The Nike shoe that was the uniform of Italy’s 90s club kids

A new limited edition book explores the phenomenon of its Air Max 97 through the voices of those who knew and wore them best, from Riccardo Tisci to Anna Dello Russo

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Nike Air Max 97 italy trainer silver
Italian Gabbers, late 90sCourtesy of Kaleidoscope Press

In New York in the 90s, it was wheat-coloured Timberlands – Jay Z would famously pull up every weekend to David Z, a Manhattan shoe retailer, to purchase a fresh pair, giving his week-old shoes to some lucky passer-by. On the West Coast, it was Chuck Taylors, with gang members declaring their Blood or Crip allegiances through their chosen colourway. London too had a shoe of choice: Nike Air Max 95s – often affectionately referred to as ‘110s’. At some point or another, pretty much every major city or region has become synonymous with a certain shoe, a stylistic signifier that often is reflective of a certain scene or subculture, before eventually transcending it all together. Forget national anthems and number plates, what people have on their feet can often be a lot more telling.

In Italy, but more specifically Milan and Rome, it was ‘The Silvers’. Released in 1997, the Air Max 97 took on its colloquial nickname as a result of its futuristic, metallic aesthetic. It was quickly embraced by the graffiti writers and, soon after, the club kids of Italy’s two biggest cities. It was a shoe that sold well enough without ever doing spectacularly well in other countries, but in Italy, 97s soon became a mainstay of underground subcultures before later appearing on runways at Milan Fashion Week and on the feet of off-duty footballers. Air Max 97s also served as the inspiration for Italian designer Riccardo Tisci’s most recent collaboration with Nike, who commented that “if you didn’t have Air Max you were not cool! The sexy bad boy and the bad girl in the club, they would wear them – so my memory of these shoes is me saving money to buy them!” The sneaker would go on to become the first adopted en-masse by Italians, gradually seeping out from its major cities into rural towns and provinces to eventually finding itself on the feet of those who had never ‘bombed’ a train or seen the inside of a Neapolitan nightclub.

It is this phenomenon that has been recorded in a forthcoming tome by editor Lodovico Pignatti Morano, who has previously worked on such projects as Ideas From Massimo Osti, a monograph on the Italian founder of Stone Island. Le Silver, which is published by international art media group Kaleidoscope and limited to only 600 copies, explores the adoption of the 97 by Italy’s most vibrant subcultures and its subsequent rise to mainstream commercial success through a series of interviews, ranging from small-time rappers to Vogue Japan’s Anna Dello Russo.

Initially conceived as an internal report at Nike to explore this unique fascination with a certain shoe, the project soon grew into something much greater. “For a publisher focused on contemporary art and culture, a book about a Nike shoe may seem like an odd fit,” explained Kaleidoscope’s creative director, Alessio Ascari. “But for several years now, we've been resisting the self-referential attitude of the contemporary art world and connecting the dots that link it with other creative fields and industries. What drives us is the opportunity of looking at these phenomena from the perspective of contemporary art, with a close eye on the relevance of aesthetics in society – and this book is exactly about an aesthetic obsession.”

THE BIRTH OF THE 97

In 1997, Christian Tresser was a young designer at Nike, whose previous experience had largely been in creating football boots – as well as creating another cult favourite, the Nike Spiridon. “When the 97 arrived on my desk, it had already been through two designers before me,” recalls Tresser in Le Silver. “The message I was given was, ‘This shoe is going to make your career. Don’t blow it.’” And so, inspired by an image of water drops hitting the surface of a pond and rippling out, Tresser set about creating the 97, with a combination of metallic-looking and reflective fabrics. (He also goes on to refute the common misconception, at least in the world of sneakerheads, that the 97 was informed by the Japanese bullet train).

ARRIVING IN ITALY

“I think that clubbers and writers adopted them straight away independently of each other,” explains Morano, the book’s editor. “It was very intuitive. Switched on people saw the shoe, either in store or on the feet of some DJ or in the window of Foot Locker and they just got it straight away without having to look around for confirmation from others.”

According to Morano, there are a lot of theories about why hyper-futuristic looking items, like the 97s and the wares of Massimo Osti at Stone Island took on such cultural significance in Italy. He ventures that it may have its roots in “the Futurists (the art movement of the early 1900s) and how their aesthetic was a result of Italy’s late transformation into an industrial economy, relative to Northern Europe.” For many of the interviewees in the book, there’s a similar dedication to a technical, new-age look.

“Anna Dello Russo, meanwhile, ventures that Italy’s fashion scene adopted the shoe as a reaction to the years of minimalism, by the likes of Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang, which had preceded it. According to her, it was only that style that mattered”

“We would go to Alpine equipment stores and steal Gore-Tex jackets and puffas, using various techniques,” remembers Kraze, an Amsterdam-based writer embedded in the Roman graffiti scene at that time. “We would wear Gore-Tex pants and jackets, even when it was hot. It wasn’t like we needed the technical functions, though in a way, as graffiti writers, we were battling on the streets: climbing, hiding, staying outside all day, running away.” Naturally, when the 97s arrived, it chimed perfectly with this exaggerated utilitarian look – and the Milanese and Roman crews quickly found similar illicit ways of getting their hands on the shoes. One graffiti writer recalls that it was a source of pride to say that you hadn’t paid for your ‘Silvers’.

“A lot of the people I spoke to said that they stole the shoes, or knew people who stole the shoes, or worked in stores where theft of this particular model was particularly rampant,” explains Morano. “But I also spoke to a lot of kids whose parents bought them for them immediately.”

SILVERS ON THE DANCEFLOOR

In Milan and Rome, “graffiti writers were the first to adopt the shoe as part of their uniform. And in Naples, it was clubbers from the city’s house music scene to first start wearing them,” says Morano. “Neapolitan clubbers were more fashion conscious and interested in combining the shoes with designers like Margiela or Helmut Lang while Milanese and Roman graffiti writers were more into a straight up technical look with North Face jackets and Goretex pants.”

Tino Ricciardi, an Italian gabber enthusiast, says there ‘Silvers’ were adopted by party-goers for their aesthetic, but also a practical reason: “From the moment I saw them, I loved them. I liked the fact that they were all grey and metallic, which reminded me of cyberpunk, and then when I went and tried them on in the store and felt how comfortable they were, I was totally sold. They were perfect for dancing.”

LE SILVER ENTERS THE FASHION WORLD

At some point, 97s began to transcend their humble, subcultural origins, explains Morano. The latter third of Le Silver is dedicated to this, with short anecdotes from footballers, such as World Cup winners Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi, as well as the story of how the shoe conquered the runways of Milan. “Legend has it that the two major watershed crossover moments were Giorgio Armani wearing the Silvers when he went out to take a bow after his show at Milan Fashion Week in February of 1998 and one season later, in September, always in Milan, Dolce and Gabbana using the shoes in their show,” says Morano. “A lot of people remember these two events very clearly but I was never able to find photographic proof and the designers didn’t want to confirm these facts to me.”

Anna Dello Russo, meanwhile, ventures that Italy’s fashion scene adopted the shoe as a reaction to the years of minimalism, by the likes of Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang, which had preceded it. According to her, it was only that style that mattered: “No other sneaker was accepted. It was that model, in that colour (silver), and that was it.” As the shoes began to gain mainstream approval, some of the original wearers ditched their beloved ‘Silvers’ says Morano, but “some people were still so into the aesthetic that they didn’t care.” Littered with colourful anecdotes, Le Silver serves as not only an insight into how a single shoe came to penetrate just about every facet of a nation’s youth culture, but it provides a compelling snapshot of late 90s Italy itself.

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