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How A Rebellious Subculture Made The Air Max The Unofficial Sneaker of A Small Country

Editorials

Gijs Verheijke
April 13, 2022

When we think of the origins of sneaker culture, we usually think of Hip Hop or basketball. We might also think of skateboarding, graffiti, and of course Punk culture. At the end of the 80s, influences from Punk, Old School Hip Hop alongside the UK Acid House scene spawned a unique subculture in the Netherlands, revolving around a unique subgenre of Dance music. We are talking about the 'Gabber' scene, and Hardcore music. The music is known for its distinct distorted kick drum, and for its speed, typically upwards of 180 BPM.

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What do Raf Simon, Piet Parra and modern-day EDM music have in common? They were all inevitably influenced by a quirky Dutch subculture called ‘Gabber’ that defined much of the 90s.

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Personally I haven't been shy about professing my love for the Air Max. As a Dutch sneaker-head, the Air Max is to me THE sneaker, the uniform of my home country. Other Western European countries also give love to the Air Max. Notably, the UK (Air Max 90) and Italy (Air Max 97). But the relationship between Dutchies and their Air Max is more unique, and like any good subculture story, it starts with music.

Outblast & Korsakoff - Unleash The Beast

When we think of the origins of sneaker culture, we usually think of Hip Hop or basketball. We might also think of skateboarding, graffiti, and of course Punk culture. At the end of the 80s, influences from Punk, Old School Hip Hop alongside the UK Acid House scene spawned a unique subculture in the Netherlands, revolving around a unique subgenre of Dance music. We are talking about the 'Gabber' scene, and Hardcore music. The music is known for its distinct distorted kick drum, and for its speed, typically upwards of 180 BPM.

In collaboration with Tim Beumers, Cloud 9 Music, Sneakerness, Francois Maas (Thunderdome), Jebroer, and many more we present you the documentary "UNIFORM". ...

With the music, came the uniform: Baggy, colourful tracksuits, preferably from Italian tennis brand 'Australian', completely shaved head, and the forgotten child of the Air Max family, the Air Max BW ("Big Window").

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First released in 1991 as the Air Max 4, this shoe came to define the Gabber style. The choice of footwear was a practical one more than anything else. The Gabber lifestyle revolved around XTC fuelled Hardcore raves where people could be dancing for hours straight. With Hardcore music hitting in the range between 180 to 200+ bpm, they needed some serious cushioning to pull through!

Dutch designer Tom Nijhuis’ Gabber inspired shoot
Dutch designer Tom Nijhuis’ Gabber inspired shoot

Gabber origins

Hardcore music originates in the very early 90s as a countermovement to the perceived ‘stuck-up’ and boring “mellow” house scene. Hardcore was different. Highly inclusive, if you ask OG Gabbers what the scene was like everyone talks about how it felt like a family. There was a fierce debate over whether Hardcore started in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. The time-tested consensus seems to be that while “Gabber” is a very Amsterdam word, meaning something like “buddy”, and the Amsterdam scene contributed to the early rise of Hardcore House, it is undeniable that the Rotterdam scene made Hardcore big.

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Commercialisation and decline

Through the nineties, Hardcore became ever more popular. Artists like Korsakoff, DJ Ruffneck and Neophyte started to reach a more mainstream audience. The early wave of commercialized ‘Happy Hardcore’ produced a string of genuinely good songs, like Paul Elstak’s Luv U More. Still today few Dutch weddings don’t end with 30 minutes of Paul Elstak, and The Party Animals.

For the Gabber scene however, it was the beginning of a very fast decline. Gabbers turned from mysterious and cool into a total parody almost overnight somewhere in 1996. Around that time also a small but vocal extreme-right minority infiltrated the Gabber culture, and ended-up tainting the whole gabber scene with a racist undertone. Not recognizing themselves anymore in a culture that had been hijacked by blatant commercial exploitation and rightwing extremists, the OG hardcore scene retreated back underground.

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The lasting impact on Dutch millennials

While I was too young to be a gabber, the hardcore wave peaked when I was around 10 years old. All youths at the time were influenced by the Air Max under tracksuit aesthetic. I secretly wanted an Australian tracksuit (they were around S$500 in 1995), and the Air Max was, to me, the coolest shoe ever made. My earliest sneaker memory is seeing a pair of green Air Maxes on the feet of a kid in my class, and from that moment sneakers took on a life of their own for me.  

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As mainstream music tastes moved toward R&B and Hip Hop around the turn of the century, which appears to have been the last major shift in music taste, the Dutch have stuck with the Air Max, although the Gabber favorite Big Window has mostly remained obscure. There have been more recent revivals of elements of the Gabber culture of the 90s. The Patta x Australian 90s inspired tracksuit as one dope example, and Raf Simons S/S2000 collection ‘Summa Cum Laude’ for example. In 2016 Nike rereleased a capsule of Air Max BWs. Perhaps with street styles seemingly become baggier again, it is time for the BW to enter a revival!

Gijs (pronounced “guys” with a “k”), is the Founder and CEO of Ox Street. Since falling in love with the Nike Air Max silhouette at age 10, he went down an all-too-familiar path of buying way too many shoes. An occasional DJ and low-key music historian, Gijs loves the many different aspects of how ‘culture’ manifests, often through some combination of music, fashion and location. Gijs is an ex- Private Equity investor and Rocket Internet alumnus, where he cut his teeth launching and scaling various marketplace platforms across Asia. Through hunting down a coveted pair of kicks while in Myanmar - he realised there was a gap in the sneaker ecosystem across South East Asia, a growing segment powered by the region’s ravenous growth in digital networks and an increasing wave of online commerce. Gijs alongside everyone at Ox Street, is excited for the future of streetwear in the region and we’ve only just begun.