How the Nike Footscape became a cult favourite in Japan

08.09.23 General

Footscape fans are freaking out right now as Nike prepares to resurrect its Nike Air Footscape Woven, which makes its return to retailers at the end of this month. So far, the American footwear giant has confirmed two reissues: a ‘Black’ and ‘Cow Print’ – both of which come complete with the original signature asymmetrical lacing system along the upper and a chunky midsole infused with Air tech for extra comfort and bounce. There are also rumours of collaborations this year, including Sacai’s Magmascape and Bephie’s Beauty Supply x Union LA x Air Jordan 1, which are heightening anticipation surrounding its return.

But of course, the hype hasn’t come without the hate. As any seasoned sneakerhead will tell you, the Air Footscape has a chequered history in sneaker lore. A unique and eye-catching model, the Footscape has been divisive from the start. Designed by Tory Orzeck (also responsible for the Air Moc, and developing Nike Foamposite technology) and developed by Nike’s Advanced Project Engineering Group, the 1996 oddball asked people to ‘Trust your feet, not your eyes.’ 

True to its strapline, the Footscape didn’t prioritise face value beauty, instead refocusing innovations to improve comfort for the wearer. In an experimental move, Orzeck proposed creating a ‘Footform’ shoe built correctly around the anatomical shape of the foot. While the ergonomic upper and asymmetric lacing system gave way to its perfect ‘form-fitting’ structure, Orzeck’s off-centre orthopaedic lacing system raised eyebrows in the sneaker community. Orzeck told Sneaker Freaker that ‘the Footscape was almost killed as being too risky’ due to its then-zany lacing and link to orthopaedic footwear. 

Today, the iconic system has become the standard for football boot design, alongside plenty of lifestyle models, but almost 30 years ago it was a radical concept for the average sneaker enthusiast to get their head around. This is perhaps why the Footscape, in all its retro releases, new variations and wild colourways has continued to divide opinion, especially in Europe and America, where fans either “love it or hate it.”

In Japan, however, the cultural status of the Footscape is vastly different. Though many attribute the Footscape’s success to the last fitting the wide Japanese foot shape, Manuskript editor Masayuki Ozawa counters this saying its popularity actually stems from the curiosity surrounding the sneakers advanced technology. “The ergonomic concept of the design and its side shoelace system which relieved pressure on the instep was a truly innovative in terms of footwear technology,” says the Tokyo-based sneaker expert.

Ozawa, who has published titles such as “Tokyo Sneaker History” (Rittorsha) and “The 1995 Nike Air Max Shoes” (Chuokoron-Shinsha) says the Footscape arrived at the dawn of high-tech sneakers dropping in Japan at the time. “Although we were gradually getting used to seeing more eccentric designs such as the Reebok Pump Fury and Air Max 95, Japanese fashion in the 90s was still not aggressive and conservative.” In fact, he says the initial drop of Footscape colours weren’t even that popular when they first released in 1996. “If you checked magazines and stores regularly, they were never a shoe you could not afford to buy, partly because the number of sneaker lovers was small compared to now.” 

It wasn’t until the 2nd and 3rd generation of colours arrived that local sneaker heads starting paying attention. The initial lukewarm reception quickly turned into a frenzy as sneakerheads began to dig back into the archives and swooping up the OG pairs they originally slept on – a trend common to all high-tech sneakers released in Japan at the time, according to Ozawa.

The Footscape wasn’t the only hit among Japanese sneakerheads in the late ‘90s. Linus Nutland, founder of London-based Nike specialist reseller @nikeserver, says it was among a handful of models that, in the past, had a cult following in Tokyo’s booming sneaker scene. “Three that come to mind are the Air Woven, the ACG Pocket Knife and the ACG Okwahn,” reveals Nutland. “All three have striking appearances, are incredibly practical and released in striking colourways. The Footscape hits all of these points and then some!”

