Nike Air Presto | A Concise History

The story of the Nike Air Presto isn’t your typical design story, but a quest to create a shoe built for running, with the comfort of a house slipper. The story begins in 1996, when Tobie Hatfield (Nike Senior Director of Athlete Innovation) set out to meet the ever-growing demand of a running shoe their “feet didn’t fight” and were fit for purpose whilst looking stylish. The initial prototype was a size 9 trainer, featuring a revolutionary “V-notch” designed to suit the shape of the human foot for a better fit. 

In a bid to gain unbiased feedback, his colleague was set the task of test running the original Presto, but what Hatfield hadn’t mentioned was that the prototype was actually two sizes too small for the wearer. What he didn’t expect was the surprised reaction his colleague had when being informed that the shoe was far too small. This led Hatfield to completely rethink the way we perceive shoe sizing, and instead applied the same approach we have to t-shirts, giving the customer a more universal range of sizes to choose from. This sparked the Nike team to market the product as a “T-shirt for the foot”.

The Presto had been put to one side whilst Nike focused on the release of other iconic designs, including the Air Gauntlet (1998) and the Air Zoom Drive (1999) which were the perfect testing ground for comfort and performance technology. The Presto design was revisited in 2000, when the team finally nailed down a stretchy material for the upper of the shoe; spacer mesh. This material had previously only been used in a medical context, but Hatfiled pushed for a material that shared the same stretch-fit properties as neoprene, without the insulation properties to allow the feet to breathe. This led the “V-notch” to be redesigned so the arching on the foot was less extreme. After struggling to come up with a name, suggestions were welcomed from the design and development team, and after 300 submissions were received the brand decided on “Presto” as the shoes fitted the feet like magic.

Once the design and the name had been signed off, the marketing team set to work on one of the most revolutionary concepts in modern sportswear; assigning an eye-catching illustrated avatar to each available colourway, then creating an animated short for each of the 13 colours. The tongue-in-cheek nature of these ads, coupled with memorable names including “Rabid Panda”, “Shady Milkman” and “Catfight Shiner” and high pitched voiceover used; the Presto was on everyone’s mind. 

Since the original campaign, Nike has paid homage to these characters, creating the “origins” collection including a design with each character printed on the upper, as well as the “What The” collection in 2021 that consisted of a miss-matched pair with a different OG colour showcased on the various elements of the Presto’s structure.

The iconic ads didn’t stop there, with the “Angry Chicken” advert released in 2002 which features Parkour expert Sebastian Foucan (the first person to coin the term “free running”) being chased across the buildings of Cannes, France by a furious chicken. This was the first time Parkour was featured on mainstream television, and helped spark the massive popularity of the sport seen in the mid to late 2000’s.

Since the original model, the Presto has seen collaborations from high fashion to childhood icons, including a super rare Hello Kitty concept that never actually made it to mainstream release and was only produced 12 pairs for friends and family in 2004. Nike has been rumoured to be revisiting the design this year, with a large question mark over a release date. Other brands that the Presto has been reimagined by include the incredibly popular OFF-WHITE design by Virgil Abloh (2017) and lead to becoming one of the most sought after styles in his “Ten” collection. 

ACRONYM (2016) put a technical spin on the running shoe by creating a mid-top sneakerboot hybrid with the addition of a side zip for added wearability, selling out shortly after their release. Perhaps the most heartwarming of the collaborations, was the 2017 Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Presto X, with a clean slip-on fastening decorated by three former patients of the hospital. Nike donated all the proceeds from these styles to the Children’s Hospital.

The Presto has a strong legacy behind it, and has no signs of slowing down any time soon. Shop the latest styles of Air Presto on Wellgosh, with two vibrant colourways to choose from and many more to come.

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