An auspicious meeting
In December 2016, legendary designer and founder of Off-White Virgil Abloh attended a meeting at the Nike HQ in Beaverton, Oregon. He had a reverence for the brand that was built upon his childhood admiration for Michael Jordan and the Air Jordan 1. He had even sent sketches of his own AJ1-inspired designs to Nike as a kid, and now, here he stood in the centre of the company’s operations. Abloh could’ve been forgiven for being overawed by the situation, but if there’s one thing that defined this visionary creative, it was his steadfast belief in his own talents. He immediately launched into his unique artistic process, using an X-Acto knife to slice into one of Nike’s most well-regarded silhouettes, the Air Force 1 Low, in order to spark ideas for the collaboration. Nike couldn’t help but be impressed, and a new project was begun – The Ten: Icons Reconstructed by Virgil Abloh.
Fostering creative diversity
The collaboration involved a reworking of ten culturally significant sneakers, nine by Nike and one by Nike-owned Converse. Through Abloh’s hands-on approach, they were deconstructed using simple tools, such as his knife and a marker pen, with elements being altered, moved and removed to showcase each shoe’s essential features and functions, all while maintaining its core look. He worked remarkably quickly, and the collection was officially announced in August 2017, less than a year after that first meeting. During the intervening months, Abloh had partnered with Nike VP of Footwear Design Andy Caine to develop the concept behind the set. Caine followed Nike’s belief in fostering creative diversity as he worked together with Abloh to build a collaboration that brought about a result greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Ten iconic sneakers; two themes
In its August 21st announcement, Nike described The Ten project as “a collaborative exploration of 10 Nike footwear silhouettes” and laid out the concepts for the designs. The shoes were separated into two sets of five, each one with its own theme. The first was called “REVEALING” and included new-look versions of the Jordan 1, the Air Max 90, the Air Presto, the Air VaporMax and the Blazer Mid. Each had a reconstructed look with hand-cut and open-source design elements establishing them as part of this unique collection. The second five sneakers were created under a theme known as “GHOSTING” that was reflected in the use of translucent uppers. This feature sought to build upon the subject of revelation and served to galvanise the set under the umbrella of a single partially see-through material, thus bringing together the 94-year history of the five shoes it was made up of: the Converse Chuck Taylor, the Nike Zoom Fly SP, the Nike Air Force 1, the Nike React Hyperdunk 2017 and the Nike Air Max 97.
An era-defining designer
As well as revealing the details of the models to be used in the collaboration, Nike delved into Virgil Abloh’s history and what led him to create The Ten. It spoke of his varied inspirations, which melded an educational background in architecture, engineering and Bauhaus design with an interest in athletic footwear, album cover artwork from both rock and hip hop artists, and graffiti. His unconventional approach and tendency to infuse his designs with handcrafted components became clear in the very first meeting between Abloh and Nike, and the AF1s he created there led to more handmade versions, some of which were worn by Off-White staff members at the Design Miami/ fair in that same month. Little did the attendees know that they were getting a sneak peek of one of the most captivating sneaker collections of all time.
A quick turnaround
Following Abloh’s initial meeting, Matt Kilgore, son of the AF1’s original designer, Bruce, fashioned 12 more Air Force 1s in the reconstructed style established by Abloh, thus setting the tone for The Ten. Abloh’s hands-on style and strong work ethic led to one of the fastest ever of Nike’s many collaborations, being completed in a mere 10 months. Abloh explained that “Most of the creative decisions were made in the first three hours, while actual design and iteration took two to three days.” This high-speed process even included a single session in which the Jordan 1 was completed from start to finish. This was all aided by Abloh’s decisive vision and his ability to work in a “dream-like state” which allowed him to visualise what he wanted and create it immediately thereafter.
Respect for the art
Abloh’s respect for Nike’s design history was clear throughout the design process as he considered the ten silhouettes he had been working on to be “on the same level as a sculpture of David or the Mona Lisa”, explaining that they had all “broken barriers in performance and style”. Nevertheless, he was unafraid in his deconstruction of each one. He played with the locations of the swoosh, added splashes of colour, revealed the foam in the tongue and even added tongue-in-cheek text in Off-White’s signature Helvetica font, such as the word “Air” on the AM97, VaporMax, AF1, Presto and AJ1, “Vulcanized” on the Converse and “Foam” on the Hyperdunk and Vaporfly. Even more humorous was the use of the word “Shoelaces” on the laces and “Zip Tie” on the zip ties that were attached to them – a signature feature of Off-White’s own sneakers.
Inspiring the youth
This entire process was undertaken to embody the Just Do It mentality of the Nike brand and to make designs that gave an insight into the creative process, something Abloh considered to be far more interesting than simply seeing the finished product. He hoped that his creations would inspire young designers by showing them that, with simple tools like a marker pen and a knife, they could craft their own individual sneakers, thus helping them to develop an understanding of design.
