RE-Fresh: Nike Cortez (1985)

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Produced by: Dan Hwang
Written by: Jesse Carr

Our next segment for the RE-Fresh project looks at what may be Nike’s most iconic running silhouette, the Cortez. The Cortez, in short, launched the Nike brand. Some sources have the origin of the Cortez reaching back as far as 1968 when an elite track coach named Bill Bowerman decided his athletes needed an edge. For a bit of background for those unfamiliar with the co-founder of Nike, Bowerman has had one of the great coaching legacies in all of collegiate sports. He coached 4 National title teams and 31 Olympic athletes. He’s also credited for bringing the concept of jogging to America after an eye-opening trip to New Zealand in 1962. Four years later, Bowerman published a book called, simply, Jogging, which sold over one million copies and ignited the interest in what is now one of the world’s most popular forms of exercise.

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Along with the better-known partner of Nike, Phil Knight, Bowerman created Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964. Four years later in 1966, Bowerman concocted the original Cortez, as it would later be dubbed, built for long distance endurance. So from the inception of the model, Bowerman’s knowledge of what his athletes needed to beat the competition drove his imagination for performance advancements that became revolutionary. Though the Cortez’ final design may not look earth-shattering today in a market flooded with fly-by-night technologies and gimmicks that promise to help the runner, it’s understated construction was loaded with innovations that helped launch one of today’s largest and most globally-recognized companies.

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To begin describing the features, let’s first examine what, specifically, Bowerman demanded from the sneaker 100 miles per week on pavement or asphalt. What resulted from that rigorous demand was a dual-density, full-length midsole built from various foams. Bowerman set the thicker foam at points that required greater shock absorption and a lighter weight foam at less demanding stress points, a balance which helped to trim the weight of the shoe. According to many who knew Bowerman well, his quest to make shoes increasingly lighter was lifelong, and his first model set the bar for material choices to accomplish that goal as well.

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A nylon upper dominated many of the early models, along with suede, which helped the toe retain its shape. Along with the lightweight upper materials, Bowerman needed an outsole that could help the shoe to endure his 100 mile per week goal, so he chose a herringbone-patterned rubber for the outsole meant to provide flexibility and stability while taking a pounding. Our model is from 1985, and by this time in Nike’s history, the brand had revolutionized the sneaker market on the turf, the tracks, the hardwood, and where it was beginning to matter most the streets.

The Cortez’ legacy has as much to do with the adoption of the model by the streets as it does the success of the technical components on the track. With its dominating swoosh and simple colorblocking, the Cortez became a popular sneaker among entire Latino crews in Los Angeles. LA-based tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon has spoken extensively about the importance of the running shoe, along with plain white T-shirts and Dickies, in defining the uniform of Los Angeles gang members. After its street credibility peaked, mainstream fashion eventually caught on and the shoe later became a staple in early 90s Brit-Pop.

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With its understated design and undeniable comfort, the Cortez has grown from a performance-driven sneaker for what was then a new-found phenomenon called “jogging” to a model that has defined what has become the world’s most successful sports brand. Nike has gone on to reinvigorate the model with updated technology like flywire and an even lighter weight EVA midsole, but even these models still preserve what made its predecessor so well-regarded—simple styling and trademark performance.

Original 1985 deadstock Nike Cortez

Thanks to Mike Packer of Packer Shoes.