Nike’s Latest Flagship Sneaker, the Dn, Proves It’s Time To Move Past Air Max

Despite all the advertising, the new Dn already feels outdated.

The New York Sun

When Nike introduced Air Max in 1987, with Tinker Hatfield’s Air Max One, it was a revelation. Nike had put pockets of air within the midsoles of their shoes before, but now it was a big unit, visible through the side of the shoe; and it was iconic. Not only did it look fantastic, but it was more comfortable, more responsive, and more athletic than competing technologies. Reebok’s ‘pump’ was flamboyant but made no practical impact on the shoe. Air was the real deal, and Air Max was synonymous with sneaker innovation; and that’s what Nike wants to emphasize with this year’s new signature show, the $160 Air Max Dn,  which they’ve advertised heavily.

Courtesy Nike

It’s a great looking shoe, particularly in the pale silver color that I bought my pair in, along with the signature, more athletic black-and-purple colorway; and the signature visual element is the ‘visible air,’ courtesy of four tubes in the heel. This is actually a single bag, only visually split into tubes, but using a unique shape, that means — working with midsole foam and a TPU shank — that the air has different pressure across it, and reacts with the movement of your foot.

‘Air’ technology. Courtesy Complex
The ‘air’ technology close up. Courtesy Complex

The vice president of footwear innovation at Nike, Kathy Gomez, told Brendan Dunne of Complex that this system was “the holy grail” of Nike cushioning, and that they were chasing “that dream of walking on air.” 

It sounds great; but the Air Max = innovation association has really hamstrung Nike. This is what some in marketing call the “dollar menu problem.” Namely, marketing that an item costs just a single buck may be successful at the time at which it’s introduced, but as time passes and inflation kicks in, the quality will have to drop to maintain the price, or the price will have to rise. Either way, the customer is disappointed. 

Ross Anderson

Similarly, Air Max used to be synonymous with the bleeding edge of footwear innovation, because the underlying ‘air’ technology was the most innovative platform in footwear. But, 40 years have passed and it isn’t close to being innovative anymore; and so, despite being a brand new shoe, marketed around innovative tech, the Dn is built on a 40 year old platform, and feels it.

Nike’s work has made it far softer underfoot compared to its classic retro Air Max sneakers — at least in that cushioned rear — but it’s far less comfortable than shoes from Hoka, New Balance, On Running and Adidas, which aren’t so constrained and instead use innovative, superior foams. Even some models in Nike’s own running range — namely, those derived from their marathon-beating Vaporfly Next% — are far more comfortable for walking around, because they aren’t restrained by the legacy of ‘air’, and instead use carbon shanks and foams. 

The Air Max Dn women’s shoe. Courtesy Nike

Nike’s one advantage is that the Dn is less expensive compared to these competitors — they’re $40 cheaper than the most comfortable walking shoes on the market, the New Balance Made in USA 990v6 — and they also have more cultural cache in cities like London, or Sydney. But if I were to choose one, the 990v6 beats them every time; and those have six different width options, more and better colorways, and are often on sale.

The long and short of it is, if Nike wants to bring back the original, innovation-first spirit of Air Max, there’s only one thing they can do: get rid of the air.

The New York Sun

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