Last updated on February 16th, 2024
Celebrating its 52nd anniversary in 2024, the Cortez stands as one of Nike's most enduring sneakers and has remained a popular choice throughout the years. This iconic model has managed to captivate generations, with its influence spanning from the classic TV series "Charlie's Angels" to the legendary rapper Eazy-E, the beloved film "Forrest Gump", and the contemporary artist Kendrick Lamar.
The Cortez is as important to Nike as the Air Jordan 1 and Air Force 1. Unlike those two sneakers, which were released in the early '80s, the Cortez existed before Nike was even established. It was not only Nike's first successful sneaker when they started producing their own, but it also paved the way for Nike to do so when Blue Ribbon Sports was mainly distributing Onitsuka Tigers.
The Nike Cortez has a fascinating narrative that goes beyond its contribution to the creation of Nike and its enduring popularity over the years. This sneaker's story becomes even more intriguing when considering its involvement in a rivalry with Adidas and its adoption as a significant symbol for various gangs. Now let's see the detailed introduction of the Nike Cortez's evolution and significance.
Before Nike, there was the Cortez
Prior to Nike's foray into selling their own sneakers, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman established the company as Blue Ribbon Sports, mainly dealing in the distribution of Onitsuka Tiger sneakers in the United States. Bowerman, during this pre-Nike era, took charge of designing the Cortez. However, it was Onitsuka that produced the shoe and granted Blue Ribbon Sports the exclusive rights to distribute it in America.
Bowerman combined the Spring Up's soft midsole with the Limber Up's sole to design the perfect shoe for long-distance running. The raised heel prevented Achilles injuries, and the upper made of "Swoosh Fiber" nylon resin was lighter, stronger, and more resistant to moisture than leather. Additionally, it maintained its shape without stretching.
In 1967, a long-distance running shoe was introduced under the name "TG-24". A year later, it was renamed TG-Mexico in anticipation of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. However, Adidas objected to the name Aztec, as they had plans to release their own shoe called the Azteca Gold. Eventually, the shoe found its fourth and final name - Cortez. Knight shared the story behind the name in his memoir "Shoe Dog".
"Aggravated, I drove up the mountain to Bowerman’s house to talk it all over. We sat on the wide porch, looking down at the river. It sparkled that day like a silver shoelace. He took off his ball cap, put it on again, rubbed his face. 'Who was that guy who kicked the shit out of the Aztecs?' he asked. 'Cortez', I said [referring to Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador.] He grunted. 'Okay. Let’s call it the Cortez.'" - Knight
In 1967, Blue Ribbon Sports ended the year with $84,000 in revenue, thanks largely to the success of the Cortez sneaker. However, by 1970, the demand for the shoe was so great that Onitsuka, the manufacturer, struggled to keep up with the supply. It was discovered that Onitsuka was prioritizing the Japanese market, leaving Blue Ribbon unable to satisfy its own customers. In response, Blue Ribbon began exploring the possibility of producing the sneaker themselves in 1971. Interestingly, during a visit to the Nippon Rubber factory in Kurume, Japan, Knight received the first sample of the sneaker with a Nike Swoosh on the very day he requested it, right after lunch.
Nike Ventures Out on Its Own Cortez
In 1972, Nike introduced the Cortez as part of their collection, coinciding with the Summer Olympics. This particular shoe was worn by numerous athletes during the event. The sales of the Cortez boomed, reaching an impressive $800,000 in its debut year. As time went on, Nike decided to expand the Cortez line by introducing new variations made from nylon and leather in 1983.
Onitsuka discovered the imitation shoe when an employee stumbled upon it in Blue Ribbon's warehouse in Los Angeles. Onitsuka took legal action against Nike, who retaliated with a countersuit. Eventually, in 1974, the court decided that both companies could still sell the sneaker, but only Nike could retain the Cortez name. From that point on, Onitsuka renamed the shoe Corsair, marking its fifth and final name change.
In court, an esteemed specialist provided evidence stating that Bowerman's Cortez (and Boston) design was completely different from anything Onitsuka had previously created. The specialist described it as a groundbreaking and transformative innovation, specifically in how it alleviated stress on the Achilles tendon.
Decades of Impact from Popular Culture
In 1977, the Cortez experienced its initial exposure to popular culture when Farrah Fawcett sported a pair of women's Senorita Cortezes on the television show "Charlie's Angels." According to Knight, the shoe became an instant hit, with every store in America selling out by noon the following day. It quickly became the preferred choice for UCLA and USC cheerleaders, earning the nickname "Farrah Shoe."
In the late 1980s, Eazy-E frequently sported the Cortez shoes, which were highly favored in Los Angeles, especially among the Black and Latino communities. Fast forward to 1994, the movie "Forrest Gump" features a memorable scene where the protagonist, played by Tom Hanks, receives a patriotic white, red, and blue pair of Cortez shoes. He joyfully declares them as the ultimate present one could ever receive in the entire world.
Moving forward to the 2010s, Kendrick Lamar partnered with Nike in 2018 to create multiple editions of the shoe, one being a laceless "House Shoe" variant. In his featured verse on Big Sean's track "Control," which became a significant hip-hop moment of the decade, Lamar expressed, "And I ain't rockin' no more designer shit/White Tees and Nike Cortez, this red Corvette’s anonymous".
The Sneaker of the West Coast
Although the Air Force 1 has a rich history associated with the East Coast, specifically Baltimore and New York City, the Cortez has its own extensive origins on the West Coast.
Nike's initial employee was located in Los Angeles, and their inaugural store was established in Santa Monica. This region continued to play a pivotal role in the company's operations during its transition from Blue Ribbon Sports to Nike. By 1973, four out of the ten department stores that carried Nike products were situated in Los Angeles. Given the Cortez's significant impact on Nike's early success, it was only fitting for it to thrive in the same area where the Swoosh brand held its strongest presence.
During the 1980s, the Cortez gained popularity among Black and Latino communities in Los Angeles. It became one of Nike's more reasonably priced options. Similar to the Air Force 1, the Cortez's uncomplicated design allowed for a diverse range of color combinations, providing wearers with numerous choices for expressing themselves.
The Cortez shoe's adaptability also contributed to its association with gangs, as various colors symbolized different organizations. Its strongest connection is with MS-13, a group established in the 1980s in Los Angeles to safeguard Salvadoran immigrants from rival gangs. Blue and white Cortez shoes became a sort of uniform for MS-13, although Nike does not actively promote this aspect of the shoe's appeal. Nevertheless, the shoe's less favorable association persists within its story.
Partnerships and Color Styles
The Cortez may not be as renowned as other Nike models when it comes to collaborations and color variations, but it has already accumulated over 700 iterations by 2022.
Back in 2005, Mr. Cartoon, a renowned Mexican-American tattoo artist, joined forces with Nike and made a notable contribution to the brand. He replaced the iconic Swoosh with a unique graphic featuring an Aztec man wearing a headdress. This collaboration became highly sought-after among sneaker enthusiasts. Fast forward to the model's 45th anniversary in 2017, and Mr. Cartoon once again partnered with Nike to release three new versions of the Cortez. This time, the focus was on embracing its Latino roots, further solidifying their connection.
Comme des Garçons' Cortez platform from 2018 is considered a highly transformative version, although the Cortez has primarily retained its popularity through regular releases.