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Your complete guide to the Nike Air Presto, the iconic running sneakers that ruled the 2000s

We tend to limit our sneaker vocabulary to the Air Jordan or the Air Force 1, but just as worthy of being talked about is the Nike Air Presto.

The trainers are one of the many styles birthed in the ’90s, when Nike was on the forefront of sneaker innovation. Over the last couple of years, the sportswear giant has made a habit of reviving some of those archival sneakers, like the Air Huarache and the Air Max 90. Now, it’s clear that the Swoosh is giving the Air Prestos the same treatment.

This is great news for anyone who’s old enough to remember the sneakers, which are celebrated for their superior level of comfort and fit. And it’s an opportunity for newer Nike fans to diversify their collection, especially since the brand has a slew of special Air Presto releases in the pipeline.

If you’d like to know what exactly put the “Presto” in these iconic trainers, read on for a history lesson.

“T-shirt for your feet”

An early sketch of the Air Presto sneakers. (Photo credit: Nike)
An early sketch of the Air Presto sneakers (Photo credit: Nike)

At the turn of the century, Nike designer Tobie Hatfield (yes, that’s Tinker Hatfield’s brother) was looking to create the perfect shoes for runners. He came up with the first Nike Air Presto prototype in 1996.

Its most distinctive feature was the V-notch, a carved-out area by the ankle. It was meant to improve the heel fit, but a test run revealed that it also allowed the sneakers to stretch and be filled out by its wearers’ feet — without compromising comfort.

Over the next few years, Hatfield would continue to refine the runners. He gave them sock-like uppers made from space mesh, a fabric that wasn’t yet widely used in sneaker design. But it offered plenty of stretch and breathability, the latter being something that neoprene, used in the Air Huarache, lacked.

The sneakers would also sport other unconventional features: a raised toe bumper; a midfoot cage inspired by the casings of the Apple iMac G3 computers; and a clothing-inspired sizing system that ran from XXXS to XXXL, granting the shoes the tagline, “T-shirt for the Foot”.

The OG colourways

The 2000 Air Presto campaign (Photo credit: Nike)

In 2000, Nike launched the Air Presto after choosing from over 300 possible names submitted by the design team, “one of which was Presto Magic,” said Hatfield. “When you put the shoe on, it fits so perfectly that it’s almost like a magician saying: ‘Presto’.”

Nike used the same approach when coming up with the names of the 13 colourways they unveiled that year: Brutal Honey, Trouble at Home, Unholy Cumulus, Shady Milkman, Rabid Panda, Orange Monk, Jack Mackerel, Migraine Fly, Presto Bill, Catfight Shiner, Rogue Kielbasas, Abdominal Snowman. Some of them, like Abdominal Snowman and Trouble at Home, were the first sneakers in the world to feature digitally-printed graphics.

The Air Presto was marketed as unconventionally as it was made. Instead of showing off the athletic performance of the shoes, Nike launched a series of ads featuring quirky animated characters that reflected each sneaker style.

Nike meets… Hello Kitty?

Nike x Hello Kitty Air Presto (Photo credit: GOAT)

As many Instagram pop culture pages are now uncovering, the 2000s were full of weird and wacky crossovers. The Air Presto was not immune to this. In 2004, Nike teamed up with Sanrio to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Hello Kitty. The result was the Hello Kitty x Air Presto sneakers, designed by Steven Smith and Fragment’s Hiroshi Fujiwara. The shoes were unabashedly covered in a print of the iconic Japanese cartoon.

In 2008, the Air Prestos were also used to market the Sex and the City: The Movie, a spin-off of the hit TV series that was more closely linked to another shoe brand: Manolo Blahnik. The sneakers came with black neoprene uppers, a shimmering silver Swoosh on the midsole, and a bright pink Sex and the City logo on the heel.

The streetwear connection

Nike x Off-White Air Presto "Polar Opposites"
Nike x Off-White Air Presto “Polar Opposites” (Photo credit: Nike)

Hiroshi Fujiwara wouldn’t be the only streetwear icon to leave his mark on the Air Presto. In the 2010s, the sneakers would be remixed by the designers of cult German techwear label Acronym, as well as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.

The version of Air Prestos that most sneakerheads would know, though, is the one designed by Virgil Abloh for his coveted Nike collaboration. Released in 2018 as part of his “The Ten” pack, the Nike x Off-White Air Presto “Polar Opposites” came in black and white colourways, featuring Abloh’s signature zip-tie and “AIR” branding details. Naturally, both styles sold out instantly.

The Air Presto revival

Nike Air Presto "Origins" (Photo credit: Nike)
Nike Air Presto “Origins” (Photo credit: Nike)

Two decades after their debut, Nike has been forging a new chapter for its magic sneakers. In 2020, it offered fans the futuristic Air Presto Ultra Flyknit sneakers, the lightest version of the kicks yet. It reissued the “Australia” edition, which were originally designed for the Australian athletes at the 2000 Summer Olympics. And it ended the year with the “Origins” edition, featuring all the playful characters from Nike’s iconic Air Presto ads.

There’s even more in store this year. Besides unveiling cleaner, contemporary styles, or hinting at a re-release of the Hello Kitty collaboration, Nike is also celebrating the 21st anniversary of its Air Prestos with a “What The?” edition.

Nike Air Presto "What The?" sneakers
Nike Air Presto “What The?” (Photo credit: Nike)

The new sneakers feature a bold mash-up of all the OG colourways, spread out across both shoes: the left shoe is darker, with a lightning graphic on the front, while the right one features colour-blocking with vibrant panels in red, yellow and blue.

The Nike Air Presto “What The?” edition (S$209) will be launching this Friday, 27 August. In Singapore, you can get it through Nike SNKRs, or enter a draw on End Clothing. If you’re looking to start your Air Presto collection, this is the perfect pair to do so with.


Header photo credit: Nike

Your complete guide to the Nike Air Presto, the iconic running sneakers that ruled the 2000s

Pameyla Cambe

Senior Writer

Pameyla Cambe is a fashion and jewellery writer who believes that style and substance shouldn't be mutually exclusive. She makes sense of the world through Gothic novels, horror films and music. Lots of music.

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