Nutland cites the craftsmanship behind models like Air Footscape Woven, the 00s’s successor to the OG 96 release, as the main appeal to the Japanese sneakerheads. “It’s a silhouette that has an artisanal feel to it with the woven strip on the upper, which makes this model even more desirable to the Japanese market,” he says, stating how the sneaker likely stood out in Tokyo’s eclectic streetwear scene. “Sneakerheads naturally want to stand out, yet it must be harder to stand out in a vastly populated city like Tokyo, unless you have a more left-field taste. So this is no doubt one of the reasons why these models do so well.”

Its this thirst for innovation, combined with an inherent respect for tradition that makes Japan’s sneaker scene is so interesting, according to @Yoblessed. “The idea of looking forward while appreciating the past,” says the Footscape fanatic (formerly known as krazeefox), whose personal collection focuses purely on original Air Footscapes. His comments support Ozawa’s statements, sumerising that its “Japan’s deep appreciation for left of centre designs and their openness to technical aspects” as to why the Footscape became phenomenon in Japanese sneaker culture.

Among the early adopters of the Footscape was Japanese streetwear legend, Hiroshi Fujiwara. The influential stylist-designer heavily endorsed the Footscape during its formative years, confirming just how vital the sneaker was and establishing a spiritual home of its own in Japan. Ozawa’s recalls the moment, around 1996-97, when The Godfather of streetwear wore the OG blue model, which generated hype in the streets of Uruhara. “At that time, Hiroshi Fujiwara had the influence to instantly sell out a store with just one photo of him wearing a pair,” says Ozawa. He remembers seeing the impact first hand when sneakerheads began switching out “women’s purple colours and men’s green/yellow or black/red” Footscape’s to same OG pair Hiroshi wore. “The introduction of blue by the god of the streets made everyone believe that it was precious.”

Fujiwara not only promoted Footscapes in local style magazines like BOON, but he also helped implement the sneaker within Nike’s “CO.JP” or “Concept Japan” line in the late ‘90s. According to a Jeff Staple interview with Hypebeast, Fujiwara along with Atmos founder Hommyo Hidefumi, helped tap local creatives and retail outposts for special makeups of classic models. Speaking with Marcus Tayui, the man in charge of Nike Japan’s “Energy” marketing, Staple asked “How do you know what’s gonna be the special shoe? He said that he’d often touch base with a guy to determine what’s hot and what’s not. “That guy was Hiroshi Fujiwara. This was pre HTM, pre fragment design x Nike, pre-everything.”

Just as Nike did with the Dunk, AF1 and Air Max, the Footscape was primed with special makeups and shop exclusives with influential Tokyo sneaker stores to integrate the model into Tokyo’s rich sneaker landscape. The limited quantities, released at local concept stores, were quickly snapped up by the city’s relentless collectors. But similarly to how CO.JP’s origins are shrouded in mystery, the specifics of Footscape’s exclusives are somewhat muddled. They weren’t marketed by Nike, instead using natural product marketing to get the word out to the local scene. Much of this information is reserved for the archives of Japanese-style magazines and knowledge among diehard collectors. 

Nutland has been using his Nikeserver platform to uncover the untold stories behind Nike’s obscure relics like the Footscape. They regularly feature oddball Japan-only exclusives like a 2001 pair of Footscapes featuring a wavy-print mesh and textured orange suede toe box. Other gems in their archive include a 1/30 pair of 2006 Nike x Sophnet Air Footscape Woven FCRB. “The “F.C.R.B.” Nike Air Woven Footscape released in just 30 pairs for Nike’s ‘Joga Bonito’ event in Tokyo in 2006,” explains the founders of Nike Server. They go on to reveal that the shoe created by Sophnet founder, Hirofumi Kiyonaga, mimics the eight iterations of the Nike Air Woven Footscape World Cup pack also released in 2006. “These are unfathomably rare and sought after. Can’t quite believe we’ve even got a pair in stock,” they say.