Brand new models
Several of the sneakers Abloh worked on had not even been officially released by Nike at the time the project began. These included the Nike Zoom Fly SP, the React Hyperdunk 2017 and the Air VaporMax. While the first two had similar predecessors that Abloh used as inspiration, such as Breaking2’s Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, the VaporMax was a brand new innovation. This offered Abloh the opportunity to create something totally unique.
A special connection
Ultimately, what became clear as the collaboration evolved was the incredible connection between the brand and Virgil Abloh, as well as the admiration the pair had for each other. This could be seen both in Nike’s willingness to allow Abloh creative freedom during the project and in the words of Abloh himself when he said that he “wanted to underscore how the design system and manufacturing of Nike are so perfect”. In his reworking of these definitive sneakers, he had a desire to build a similar connection by accentuating the handmade aspect of the shoes to intensify “the human element” and expand “the emotional connection of these 10 icons”.
Nike Off Campus
In its August announcement, Nike also wrote about its celebratory release events to be held in New York City and London throughout September. Called “Nike Off Campus”, the brand described it as “a destination for the advancement of sport, design and innovation”. Each event involved presentations of The Ten and talks by Abloh and Caine, as well as other artists and designers. Abloh saw this as another opportunity to inspire the youth and educate them about Nike’s history, stating that he “wanted to give people the actual information, allow them to see what year these shoes are from, and how they place in the overall history of the brand.” This desire to educate might be why he printed each sneaker with the words “Off-White for Nike” alongside the name of the shoe, the location of Nike’s HQ and the year of the original model’s first release.
Along with all this information, the launch dates for all the designs were printed – the REVEALING set would be pre-released at Nikelab stores in New York, London, Milan and Paris throughout September, while the full collection would be available at a select number of stores worldwide from November. Below this, pictures of each design were arranged beside one of Virgil Abloh and another two showing him working on the designs with his markers in hand.
Teasing The Ten
On its release, The Ten was a huge success, selling out almost immediately. Given Abloh’s colossal reputation as a designer, this may come as no surprise. Indeed, little hype was required before the collection came out, with much of the work being done by Abloh himself wearing the shoes to events like the Met Gala in May 2017, where he teased his Air Jordan 1 design. He also handed out early models to celebrities from a range of disciplines, including Roger Federer, Bella Hadid, Naomi Campbell, Drake, Travis Scott and Neymar, which brought further attention to them, especially when some were shown wearing them in social media images. Michael Jordan, who personally endorsed The Ten’s Air Jordan 1, got his own pair, while contemporary basketball player Draymond Green wore Abloh’s Nike React Hyperdunk 2017 as he played in the season opening game for his team, the Golden State Warriors, in October 2017. An early version of the Converse Chuck Taylor was also given to Kim Jones, despite its release being postponed until May of the following year. The reason for this delay is still a mystery, but Converse stated that they were simply making small tweaks to the design while trying to maintain Abloh’s creative vision for the shoe. Either way, it gave fans of The Ten something more to look forward to once the other nine had come out.
An educational appearance
On his own Instagram page, Abloh published just one post between the initial launch of the REVEALING collection in September and the release of the full collection in November. Appearing on October 27th, it showed a single image of him standing over an open suitcase, sifting through different Nike shoes, some of which were items from The Ten. There was no comment, but the tag showed “Harvard Graduate School of Design”. In fact, this picture was from a lecture called “Insert Complex Title Here”, which the masterful designer delivered to students at the school around that time. In it, he encouraged them to find their own creative voices, handing out some models from The Ten to provide inspiration and show them what could be achieved. In the picture, he himself is wearing a pair of the Air Force 1s from the collection.
The Ten goes global
A couple of weeks later, on November 14th, to coincide with the worldwide release of the whole collection, he posted two pictures. One showed a guy holding a large image of Abloh at work with a bunch of half-finished Nike models on the table in front of him. He was writing on one of the shoes, thus displaying his hands-on design approach. The second image was a close up of the picture showing a caption that had been drawn above his head. It read “Dover Street Market”. This referred to the multi-label fashion store that sells pieces by some of the most sought after brands, such as Comme des Garcons. It was another teaser as no text was written, but those in the know would have realised that this was one of the places where the shoes could be bought, with the tag designating it as the store in Singapore. There was actually a raffle held on the store’s website for people looking to get hold of models from the collection. In fact, most of the shoes were released in raffles, with only a select few getting to purchase a pair and others hoping to get their hands on those which went on general release online.
