited initial reactions are understandable. In fact, it makes sense even beyond the anti-functionality design. When Nike hears that Tinker is trying to put together a fashion sneaker, they likely doubled back.

    Being so far ahead of the competition in terms of their tech, it must have seemed like defeating a strength to then opt for fashion. Even Tinker admits more recently that so much as mentioning the idea invites all sorts of criticism at this time.

    «Fashion was still a dirty word at this point,» he recalls. But, the look was just wild enough to be marketable on a grand scale.

    In 1987, the Nike marketing machine kicks things into a seriously high gear. The Air Safari fits in easily with the outlandish style of Nike advertisements, which help the model eventually sell well.

    Additionally, the hype from the Air Max 1 helps sell the rest of the Air pack, boosting Safari sales.

    More of the Same

    Considering what we know about Nike Air Safari history, it’s easy to think this is rare. This has to be the one time fit of irrational genius that this sneaker designer experiences – and actually gets away with – right?

    Well, anyone who knows anything about Tinker’s history with the brand knows this is remarkably less than true. Tinker’s work with the Air Safari actually represents some of his more conservative. But, it releases in a pack with the Air Max 1, which is a shoe that had folks at Nike trying to get him fired.

    The Air Safari’s design may seem like an exception to the rule, but it really isn’t. On the contrary, it’s pretty emblematic of just how against-the-grain Tinker really is.

    In this crucial year for the brand, Nike’s bets – luxury runner, visible Air, and Swooshless Jordan – pay off in a huge way. The brand’s iconic status reaches new heights, even leading to a Tinker design cameo on Back To The Future 2.


    Discussing Nike Air Safari history brings to mind a quality the shoe shares with several other Swoosh models. Thanks to its outlandish and never-before-seen look, it was a benchmarker.

    The Safari print goes on to major popularity, finding its way to other models. From the Foamposite to the Air Presto, this legendary aesthetic seems to work on just about any surface. We even eventually see it on an earlier iteration of the Air Max 1.

    When we think of Nike runners in wild colorways, collaborations seem to come to mind quickly. Names like atmos and Patta have a particularly rich history with models such as the Air Max 1.

    But, it’s the earlier work of Tinker Hatfield himself that sets something of a precedent. His imaginative take on ostrich skin leads the way to a brand of visual experimentation.

    Equally as important was the sheer guts it took to push this concept beyond all of the doubt and skepticism. Thanks to his persistence and determination, the Nike Air Safari moves into a place in history that designers and fans alike recognize.

    Present Day

    2018’s addition to Nike Air Safari history comes in the form of a retro release. The Swoosh had announced in late 2017 that the Nike Air Safari OG  would be returning in March.

    In a comical turn, the Air Safari would once again have to find its elbow room among all of the Air Max hype. It’s almost Nike wants the Air Safari to fight its way to relevance.

    And yet, this isn’t 1987, so the Nike Air Safari history is far from ending. This underrated model releases to a much different cultural climate, one that loves itself more of that Safari print.

    As a result, the release, back in the middle of March, meets general applause. Though it isn’t instant, the shoe does eventually sell out. One of the more legitimate concerns with this model has to do with a usual thought involving Nike retro drops: material quality.

    In this case, there isn’t much to worry about. The Nike Air Safari 2018 might very well pale in comparison to its OG release. But, the quality is there. The leather panels are rich and in a durable, plush build.

    The tow box’s Orange hue really jumps out at you visually. Of course, the elephant print sections are quite robust as well.

    Looking Ahead

    The notion that there is such a thing as “bad design” is something that Tinker is hardly comfortable with. Sure, there are concepts with functional concerns.

    But, those are subject to remedies. Visual value, on the other hand, isn’t something to judge as right or wrong. It’s a test of imagination. Nike Air Safari history shows us what that test can produce.

    The Nike Air Safari is one of many examples of Tinker’s imagination put to the test. Against trends, brand direction, and executive forces, he puts together a remarkable shoe.

    It’ll be interesting to see if anymore re-issues come from the Swoosh. One can imagine models such as the Nike Air Safari Deconstruct and Nike Air Safari Royal would be well received!



    All imagery courtesy of Nike