this thing's incredible

I’ve Loved My Nike Air Rifts Since 1998

The author in her Nike Air Rifts. Photo: Courtesy of Yara Flinn

Now that I’m entering my 40th year, I’ve become embarrassingly preoccupied with what kind of sneakers I can pull off. The amount of footwear options out there is overwhelming, and in NYC especially, a lot can be discerned about a person from their sneaker choices — which is why I’ve returned to the sneakers that have been working for me since I first understood my personal style as a teen. The Nike Air Rift debuted in 1996, and to many people, it was a monstrosity. With a separated toe like a cloven hoof and chunky rubber soles, they were neither feminine nor “cool.” That’s exactly why I loved them.

These days, I’m no longer alone in my Rift adoration and am seeing more and more pairs on NYC streets, either on people reaching for ’90s nostalgia or on those discovering them for the first time. They’re an unexpected approach to the ballet-flat trend and the ideal shoe for when the weather is too chilly for sandals but too sunny for boots.

My own journey to Air Rifts has not been entirely straightforward. As an extremely tall 12-year-old girl (five-ten in the eighth grade), I regularly got made fun of for wearing “high waters.” Extra-long inseams weren’t common at the time. And my parents, completely unaware of the peer pressure that dominated the NYC preteen social scene, regularly bought me Avias (maybe those are actually cool now?) and knockoff “Keds” at Woolworths.

By high school, though, I’d found my style: “backpack raver” with a bit of preppy and vintage thrown in. I listened to jungle, drum and bass, anything on the Rawkus label. And since most jeans were too short, I wore Army-surplus parachute pants purchased at Canal Jeans on Broadway topped off with an oversize North Face jacket. Still, finding the right footwear to fit my look was challenging.

I can’t remember exactly when the sneaker and streetwear shop Transit came on the scene, but there was nothing like it. We’d had VIM and other jeans and sneaker stores before, but Transit quickly became the coolest place to shop for streetwear: There were vintage turnstiles and a subway car in the store. The internet existed, but it was nothing like what we have today, so most often you were seeing these shoes there for the first time. Imagine that sense of pure discovery and awe. This is the era of the Nike Air Max 96, high-top Blazers, Dunks! Still, none of those felt truly me. Then the weirdest (ugliest?) sneaker I’d ever seen came out, and I finally found my match: the Nike Air Rift. Somehow I managed to convince my parents that these almost perpetually out-of-season (too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer) red-neoprene mary-jane sneakers would be my year-round shoes.

I’ve always had an attraction for style at the margins; I find that things are most interesting when they provoke a strong response of love or hate. And when I reflect on it, as the fashion designer I am today, so much of my style and even my design aesthetic sprang from this philosophy. That’s what makes the Rift perfect for me and maybe for you too. Although there’s one thing I will warn anyone interested in joining the crew: Buy some toe socks, especially if you go hunting for a vintage pair, because these puppies are neoprene and do not breathe well. After I “lost” my original pair of red Air Rifts (I highly suspect someone threw them away as they stunk to high heaven), I was actually a bit heartbroken.

So a few years ago, when I was looking for the right sneaker to wear with jeans, shorts, and even a dress, the Rifts popped back into my mind. Nike had rereleased them in a black-and-white breathable-mesh version with a slightly chunkier sole, and on a long shot, I decided to search around on eBay. And there they were, one of the other colorways from the first release (black, green, and red) available new in box and in my size. Long live the Air Rift.

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I’ve Loved My Nike Air Rifts Since 1998