The remarkable Air Jordan 1
Following this, the collection had an instant impact, as Abloh’s Air Jordan 1 won Shoe of the Year at the 2017 Footwear News Achievement Awards. The AJ1 model was probably the most desired of The Ten, with Caine praising Abloh for the depth he brought to the shoe and describing it as something “completely new yet completely familiar”. This popularity also shows up today in the prices the shoe fetches on resale sites. While most of the models go for more than £1,000 per pair, the Jordan brings in several thousand and has been seen online for more than ten times the original price. But this may never have happened had it not been for a last minute design change.
Abloh had originally sought to unite all ten shoes through an off-white colour as a connection to his Off-White label. However, just a few days before the manufacturing process was due to begin, Abloh saw someone wearing a pair of sneakers that resembled his AJ1. The only problem was that he couldn’t work out if they were Dunks or AJ1s. In a lightbulb moment, he realised that the most iconic thing about a pair of shoes is often the colourway, which was particularly true for the first Air Jordan 1, whose black and red design took the world by storm in the 80s. He asked Caine to add red and black to the design, a change which Nike was able to accommodate. Later, Abloh remarked that he wondered what would have happened if the original idea had gone through, believing that the shoe would have “missed the mark”.
Fortunately, we will never know, and more than five years after it was first released, Sotheby’s listed a pair for $14,000 on its website. Given that an April 2022 auction of the whole collection was estimated at $30-40,000, this is an incredible achievement for one single model. The Sotheby’s auction in which all ten shoes were sold was entitled “Modern Collectibles”, and boasted that the set was possibly the only complete one available. In fact, considering how difficult it was to get hold of any one pair on release, it is almost unbelievable that all ten were on sale together. Even more surprising was the fact that they were all unused and in their original boxes.
Putting pen to paper
Following the success of their first collaboration, Nike and Virgil Abloh continued to work together, producing new models inspired by The Ten as well as many other Nike x Off-White offerings. The legacy of the collection that started it all has never gone away though. Years after its release, it was still so culturally significant that Abloh decided to write a book about it. He teased the book’s release on his Instagram page on January 11th, 2021, via a picture of the green-covered volume in a box with the publisher’s name, Taschen, on it. The comment described the book as a “printed documentary of the @Off___White @Nike project”, stating that it provides an insight into the production of those already made as well as offering a “window into all the ones to come”. The designer also explained that most of the images were unavailable elsewhere, giving the book a feeling of exclusivity, before going on to show his support for local and indie bookstores, which he described as “vital” and “hubs of the community and culture”. As a result, he said that Nike and the team at architecture firm and think tank, Architecture, which was founded by Abloh and helped release the book, would provide select bookstores with free copies. These stores, which were listed underneath his comment, were to be the only places fans of the series could buy the book from 12th January until its global release on 22nd January.
Another post followed several months later, on 23rd April, 2021. This time, it showed three images – one of the book, another of shoes from the collection and a third of several copies of the book opened up to show what was inside. The comment explained that the book was about the logic and “never before seen process” of the collaboration. It has garnered over 65,000 likes to this day, showing the popularity of The Ten even so many years after its release.
Documenting a unique design process
The book was called “Icons” and had the words “Something’s Off” printed on the front cover alongside a thin Nike swoosh and a quote from Abloh: “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself.” This reveals his desire to help and inspire those young designers who, like him, needed help and inspiration to develop their talents. Icons was a big part of this as, according to the Taschen website, it goes into detail on the “engineering ingenuity” of the project and Abloh’s “investigative design process”.
Featuring a Swiss binding with an open spine to emulate the revealing philosophy of The Ten, the book also describes how he used “lettering, ironic labels, collage, and sculpting techniques” to reinvigorate the ten designs while also giving them new meaning. It was split into two parts, catalogue and conceptual toolbox, in which intimate images, such as prototypes from the collection and original text messages sent between the designers, were shared along with a broader look at sneakers and sneaker culture. As well as text from Virgil himself, it also incorporated sections by Nike’s Nicholas Schonberger and other guest writers, while another Nike collaborator, Hiroshi Fujiwara, produced the foreword.
A lasting legacy
In Virgil Abloh, Nike had found a designer with the perfect combination of attributes: raw talent, stunning vision, a fearless nature and a strong creative spirit. These qualities allowed him to redefine the rules of fashion and design as he manifested a project that represented, in his words, the “democracy of how design explores the world”. His efforts culminated in ten shoes that had a lasting impact on sneaker culture and continue to influence young designers to this day. For its part, Nike could have been defensive of its designs and restricted Abloh’s work, but the brand was so enamoured with him that he was given the freedom to “find new space” through the partnership. All of this made The Ten a comprehensive set of iconic sneakers and one of the most storied collaborations ever to have existed. Abloh once said, “You can’t set out to make an icon. Culture returns it to you.” He may not have set out to make an icon, but the culture certainly returned many of them to him, ensuring that The Ten project endures as an homage to the lasting legacy of the great designer.