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.
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.
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.