A Brief History Of Airwalk’s Importance in Skateboarding

Airwalk.TH.Sequence

Long before becoming a Payless staple and pariah brand, Airwalk boasted a heavy-hitting team and released shoes skateboarders actually wanted to wear. If you got a pair of Airwalks from your out-of-touch but well-meaning grandmother for Christmas last year, you were most likely sad and irritated, but in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it would have been a much different story.

Airwalk was founded in 1986, the brainchild of George Yohn and Bill Mann. Yohn, no stranger to the footwear business, and Mann, an art student with a background in athletic gear, wanted to create longer-lasting and better-functioning shoes for skateboarders. Neither Mann nor Yohn were skateboarders; rather, the inspiration for the look, construction, and overall aesthetic of Airwalk would come out of observation: Mann would scout skateparks, watching the ways skaters did their tricks and how they damaged their shoes. Options for skaters were slim in those days and Yohn and Mann knew there was a market to tap into.

And they were right. By the mid-90s, Airwalk was making hundreds of millions of dollars a year and had successfully entered into the European market, further increasing profits. In 1996, Airwalk’s advertising budget was 40 million dollars, the fifth largest in the athletic shoe industry at the time.

Regardless of Airwalk’s current filing under “totally fucking whack”, there remains a history and period of relevance that should not be overlooked. In the late ‘80s, Airwalk’s primary focus was vert skating, releasing models like the Disaster, Velocity, Enigma, and Prototype. All of these were what you would expect of that era: high-top, crazy patterns, and loud colors. And talk about a stacked team – during the late ‘80s, skateboard superstars like Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi, Lester Kasai, Tony Magnusson, and Mike McGill all skated for Airwalk.

With vert’s popularity on the decline, the early ‘90s saw Airwalk shift its focus to street skating, reflected in its team and footwear design. No longer did you see the giant, multi-colored hi-tops of the late ‘80s, replaced by slimmer, simpler shoes like the Jim Shoe, 86, Solo 2 and iconic One model. These shoes were simple, durable, and functional, similar to the early Etnies models like the Screw, Rap, and Scam. Airwalk continued its tradition of sponsoring the best skateboarders of the era. Eric Koston, Andrew Reynolds, Jason Lee (yes, the guy from My Name is Earl), Geoff Rowley, Steve Berra, Pat Duffy, and Jeremy Klein all rode for Airwalk during the mid- to late-’90s. Even more underground guys like Ricky Oyola, Jesse Paez, Matt Pailes, Wade Speyer, and Tom Knox (the first one) had a spot on the team at some point.

Tony.Hawk.Airwalk.Shoe

Airwalk would release two promos in the mid-90s: Skateboard Video ‘95 and Skateboard Video ‘96. These meta-titled offerings were both short in length and featured montages flanked by random skits. Jamie Mosberg, lensman behind Birdhouse’s The End, filmed both of Airwalk’s ‘90s offerings, showcasing not only a ripping but pretty diverse team. Airwalk seemed to sponsor not only well-known southern California guys like Reynolds, Berra, and Koston, but northern California shredders like Justin Strubing, Nanda Zipp, and Jaya Bonderov (RIP).

The Jason Lee and Tony Hawk models were the only two pro models released during Airwalk’s skateboarding heyday. Both of these shoes were clean and simple, with suede uppers, grippy gum soles and modest logo placement. Andy MacDonald would later receive a pro model in 2001 that looked like a spaceship, but less functional and definitely not something you would want to ride in. Andy Macdonald remains the sole rider – err, “ambassador” – on the skate team.

There are a lot of parallels between Airwalk and its main rival, Vans. Both have sponsored some of the most popular skateboarders and have released iconic shoes. Both expanded to markets outside of skateboarding – surfing, snowboarding, BMX – and both have had great mainstream success. Yet, Vans still remains an important brand amongst skateboarders, namely because it still gives a shit about skateboarding. Vans maintains a skate team, does demos, puts on events, releases skate media on a regular basis, and invests a lot of time resources into maintaining a presence in the skateboard industry.

In an effort to boost sales, Airwalk sought to expand beyond the skateboarding market and to cement a place as a brand relevant to all youth, regardless of their hobbies and interests. In this sense, Airwalk was like an inverse Nike: Nike, an established mainstream brand wanted to break into skateboarding, and has wildly succeeded; Airwalk wanted to climb out of its niche market, and it has also succeeded, but at a price.

