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What Are Retro Jordans®?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Retro Jordans® are athletic shoes manufactured by Nike as part of its popular Air Jordan® line. The shoes are endorsed by and named after former basketball star Michael Jordan, whose nickname on the court was Air Jordan. The line has gone through many designs since its debut in 1985. When popular designs from the past are revived, they are called Retro Jordans® or simply Retros. The word retro is a neologism meaning from the past.

In the early 1980s, the shoe manufacturer Nike sought the endorsement of Jordan, then a rising star on the Chicago Bulls basketball team. As Jordan’s fame increased, the shoes bearing his name became popular items in America and around the world. New designs were launched each year, many of them created by designer Tinker Hatfield. Filmmaker Spike Lee, a basketball fan, contributed a series of popular TV commercials to promote the line. By 2010, more than two dozen distinct designs had been added to the Air Jordan® line, which had been spun off from Nike into a separate corporate brand.

The Air Jordan® sneaker was not without controversy; the colorful shoes violated National Basketball Association regulations at the time they were introduced. Jordan was fined $5,000 US Dollars (USD) every time he wore the shoes in a game, a penalty the wealthy player and his sponsors could easily afford. During the 1990s, Nike also caused controversy for employing sweatshops and child labor in its overseas manufacturing plants. Despite these drawbacks, the Air Jordan® proved so popular that older designs were often revived and reissued. This was the origin of Retro Jordans®.

Retro Jordans® were part of an overall trend in marketing and advertising to bring back popular designs from the past. The shoes were the footwear equivalent of a soft-drink manufacturer bringing back an older bottle design or a movie studio relaunching a classic horror franchise. Most of the Air Jordans® Nike produced during Jordan’s sports career were eventually brought back in retro designs. Fans and collectors of the shoe often say that a particular design has been retro’ed or retro’d.

There are several sub-styles of Retro Jordans®. Retros themselves are nearly identical to the original shoe design. Retro-pluses are similar to the originals, but also include more modern touches, such as logos or insoles. Colorways are retro designs with new coloring, often inspired by a cross-marketing promotion with a film, car, or sports team. Jordan himself retired from basketball in 2003, but the popular shoe line remains in production as of 2011.

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