For college-aged guys like Nate Lee who weren’t alive to see Michael Jordan play for the Chicago Bulls, the Last Dance docudrama affirmed what earlier generations knew: In terms of court performance, heroics, and swagger, MJ is the GOAT. Also: to this day, no one has done signature sneakers better. After a segment in the doc about how Jordan’s original Nikes came to be, Lee went online to scoop up a pair of Air Jordan 1s in the original “Chicago” colorway (the ones with a white and red upper and prominent black Swoosh), only to realize that the same hype he felt had kicked the kicks’ price into overdrive.
Being an enterprising engineering major, Lee decided to make the shoes, instead of buying them. He started by doing YouTube research to learn how to modify Air Jordan 1s until he created a pair he was proud of. They turned out so well, and got so much positive feedback from classmates, that he realized he might be onto something. So he launched Kicks By N8, where today he takes easier-to-find colorways of new Air Jordan 1s and transforms them into shoes that look like well-preserved classics. A fresh white sole becomes yellowed; the toe and heel are delicately reshaped; even the shoelaces get swapped with period-correct versions; and after all that, only a collector paying close attention would be able to tell the difference. His hottest seller? “Chicago” Jordan 1s that look like they’re from 1985—the specific color and year currently grabbing the attention of style-savvy people looking for a new frontier of flexing.
In the sneaker world, 1985 Air Jordan 1s—as in, shoes that look like the models issued that year, and not any of Jordan Brand’s subsequent reissues—are the hottest thing going. There are other, more authentic ways than Lee’s business to get some 85s, of course. Willing to shell out? A collector like Tye Engmann of Curated Van might be your guy. Already own a pair from 1985 that’s been stashed in an attic for decades? Alexander Jones of Vintage Kicks Gallery can help turn the clock back and restore them to almost factory status. And if you want to scuff up a new pair, artisans like Lee, Phillip Leyesa and Andrew Chiou, to name a few, have mastered the aging process.
Why these Jordan 1s? Over 35 years after its hardwood debut and nearly 20 since MJ’s final retirement, the style—with its relatively simple silhouette, colorblocked upper, and big, iconic Nike Swoosh—looks as good as ever. Jordan Brand has re-released the Chicagos a total of 3 times since 1985 (in 1994, 2013, and 2015), with each release bringing slight variations in color, shape, and quality. Like collectors of air-cooled Porsche 911s, fans of 85s contend that the older 1s have special traits that make them better than what the brand is putting out today. Air Jordan 1s from 1985 are most recognizable by their more streamlined shape: the thinness of the collar, a flatter toe box, and an overall more upright design. And unlike other Jordans, which after a decade of dormant closet time are immediately at risk of having their soles literally explode when worn, 1s from 1985 hold up shockingly well.
“If you look at the leather on a pair of 85s, it’s not even close to what Jordan is putting out today,” says Tye Engmann, who despite also being too young to have ever seen MJ play on the Bulls has become one of Instagram’s most popular sellers of 1985 AJ1s. To date he estimates he’s sold hundreds of 1985s, and recently moved a pair of deadstock Chicagos for $20,000.