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How AMBUSH® subverted Nike's Air Adjust Force basketball history with nineties Rave

When we think of the origins of Nike’s most iconic sneakers, they are mostly designed to be used in sports, but many of the designs have found a lasting legacy in sneaker culture through the lens of subcultures. Nike might have created the original Air Jordan for Michael Jordan to hoop in, but it became just as popular for skateboarders as it did hardcore kids to wear in the mosh pits during the late ‘80s. The same can be said for revolutionary styles like the Air Max, which began life in marathon running but the later became synonymous with everything from Dutch Gabber ravers to Italian graffiti artists and UK grime culture.




This indirect route to sport via counter culture inspired Yoon Ahn in her choice of the Air Adjust Force for her latest Nike x AMBUSH® collaboration. Initially released in 1995 to cater to Nike’s growing basketball roster, the model found fame with countless color options that made it a favorite for collegiate teams – Vince Carter and Jason Terry wore the Air Adjust during their college years.
What was interesting about the AMBUSH® collaboration is that while the sneaker is firmly rooted in basketball, Yoon looked purely at the cultural context in which it lived: how in the nineties Nike’s performance sneakers were finding new life in the street. “Sport isn’t necessarily coming from a ball court or a gym, it is the mentality and spirit of it,” says Yoon on her choice of the Air Adjust Force sneaker. “I know Nike has a strong connection to the club scene and music in the nineties and Y2K. Everyone wore comfortable shoes at raves back then.”
It might seem like a bold move to resurrect a basketball sneaker out of obscurity and reposition it  as a fashion sneaker. But for Ahn, it's the opportunity to create a new context for a heritage shoe that has always inspired her in the collaborations with Nike. “When Nike approached me, my understanding was that you had to play sports to collaborate with them,” she says on her first encounter with the Nike team. “I was like, I don’t play sports, but I can tell you as a female user, I would want things that I can wear at the gym and court, but it has to look just as good on the street.”
To kick off the collaboration process, Ahn headed to Nike campus in Beaverton to delve through the vaults in the archives. “We always kick off from the archive room discussing ‘what are you vibing with and what do you want to work on?’” says Ahn on the creative process. “The conversation has always been open.”
During these initial conversations with the Nike family, Ahn was struck with the idea to take the collaboration back to the nineties. Yoon first encountered the Nike brand ass a nineties kid brought up in Seattle, a city just north of Beaverton. Although she had mostly grown up in the peak era of grunge wearing doc martens and hiking boots – “granola style” as she says – it was also the time when she stumbled across the Air Max 180, a silhouette that kickstarted her love for the label. 
Naturally, the 180 was selected as the debut silhouette that would introduce AMBUSH®’s collaborative partnership with Nike in 2019, but for the 2022 installment she wanted to take it in a new direction. “I was going through the archive room looking through all the basketball shoes, but a lot of the styles were hightops,” she said of her initial meetings in Beaverton. “I had just done a pair of hightops with the Dunk (2021), so I wanted to do something different with a lower cut.”