Jason.Lee.Airwalk.Pro.Model

Nowadays you can find Airwalk shoes at any Big 5, Modell’s, or Payless Shoe Store – giant, cheaply-made hunks of plastic and rubber, former husks of what they used to represent. What was once a relevant and respected brand is now just the official shoe of “that weird dude you work with,” and beneath a superficial commitment to “action sports culture”, has nothing to do with skateboarding.

But with the early ‘90s resurgence in full swing, Airwalk may make a comeback in skateboarding – maybe not with the canvas clunkers available today, but who knows what ancient artifacts are out there, sitting in a dark and dusty warehouse waiting to see the light of day via eBay. Many of their second-wave shoes have the potential for revival, especially the Solo 2 and 86 models. If you were somehow able to dredge up a pair of either of those to go with your highwaters and pink pastel-colored hat, you’d be the envy of many a ‘90s-obsessed, teenage skateboarder. Only time will tell.

Comments

  1. C-Dawg

    May 19, 2016 12:02am

    Dis shit is the bomb yo!

    Reply
    • Joel Weichbrodt

      May 19, 2016 4:14am

      We certainly think so! It’s important to know your history.

  2. Niles Hafler

    May 19, 2016 1:45pm

    And I thought I was the only one who knew about Airwalk’s involvement in skating. My dad used to talk about his mustard yellow NTS’s and how they seemed to last forever. Shit, he had for 2 years!

    Reply
  3. nonickname

    May 19, 2016 10:14pm

    Habitat released a shoe a few years back (maybe a guru?) that was a dead ringer for the 86 low, did a double take when I first saw it.

    Reply
  4. Karl W

    May 20, 2016 12:34am

    I have 1 pair each size of the green Jason Lee pictured. Contact if interested. Also many others From 1994 1996.

    Reply
    • ben

      May 22, 2016 3:39am

      Please email as 10-11 pics, rock on ty

    • Joel Weichbrodt

      May 22, 2016 7:17pm

      Karl and Ben,
      Your required e-mail address doesn’t accompany your comment publicly. You’ll have to leave it in the comment for it to show to the other, or request it from us if you don’t feel comfortable doing that.

  5. Vic

    May 20, 2016 3:59am

    A deeper dive into their history, including Sinisa.

    http://www.boardistan.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/airwalkstory.pdf

    Reply
  6. Adele's butt

    May 20, 2016 9:54am

    “Giant, cheaply made hunks of plastic…”, definitely thought you were talking about Nike there.

    Reply
  7. eric

    May 20, 2016 10:44am

    I wonder if they’re doing better financially with or without skateboarding. A company couldn’t give a shit about some small saturated market like skate shoes if they could break the mainstream.

    Reply
    • Ripped Laces Staff

      May 21, 2016 4:41pm

      Interesting point, very curious about this too now that you mention it. I mean, it doesn’t look like they’re hurting if they’re still around, no?

    • Mayor Grimble

      May 23, 2016 4:19pm

      Yes I believe you’re referring to the “Bye Felicia” theory.

  8. Thomas

    May 20, 2016 2:03pm

    about 5 years ago, Airwalk was doing some reissues of their more popular team models (Jims, Ones, etc.) that looked to be of much better quality than the payless stuff. Unfortunately i don’t think any of it sold very well because of the payless associations and the whole line has been axed.

    Reply
  9. tomisrad

    May 24, 2016 2:53am

    The ones, the Blammo, the Jason Lee and Tony Hawks were my favorite shoes!!!! So grippy and all suede. THe re-released ones a few years ago were rad, I am sad I skated my all navy pair. If you can find them, they are worth getting!

    Reply
  10. nubro

    May 24, 2016 8:15pm

    Geoff Rowley had a pro model on Airwalk too.

    Reply
  11. Jordick

    May 25, 2016 4:38am

    It would be amazing if there was a Sorry Low reissue

    Reply
  12. fingaz

    July 3, 2016 1:43am

    I must admit, I do like the look of the airwalk neptunes

    Reply
  13. nubro

    July 11, 2016 7:27pm

    and Berra.

    Reply
  14. Jaimie

    January 8, 2017 7:34am

    Actually, Bill Mann and his 12-year old son came up with the idea for Airwalk. George Yohn was the money partner but was almost completely uninvolved due to health issues until about 1991. Then he forced Bill Mann out of the company, and attempted to take it mainstream because he hated purple haired tattooed pierced skateboard freaks. After abandoning the customers who made him millions, they ramped up the advertising and got the shoes into more mainstream stores. But they didn’t sell through very well and fell hard and fast in the late nineties. Bill Mann deserves all the credit for the success and George deserves all the credit for the failure.

    Reply

Leave a comment