How Nike Hacked Its Sneakers: History of Nike One Line


Nike knockoffs have been around for decades, but arguably the first brand to take down Nike was, in fact, Nike. And they did it to fight a U.S. tariff bill in 1980. While details about the effort are murky at best, Nike released a special-edition Air Force 1 in China last month celebrating the story of counterfeit Nike, the story of The One line.

Nike and the United States government clashed in 1980 over a $25 million tariff bill. The fight was public at the time, but came to modern-day attention five years ago when Nike founder Phil Knight shed light on the incident in his book Shoe Dog, explaining how The One Line was designed to challenge an obscure rule in the United States Customs Code.

As Knight recalls in the final pages of Shoe Dog, the U.S. government hit Nike with a $25 million tariff bill, which it claims was brought forward by its competitors in the shoe and rubber industry lobbying on the government to bring down Nike. In typical government confusion, the 1922 U.S. Selling Price Rules stated that the import tariff on a particular good would be calculated not on the manufacturer’s price of that good, but on the price of a similar product made in the USA. Duties on three categories of benzidine chemicals, cherry pit shells, and synthetic upper athletic shoes could be assessed not on the factory cost of the goods, but on the U.S. wholesale price of goods that resembled American manufactures.

“We launched a new shoe, a nylon upper running shoe, and called it One Line,” Knight writes in his book. “It was a counterfeit, very cheap, with a simple logo, and we made it in Saco, in the old factory in Hayes. We offered a low price, just above the cost. Now the Customs officers should use this ‘competing’ shoe as a new benchmark to decide our import duties.”

The 1982 Nike Oceania and the bootleg Nike One Line sneaker. Image via Deffest

If this all sounds a little hazy and slightly complicated, well, it is.

And that doesn’t get much clearer with China’s November release of the Air Force 1 “NAI-KE,” touted by Nike as a tribute to Nike and a Chinese factory that jointly launched The One Line production 40 years ago. years.

In fact, the 1980 design was essentially an individual forgery of the Nike Oceania runner. It was everything Nike designed, minus the branding elements. The only Air Force 1 connection seems to be the sneaker’s modern popularity.

“As the first test shoe model jointly developed by Nike and a Chinese factory, it represents the historic cooperation between the two parties,” says Nike’s description of the AF1 shoe. “A step.”

In the modern Air Force 1, the most important connection to The One Line is a single, wide white stripe across the upper. The One Line, since it was truly a counterfeit, removed the Nike branding and used the white stripe. The Air Force 1 features this white stripe, but covered with a Swoosh. The gray suede of the modern Air Force 1 features a few accents of blue, the original color of The One Line design. Nike has placed the “Elevating Inner Peace Through Sports” slogan on the inside of the AF1’s tongue and uses Chinese characters to spell out NAI-KE on the heel.

Nike Oceania 1
Nike Oceania and Nike’s sneaker bootleg. Image via Deffest

But what Nike isn’t telling buyers about the 2021 Air Force 1 is the real story of why The One Line even exists. It’s one of the strangest stories in Nike’s history, and its shoes are among the rarest ever produced. in this detailed story.

Think of Nike’s move in real estate terms, because one cheap house in the neighborhood drives down the prices of all other houses nearby.

But here’s where the details get a little muddy. While Knight laid out the plan in his book five years ago, it – as he freely admits several times in the book where his memory differs from the official account – was short on detail and sometimes contradictory. Knight says in the book that Nike decided to manufacture the shoes at the company’s small factory in Exeter, New Hampshire, which makes sense as part of the US retail price effort. But collectors who have perused samples of The One Line note that the shoes bear a “made in China” stamp. And this latest version of the Nike Air Force 1 pays homage to Chinese involvement in the process.

Several requests over the past year by Complex asking Nike to further clarify the situation have gone unanswered.

Nike One Line Air Force 1
The 2021 Nike One Line Air Force 1. Image via Nike

But what we know for sure about the 1980 production is that it was real. And it helped. Nike even created a The One Line catalog and these blue nylon shoes with the white stripe were produced, although it is unknown where they were sold.

Knight said in a speech at Stanford in 2019 that The One Line had sold “a few thousand pairs” and cut tariffs by two-thirds.

Since the new name Nike – it officially changed its name from Blue Ribbon Sports in 1971 – was preparing to go public in 1980, Knight knew he had to settle his feud with the US government before the IPO, so The One Line’s all-out assault was put on hold as the two sides reached a $9 million deal that put the price fight behind them.

It’s entirely possible that The One Line started with Chinese samples – very few pairs of shoes have been seen in the wild 40 years later and the ones that say “made in China” are a size 9 sample – to get everything sorted before the Exeter works. This makes sense from a commercial standpoint and could explain both the Chinese versions of The One Line and the Knight stories of Exeter’s production to meet US retail price requirements.

Either way, The One Line is a little-known, but essential part of Nike’s history. And now Nike recognizes the importance of The One Line with a modern Air Force 1. Maybe next time we’ll have a reborn Oceania.


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