When it comes to Japan exclusives, Ozawa notes a pair of leather Footscapes (609060-101) from 2001 as his personal favourite. “I don’t like my feet flashy to look too flashy, so the white base and luxurious leather made it easy an easy pairing with my style.” Yoblessed counts hard-to-find exclusives like the AD 21 suede/flywire, faded cloud editions, and the premium materials of the NSW Supreme as some of his favourites. He believes that these models within the CO.JP line were the genesis of the Quickstrike releases, Tier Zero marketing, shock drops, and Hiroshi Fujiwara-adjacent footwear that modern sneaker lovers are accustomed with today.

Fujiwara was the first Japanese figure to be invited by Nike to make a mark on the ever evolving Footscape reinventions. In 2005, he introduced the Footscape Woven Chukka via Nike’s HTM initiative. Designed with Mark Parker and legendary sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield, the trio of mid-cut boots took a construction method from 2000’s innovative Air Woven (already a popular standalone in Japan) and applied it to the same midsole unit from the original Footscape style. A worldwide release followed in 2006, along with Fujiwara’s own Air Footscape Woven collaboration under his Fragment Design brand, which updated the new lifestyle iteration with a black and white polka dot pattern in inverted colourways.

Fujiwara reimagined the Footscape again in 2009, this time aiming for the OG 96 design with a four-pack featuring block colour mesh uppers and the token grey suede toe. Fragment’s logo was subtly added onto the heel pull tab to not disrupt the original details. The final Fragment Footscape collaboration in 2010, saw Fujiwara introduce the Sportswear Air Footscape Motion a two-pack promoting Nike’s new Flywire-infused upper.

It is Fujiwara’s ability to adopt, reinterpret and ultimately perfect the Footscape with the subtle spins that helped generate feverish demand for the Footscape and pave the way for future collaborations with Japanese designers like Atmos (2012), Nike Air Footscape x Babekubcity x Medicom (2005) and Comme Des Garcon also released their blacked-out iteration in 2019. This January, Sacai designer and founder Chitose Abe offered a hybrid take on the ‘90s cult classic with its Magmascape, a silhouette that fuses the Footscape with the ACG Air Magma.

Beyond Japan, the germination of the seeds planted by CO.JP has influenced Nike to roll out the format to wider regions. In 2006, iconic London retailer The Hideout produced a limited edition pair of Footscapes. Nicknamed the ‘Hamster’ due to its pony hair upper, the shoe quickly attained grail status amongst collectors both overseas and in Japan. That same year, Edison Chen celebrated the opening of Shanghai speciality footwear store ACU with a CLOT Footscape Woven in a Jamaican-inspired colour scheme. It was one of the first times many Guanxi fans in China felt the allure of Footscape Woven outside of Japan.

It is not to say that the Footscape’s fanbase in the West has been entirely unresponsive. There have been plenty of hits over the years like the soccer-inspired Footscape Magista to the 2011 Nike Air Footscape Woven Freemotion aka the Gingham pack, and oddities like the Tony Spackman-designed NSW Supreme in Harris Tweed, which had cult success both in Japan and overseas among Footscape fiends. Nutfield points to The Tier Zero ‘Striped Pack’ in 2010 as another peak in the Footscape timeline, highlighting it as the last time a pair of Footscapes dropped with the og sole tooling. “A retro is well overdue!” he says, suggesting the Footscape Woven with its “artisanal/handmade feel” will do well in a market flooded with mass production.

It’s playful reinventions like these that are perhaps the biggest testament to Orzeck’s oddball invention and how his obscure vision is open to interpretation, time and time again. Today, collectors like Nikerserver and Yoblessed continue to shine a light on the eclectic history of the Footscape and prove how criminally underrated the sneaker is. You only have to look at #properfootscapes (coined by Yoblessed) to see how diverse Nike’s Footscape offering has been over its thirty-year history.

While we might not be getting the full-scale OG retro that many of us would wish for, it’s exciting that Nike is spotlighting one of its most dynamic sneakers again. For many, the influence of the Footscape might not always be felt — but it will always be appreciated by those who seek out something a little different in their sneaker choices, whether that’s in Japan or anywhere else in the world.

Words by Samutaro.

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