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A Brief History of Nike's Love Affair With the Caribbean

The brand's recent "De Lo Mio" Air Force 1 model is the latest in a string of styles paying homage to the region.
Javier Baez, #9 of the Chicago Cubs, in a pair of custom Nike cleats paying tribute to Puerto Rico. Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Javier Baez, #9 of the Chicago Cubs, in a pair of custom Nike cleats paying tribute to Puerto Rico. Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Nike recently released a tribute to the Dominican Republic in footwear form: Its "De Lo Mio" Air Force 1 model, which dropped Nov. 17. The shoe features the colors of the Dominican flag, along with domino-shaped shoelace accessories and the words "República Dominicana" embroidered on each tongue. The model quickly became a sought-after item in the Dominican community, mainly because of its inclusion of the colloquial phrase "De Lo Mio" — which roughly translates to "close friend" — on the right sole.

This is not the first time Nike has chosen to celebrate a Caribbean country with a dedicated style of its Air Force 1 sneakers. In fact, there's a 20-year history largely rooted in New York City's Caribbean communities which blurs the boundaries between celebration and appropriation.

The Air Force 1 gained its world-renowned popularity in uptown New York, eventually earning the nickname "Uptowns," referring to Manhattan neighborhoods above 96th Street and the Bronx. While the Air Force 1 was originally targeted to basketball players, it was its popularity on New York City streets that converted the shoe from a sports sneaker to a coveted lifestyle item. "At the time, Nike was still posturing as a sports performance brand," says Bobbito Garcia, author of Where'd You Get Those? and longtime Nike collaborator. "But people just wore them because they were cool."

The people in question were mainly living in those aforementioned uptown neighborhoods, which are made up of many Caribbean communities: More Puerto Ricans, West Indians and Dominicans live in New York City than any other place outside of the Caribbean, and over two million Hispanics live in New York City, while the Black non-Hispanic community numbered nearly 1.9 million in 2014. They each have their own annual parades, which attract over one million attendees and highlight the cultural contributions of each community to the city. Uptown neighborhoods are also well-known for being sartorial enclaves which have jump started fashion trends worldwide via influencers like Harlem's famous Dapper Dan.

Mike Parker, former product line manager for the limited-edition category at Nike, was aware of the importance the Caribbean community in uptown New York held for the Air Force 1 model, because he witnessed it first-hand growing up in the city, where he became a regular at both the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in June and the West Indian Day Parade in September. That's where Parker got the inspiration behind the Puerto Rico and West Indies Air Force 1 models, which kicked off Nike's practice of tapping into their consumers' heritage to create limited-edition drops.

"Because I knew the significance of the iconic AF1 shoe in New York and of the Puerto Rican Day parade, I decided to secretly sample a white and navy low AF1 with the Puerto Rican flag on the lateral side," Parker recalls. "In my gut, I knew it would be a success." 

He sourced feedback from the Puerto Rican markets in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, where Boricuas loved the shoe, even adding elements like the coqui — an autochthonous frog from the island — on the tongue and an illustrated map of Puerto Rico on the sock liner.

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Still, there was some pushback from Nike and other sneaker fans around Parker. Not only was it a first for the brand, but the Puerto Rican community had a long history of cultural exploitation that still lingers today. This is why Bobbito Garcia raised a red flag for Parker. "He thought I'd love it, but I hit him up to some politics," Garcia says. "He was blown away." 

The historian argued that, as a corporation, Nike hadn't supported Puerto Rico's basketball teams, artists or causes, and ignored a long history of cultural appropriation and exploitation done to the island's heritage and natural resources. "If you're going to exploit our flag and our cultural identity [for profit], you have to understand that our island's history is completely marked in the exploitation of our land, culture, military, environment, tax breaks, etc.," says Garcia. Parker now agrees that Nike could do more to support Puerto Rico, especially after Hurricane Maria, but in the year 2000, Parker felt the shoe's release was the right thing to do to honor one of the communities that ignited the Air Force 1 into a worldwide phenomenon. 

While Nike operates based in what Parker calls "future orders," he inverted the process to create the limited-edition drop and relied on the Hollywood hype to make the shoes a must-have item even before they hit stores. His division blind-bought 3,000 pairs of the Puerto Rico model and offered them to stores in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, promising they'd sell like hotcakes. Nike's PR division then tapped Big Tigger, who hosted BET's "Rap City: Tha Basement," to debut the shoes on air, creating a frenzy that would last until the model dropped a week before the Puerto Rican Day Parade — a time when most Boricuas are searching for paraphernalia to wear on the big day. The 3,000 pairs sold out fast and can retail for over $200 today.

Photo: Courtesy of Mike Parker

Photo: Courtesy of Mike Parker

"The price made it accessible, but the unique, never-heard-before cultural story on a sneaker made it a slam dunk," says Parker. "Compared to the other AF1 drops at that time, there really was no comparison." The drop allowed Nike to cement a bigger following within the Puerto Rican community, even dropping three later models of the Air Force 1 Puerto Rico, and eventually collaborating with Bobbito Garcia on seven "Bobbito Puerto Rico" Air Force 1 sneakers.

By 2002, Parker was inspired by another impactful community in New York City: The Air Force 1 West Indies were released in honor of the annual West Indian Day Parade, which is celebrated on Labor Day weekend by New Yorkers hailing from Caribbean islands, including the Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles and Lucayan Archipelago. The shoe featured a "West Indies" graphic created just for this drop, with the names of Caribbean islands — Jamaica, Grenada, Martinique, Guyana — written on the insoles. Although the original Air Force 1 West Indies last dropped in 2005, Nike honored the islands again this year: Over the summer, the brand released the 'Caribana' pack in honor of Toronto's Caribbean Carnival, including an Air Force 1 model with gold paneling and a black palm tree on the left back corner and an Air Max model in black paneling with multicolor stripes.

However, the question remains whether Nike's use of these cultures for commercial reasons is a responsible tribute or a co-opting of heritage. But if the "De lo Mio" Air Force 1 drop is any evidence, Nike has learned something about its past ventures into the Caribbean community. Unlike the Puerto Rico Air Force 1, the "De lo Mio" sneaker was designed by a Dominican artist, and the brand tapped six Dominican photographers to shoot the ad campaign, like Juan Veloz, Adeline Lulo and Elvin Tavarez. The images are proof that Nike is allowing the Dominican community speak for itself this time, featuring Dominican abuelas and abuelos wearing the "De lo Mio" Air Force 1, as well as young dominicanos in the streets. 

For both Garcia and Parker, the new drop is a step in the right direction to honoring Caribbean communities. "It's important, now more than ever, for brands to connect and act human versus like a machine, and these cultural connections help to do that," says Parker. "It shows respect and provides for a deeper connection with this consumer."

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