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Celebrating 50 years of the Nike Cortez

Words by Gregory Noonan

What do the Olympics, Bella Hadid, Kendrick Lamar, and Forrest Gump have in common?
The Nike Cortez.
Although maybe not as celebrated in Europe as it is stateside, it is a shoe very much emblematic of Nike as a company and a silhouette that remains a foundational part of the Portland brand’s existence. So, to celebrate the silhouette's 50th anniversary join us on a little retrospective trip to the past.
It all begins back in the 60s with a little company called Blue Ribbon Sports, founded by celebrated track coach Bill Bowerman and one of his former pupils and now business partner, Phil Knight. They established themselves as the American distributors for Onitsuka Tiger, the precursor to Asics, and would drive up and down the West Coast selling their running shoes at track meets. Eventually, with his decades-long knowledge of running and what runners needed, Bowerman would collaborate with Onitsuka on designing shoes too. From this would come the TG-24, a lightweight runner with a spongy midsole that was raised slightly at the heel to reduce Achilles strain.
It was great! Runners loved it and to capitalize on this success as well as the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, Onitsuka wanted to rebrand this new sneaker as the “Mexico” but the name didn’t really stick. Instead, they decided to call it the Aztec in honor of the ancient empire that ruled much of present-day Mexico.
“Not so fast” – adidas presumably.
They threatened to sue as they felt Aztec was too close to the Azteca Gold runner they had just released. So back at the drawing board once more the team landed on a new name.
Since no good story is without its drama, the Cortez would actually find itself in the middle of litigation between Blue Ribbon and Onitsuka Tiger after their business relationship soured. Eventually, it was decided that both companies would be able to sell the silhouette but only Blue Ribbon could use the name Cortez while Onitsuka would call theirs the Corsair.
With this split, the fledgling American firm was on its own and a change was needed. Blue Ribbon Sports was wound up and from the ashes, on May 30th, 1971, Nike was born. To say a lot was riding on this shoe was an understatement, but boy did it deliver.
The newly Swooshed out Cortez would hit the market during the 1972 Olympics in Munich and it was an instant success, leading to 800 thousand dollars in sales in the first year. A 100% increase on sales of the Onitsuka version a year prior. It was just a better shoe than anything on the market at that time and it helped that it was worn by the US Olympic team including Steve Prefontaine, an All-American who smashed records.
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As time went on, it became a staple of American life thanks to its accessible price point and killer good looks. They became synonymous with LA street style and NWA frontman Eazy-e in particular. Nike would open their first retail store in Santa Monica and eventually, four of their first ten locations were in the greater LA area. As such the Cortez became synonymous with LA and West Coast fashion, becoming widely adopted by the Latino and Chicano communities.
The term Chicano identified people of Mexican descent born in the US and would become a term of pride among Mexican Americans during the Chicano Movement of the 60s. They became a strong political and cultural presence in LA as a response to decades of social and political oppression with the Cortez becoming an essential part of their style.
Over the years, Hispanic and Latino culture, as well as LA, has informed several collaborations, from stunning Día de Los Muertos and Latino Heritage Month collections to the most recent Cortez release with Union LA.

Steve Prefontaine 1974

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The cultural potency of the Nike Cortez only went from strength to strength as the years passed, being seen on the feet of perennial icon Whitney Houston during her Super Bowl performance in 1991.
But perhaps the most iconic Cortez pop-culture moment would come in a little-known movie from 1994 called ‘Forrest Gump’. Running was a running theme (ba-dumm-tss) throughout the movie and with the Cortez on his feet, Gump would run the length of America with ease, just because he felt like it.
In the years since Bella Hadid has been endorsed to bring the women’s Senorita version of the Cortez to newer generations while Kendrick Lamar has released several collaborative iterations as well. As both Nike and the Cortez silhouette turn the big five-zero this year it’s impossible to separate the significance of this silhouette from the Swoosh's astronomical success. The Cortez helped put Nike on the map and gave the burgeoning company the credibility and capital to expand so aggressively. Additionally, it’s important to remember that Nike owes much of that success to minority communities throughout the US who helped make the Cortez the cultural icon it is today.
Life may be a box of chocolates, but one thing can be said for certain, the Cortez isn’t going anywhere soon.
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Naked Copenhagen

Whitney Houston, Super Bowl 1991

Forest Gump 1994

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