While pouring through the archive catalogs she stumbled across an old image of the Air Adjust Force. The image stuck with her and got her thinking about how she could evolve the model in a new way. Beginning with a lower cut and reworked toe box, Ahn set about remodeling the silhouette to make it “ bulkier and give it more weight,” while revised paneling across the upper and tooling details take it in a more “sleek and futuristic.”
The interchangeable straps across the midfoot are what made the silhouette so iconic in the era and why Ahn decided to keep it. During the nineties, the shroud detail allowed players to personalize the sneaker to team colors or to match their outfit for the day.his time around Ahn sees it as an element that gives you more options to play. “You can wear it with the strap or without. You get two completely different vibes in the same shoe,” she says of detail.
To complement the nineties club culture inspiration, Ahn and Nike Tokyo have rolled out the campaign with visual cues to the era in a new and unexpected way. While you might expect Bjork-esque cyber typeface, the visuals lean more towards abstract elements of the clubland, like torn and eroded fly posters plastered around rave capitals. “I wanted to have a fun throwback to that era of club culture but not in a literal way,” says Yoon on the art direction for the campaign. “It's more like a love letter to the mid-90s and early Y2K to bring the nostalgic vibe back.”
To bring the look to life, Danny Demers, Art Director at Nike Japan, commissioned British designer and typographer Chris Ashworth to create the throwback imagery for the campaign. “When Yoon originally shared the inspiration of the collection and the concept of what she wanted to do, we were looking at rave flyers as the graphic inspiration,” he says of the decision to bring Ashworth in. “I thought that we could push it a little further and look at the graphic language at the time and at someone who was actually around in making that scene and is still doing it. That's when Chris came to mind, as he was a pioneer of that time.”
Ashworth became known for his Swiss Grit aesthetic in the early nineties, a raw visual style that he famously applied to his work as former artistic director for music magazine, Ray Gun. “Nike's always been a really personal brand for me,” says Ashworth on his affiliation to the brand. “I'm a bit of a runner, but I just love the whole ethos and spirit of ‘Just Do It’ as it's a little bit of a metaphor for what I do and the way I work with my hands and just getting on with it. I can relate to it. So this project was just like a Nike throwback but making it fresh again.”
Ashworth got his design education during what he says was very much in the Swiss Graphic design school, a time when “it was very structured, very rigid and very precise” as he recalls. But it was his time roaming the streets of London that inspired a more raw approach to design that would later become his signature. “I could literally smell the streets as I walked to work. You’re surrounded by grit and visual elements like torn away fly posters,” he recalls of the time. “It was all these things that I fused together on Ray Gun.”


When it came to creating the AMBUSH® campaign imagery, Demers explained that the idea was not necessarily to recreate a rave poster, but to channel the essence of what was being created that time. “What we want to talk about was this idea of turning celebration into a sport and finding the parallels between the ecstasy of completing a run or a race, and then kind of comparing that to the thrill of chasing a party”.
To achieve this, Ashworth applied his hands-on directness to the project to create the hugely flawed and beautifully imperfect typography he has become synonymous with. Working with paper, ink, and lettering sheets, Ashworth submitted his creation to multiple layers of distressing, whether it was distorting Nike Swoosh logos with cellotape or adding texture via scraping an ink soaked Adjust sole across the layout. 
“I wanted to try and find a lockup that I was really happy with for the campaign slogan, “Nike x AMBUSH®, Air Adjust Force, Just Do It,” explains Ashworth on the original mock-up. “Fortunately it's just got a lovely triangle composition about it with the line return.” Once that became his anchor, Ashworth says he set it, printed it out a hundred times, and started messing with it. “I just started throwing ink on it. I've got some videos where I've got the actual shoe and put a load of ink on the bottom and I'd run it through the type,” says Ashworth of his analog style. “The idea was to really try to have some fun with the product and inject some energy into the campaign.”
Speaking on other visual elements of the campaign, Demers reveals that part of the AMBUSH® visual takes cue from Nike’s 1-800 design poster history, a moment that aligned with the launch of the Air Adjust Force in 1996. “That was part of the inspiration behind the way that we shot the shoe,” he says. Another nod to the archival posters is the phone number that was included, an element Yoon included as part of the model casting process for the campaign. Wannabe models in Tokyo can call the line and sign themselves up for a chance to get scouted for the second roll out of the global campaign.
But it’s not just as simple as calling up the rave hotline. You have to be able to bring a fire fit game too. Staying true to the spirit of club culture and the real people seen on the streets (remember those Streets mag street style shots outside Tokyo clubs) AMBUSH® are working together with local magazine and agency Sabukaru to select some of the best street style looks from the city. “Whoever can come out with the flyest Nike club-inspired outfit will have a chance to star in the world campaign of our second round,” says Yoon on the competition. “How fun is that?” 
Winners of the competition will be photographed live during the first of a series of global club Nike x AMBUSH® club nights in Tokyo. Under the banner of “NITE SPORT”, the opening event will invite a series of local and international DJs and Nike alumni to spin. Meanwhile, the program will continue to roll out in NYC, Berlin, Mexico City, and finally Milan during fashion week in September.

Text: Sam Trotman

Collage: Ken Balluet