Since its inception, Nike has created an extensive portfolio of classic designs and legendary silhouettes. But while many have dominated the market and occupied the spotlight momentarily, there’s one sneaker that’s aced the test of time above all others: the Nike Cortez. Track shoe turned streetwear staple, the sneaker has become a cornerstone of the industry by heavily influencing the fashion, music and film scenes. Here, we look back at the history of the Nike Cortez and how it secured its place in the sneaker hall of fame. 

The Cortez was designed by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman when the brand still operated under the name Blue Ribbon Sports. Bowerman, a track coach at University of Oregon, created the sneaker as an alternative to other running shoes which were poor quality, uncomfortable and lacked durability. Made in collaboration with Onitsuka Tiger — now known as ASICS — the Cortez’s thick midsole and EVA foam cushioning appealed to both long-distance trainers and road runners, setting it apart from the competition.

Despite the shoe’s commercial release not coming until 1972, it was first drafted in 1967 — dubbed “Mexico” to celebrate the Olympic Games the following year. After the Olympics came to an end, Bowerman decided to change the shoe’s name — this time looking for something more catchy. The Nike legend opted for “The Aztec” to pay homage to Mexico’s heritage, however adidas threatened to sue as the German brand had already released a similar style — the Azteca Gold. Alongside his business partner Phil Knight, Bowerman updated the name for a third and final time to “Cortez” after Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who caused the fall of the Aztec Empire.

Upon its release, the Cortez was an instant bestseller throughout America. The shoe’s sales helped the company hit its end-of-year revenue projection, causing supply problems for Blue Ribbon Sports. “It was simply too popular”, said Knight, “we’d gotten people hooked on the thing, turned them into full-blown Cortez addicts, and now we couldn’t meet the demand”. It became Blue Ribbon Sports’ mission to manufacture its own shoes. Shortly after, the company rebranded and Nike was born.

By the ‘80s, the Cortez had taken over the Los Angeles fashion scene. The sneaker’s classic look, simple colour schemes and affordable price made it a staple for working class and low-income families. Spearheaded by Californian musician Easy-E, the Nike Cortez became an integral part of hip-hop subgenres and gangster rap, and cemented itself within the Black, Hispanic and Latino communities in the city.

As the Cortez continued to reign supreme in the 1990s, it was soon adopted by A-Listers, tastemakers and sports personalities — like Farrah Fawcett in Charlie’s Angels, Tom Cruise and John McEnroe. The shoe secured its spot as an icon of popular culture when it featured in the award-winning film Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks, while Whitney Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl performance propelled the sneaker into stardom.

Today, the Nike Cortez extends its legacy through high-profile collaborations and retro iterations. The Nike and sacai partnership saw the duo honour the silhouette’s 50th anniversary with the OG-inspired Nike Cortez 4.0 x sacai White University Red Blue. Adorned with a traditional colourway, stacked Swooshes and co-branded details effortlessly fuse the past and the present. Additional collaborations that have paved the way for a new era of Cortez sneakers include Union LA, Stranger Things and Kendrick Lamar.

While the Cortez’s endurance is noteworthy, it’s also unsurprising. The silhouette’s timelessness and simplicity has allowed it to transcend the seasonal trends, while its connection to pop culture and music makes it one of the most recognisable styles on the planet. A versatile shoe with endless staying power, the Nike Cortez appeals to every generation.