Cortez shoes, designed by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman and released in 1972, are considered one of the most iconic sneakers of all time. Often referred to as the first “favorite” shoe of the company, the Cortez was designed for running but quickly gained popularity as a fashion shoe as well. So what exactly do Cortez shoes represent?
Origins of the Cortez
The origins of the Cortez can be traced back to Bill Bowerman’s desire to create a running shoe that was lighter and more comfortable than other models at the time. As the legendary University of Oregon track coach, Bowerman was obsessed with improving his athletes’ performances. This led him to experiment with new shoe designs and materials. In 1972, he unveiled the Nike Cortez, named after the conquistador Hernán Cortés. Featuring a leather upper and the innovative Nike cushioning system in the midsole, the Cortez was an instant hit with runners. However, it was the shoe’s appeal as a fashion statement that turned it into a cultural icon.
The Cortez and 1970s Fashion
The 1970s marked the rise of the jogging craze in America. As running became more popular for exercise and leisure, sneakers transitioned from purely athletic wear to mainstream fashion. The Cortez was released at the perfect time to ride this wave. Its sleek design, comfortable fit, and range of colorways made it a popular choice not just for running, but for casual wear. The shoe was embraced by the Los Angeles street scene and urban youth cultures of the 70s. Bowerman’s creation had gone from sportswear to streetwear.
Some key reasons why the Cortez stood out:
- Simple and low-profile design that was versatile for active lifestyles.
- Variety of color options beyond basic whites and blacks.
- Leather material that was comfortable and stylish.
- Affordable price point compared to other sneakers at the time.
The Cortez gained popularity among West Coast gang culture and graffiti artists who appreciated the athletic edge it added to casual outfits. But it also made its way into mainstream fashion, becoming a staple in hip-hop and street style.
Cortez in Pop Culture
As the Cortez soared in popularity off the running tracks and streets, it also made its presence felt across movies, music, and celebrity culture:
- The shoe was prominently featured in the controversial 1979 cult film The Warriors, about New York gangs. Many characters wore Cortez shoes as part of their “uniforms”.
- In the early 1980s, LA electro group The Jets dressed in blue Cortez shoes as a signature part of their look.
- Legendary rapper N.W.A referred to the Cortez in their early songs such as “Boyz-N-The-Hood”.
- The shoe continues to be mentioned and worn by various hip-hop artists over the decades, from Kendrick Lamar to Jay-Z.
- Bruce Lee wore the Cortez model in his 1972 movie Way of the Dragon.
- Comedian Jerry Seinfeld famously wore the white and red Cortez model during the height of his sitcom’s popularity.
- Michael J. Fox’s character in Back to the Future wore the Cortez.
- Tom Hanks’ character wore them in Forrest Gump.
- The shoe appeared in countless other films and shows as a classic Nike style.
This pop culture influence only solidified the Cortez’s status as an iconic sneaker. It had officially gone from sportswear, to streetwear, to cultural footwear.
The Cortez Over the Decades
Even with changes in fashion trends and sneaker technology, the Cortez has remained popular over the decades since its 1972 debut:
- Throughout the 1980s, the shoe maintained its status within hip-hop, breakdancing, and street culture.
- Nike celebrated the shoe’s 25th anniversary in 1997 with new designs and colorways.
- In 2006, Nike collaborated with DJ AM to launch a Cortez model featuring his turntable logo.
- Skateboarding brand Supreme released their own limited edition Cortez version in 2009.
- In 2019, supermodel Bella Hadid led a campaign celebrating female empowerment and the Cortez’s place in sports fashion.
- Nike continues to refresh the Cortez line regularly with updates like their Move to Zero sustainable materials collection in 2021.
While the Cortez may not dominate running tracks and competitions like it originally did, its remarkable longevity as a fashion sneaker puts it in truly elite company. Very few other shoes from the 1970s remain relevant today like the Cortez continues to be.
What the Cortez Represents Today
When one pair of shoes can transcend running, street style, pop culture, and decades of changing fashion, what does that say? Here are some key things the Nike Cortez represents today:
- Vintage appeal. The retro design invokes nostalgia and authenticity.
- Hip-hop heritage. One of the definitive hip-hop shoes since the music’s origins.
- West Coast style. Embodies the LA streetwear aesthetic that influenced generations.
- Gender neutral versatility. Popular across male, female, and unisex styles.
- Affordable classic. Remains accessible compared to hyped collaborations.
- Cultural longevity. Ability to remain relevant across decades and trends speaks to its greatness.
Very few sneakers introduced 50 years ago could still be worn today across a variety of outfits and contexts. The Nike Cortez possesses that kind of versatile appeal. From sports to the streets, movies to music, and everything in between – the Cortez has earned its status as a true classic.
|1970s||Introduced for running, gains popularity in streetwear|
|1980s||Featured prominently in hip-hop culture|
|1990s||25th anniversary re-release, skater interest|
|2000s||Collaborations with Supreme, DJ AM|
|2010s||Sustainable materials, focus on women’s styles|
The Cortez’s sales performance over time
As a pioneering icon of sneaker culture, the Cortez has enjoyed impressive sales performance since its inception. Here are some key sales milestones:
- Within 2 years of launch, over 200,000 pairs of Cortez shoes sold by 1974.
- Hit its peak popularity in 1981, selling over 800,000 pairs.
- Became Nike’s #1 selling shoe in the early 1980s.
- Sales dipped in the 1990s with rise of Air Jordan and other technical sneakers.
- Experienced resurgence after 1997 re-release, selling over 500,000 pairs.
- Remains one of Nike’s top 10 best-selling classic shoes each year.
- Estimated over 35 million Cortez units sold to date worldwide.
While no longer Nike’s top performer, the Cortez has demonstrated exceptional staying power. Its yearly sales numbers remain impressive for a shoe entering its sixth decade on the market. This reflects the enduring demand for a true original icon.
From Bill Bowerman’s vision of a better running shoe to an internationally recognized fashion staple, the Nike Cortez’s journey has been remarkable. It emerged at the forefront of multiple cultural shifts – the running boom, hip-hop’s ascendence, and sneakers becoming part of self-expression. As one of Nike’s first game-changing designs, the Cortez played a key role in fueling the brand’s rise to the top. Even today, it holds up well aesthetically and functionally. For these reasons and more, the Cortez will continue representing ingenuity, heritage, and accessibility in sneaker culture for years to come.