Nike Cortez History: Famous Shoes of LA

By: Sum Patten

nike cortez history shoes white cortes
The Classic White / Black Cortez

The Nike Cortez is as much a part of Los Angeles history as the film industry, the Lakers and the Watts riots. With a little help from LA’s Soul Assassins, we’ll break down how Nike’s most street-savvy shoe made it from the boardroom to the hood to a classic collectible…

Cities and their shoes have always had a special relationship.

The shoes the people wear tend to tell the tale of the city, especially in street and hip-hop culture. When you think of New York City you might imagine deep snow and Timberlands; you might remember when you used to ask why New York cats rock Tims in 90 degree weather… or on the beach. When you hear Atlanta, it may put you in the mind of Air Force Ones or all black Reeboks. You can hear the slow drawl and see the wife beaters of cats leaned on tricked out Cadillacs in all white Air Forces.

But no shoe, perhaps, has ever been tattooed into a city’s history like the Nike Cortez has been into the lifeblood of the Los Angeles streets.It’s hard to think about L.A. without seeing Dickies…and it’s hard to see Dickies without seeing a pair of Cortez under the cuffs. Police chases, repping your set, NWA videos, hopping fences, gangster music…and Nike Cortez. That’s L.A. street life. But it might goes back further than the last Game video you saw… waaaay further. Let’s start somewhere in the middle though.

THE HISTORY of the NIKE CORTEZ

bill bowerman crafts the cortez nike shoe
Designer & Track Coach Bill Bowerman

The Cortez reaches all the way back to 1968, before Nike was even Nike, Inc. Before Nike, Inc. was even a real shoe company that used terms like “Anti-wear plug” and “herringbone sole” to describe their products.
It all started with an Olympic-class track coach. Designer and track coach Bill Bowerman originally intended for his new shoe, the “Corsair”, to be used for distance training. This is the same guy who brought the idea of jogging to America. He had no idea what kind of running people were going to do in that shoe…especially once the Corsair was reintroduced to the world and the L.A. streets as the “Cortez” in 1972 under the Nike brand, right when gang banging was taking flight in a major way. Nike itself described the shoe as having a “…thick, long wearing outer sole, full length sponge with a mid-sole cushion to absorb road shock and reduce leg fatigue.” Road shock and leg fatigue….indeed.
Almost 40 years after being called “the most comfortable shoe ever” by one of America’s leading marathoners, the one-of-a-kind sponge soled shoe that was the first to ever rock the famous Nike swoosh, is a collectors item and fashion statement. No longer restricted to being worn by gang bangers and hustlers on the corner, the Cortez is now getting customized by the likes of Mister Cartoon and getting sold on eBay for a pretty shiny penny. The tradition is rich, the history is deep and the shoe is respected. L.A.’s own Soul Assassins offered up some game on the history and impact of Los Angeles’ official shoe.

“The first Cortez that ever came out was some leather and they had red on em,” O.G. Lepke breaks it down. “Most of us in the Los Angeles area of the brown and Black races didn’t really rock tennis shoes until we knew we was goin’ somewhere we had to run from the police. We was wearin’ Stacy Adams, floorshines, French toes, and biscuits before that. Then the Chuck Taylor was first tennis shoe, but I always keep a set of Nike Cortez.”

We can safely figure that the Cortez was released nationwide, but for some reason Los Angeles really took the ball and ran with it. Soul Assassin family member Tony G. explains it pretty simply, “Cortez represents L.A.. everybody had em. They were big in LA because they were meant to be a running shoe but they fit really good with Dickie pants and Levis.”

Mister Cartoon weighs in.

Legendary tattoo/graffiti artist, Mister Cartoon weighs in on how it happened while inking a new client in his parlor at SA Studios in LA. “Cortez is something that came alive in the 80s but it was adopted here and in New York. OG cats were wearing em in NY, but it just stuck out here. NY moved on to Air Force Ones and dunks but it became a gang member shoe here. Cats used to triple tie the laces, or only wear blue to rep the Southside. They got real popular in the 90s.  If you seen someone wearing Cortez, you knew they were affiliated. If you wasn’t affiliated and wearing Cortez, you might as well be, because you will get confronted just wearing those shoes. If you team em up with the Dickies and the white tee, then you definitely affiliated.”

THE RULES

In a city where affiliation was often a matter of life and death, what you represented meant everything; and you represented through what you wore. In the entertainment capital of the world, appearance truly means everything. From the color of the shoe, to the color of the laces, during the 80s and 90s everything was significant. “The swoosh was different colors,” Lepke clarifies.

“The first was red, then there was blue. Then they had the ones where it looked like a Swoosh with the dots, then you had the canvas ones. Then the blue ones got outlawed in the 80s when there was so much gang violence. Then the treaty happened…but the blue ones are back now because things have calmed down and Nike is gonna make their money. But over here the shoestrings and the color of the shoestrings still signify whether you a rider. See I rock the white Cortez with the black strings, so it’s like I’m neutral. I keep my game neutral. Now white people wear them when they play racquetball.”

Things definitely change over the years,… but of course some things don’t change at all. The laws still stand as firm now as they did 20 years ago with how to style…there are still certain rules to live by when rocking the Cortez properly in Los Angeles.

Tony G. breaks it down a little bit further. “When the teeth are gone, you gotta get new ones. You can’t walk around in Cortez with the teeth gone.”

“Yeah,” his partner Sal adds. “They have to be bowed up, but not laced all the way… about halfway. [They gotta be] sticking out from under the jeans. The bows gotta be sticking out. If your jeans are too big, the homies around the way stick a thumbtack through the jeans so they aint goin over your shoe. The shoe must be very visible.”

original 1977 nike tradition ad for cortez nike cortes

THE MISTER CARTOON CORTEZ

With all that said, it makes perfect sense that Mister Cartoon would finally get a chance to put his stamp on some Nike. Being one of Los Angeles’ native sons, as well as a highly-respected visual artist and designer means that the planets were aligned for Cartoon to design a Cortez. He was born for it. Although he’s had a chance to stamp everything from phones and lowriders to video games, the Cortez had a particular significance to him. “I was able to design some Air Force Ones, but I wanted to do a shoe that we actually grew up wearing. When I design a shoe, it’s got meaning and purpose behind it.”

For those who don’t know, the Cartoon Cortez comes in three different flavors. The all black joints feature a gold Aztec symbol on the side and an Aztec temple on the ankle. “For the black ones, what you have to understand is that [Hernando] Cortez was a Spaniard that came over on ships to fight the Aztecs.”

Here’s a brief world history lesson for everyone that ever rocked a pair of Cortez… Hernan Cortes (that’s how you might see his name in the books) was a European conquistador who gathered up an army of Spaniards and Native Americans from Central America and the islands to march on a great Aztec city called Tenochtitlan. This city was in what we now call Mexico. The great and famous Aztec warrior-king Moctezuma II actually took Cortes in peacefully and lavished him with gifts of gold, but all that really did was tempt the Spaniards to jack the Aztecs for their gold. Sadly, Moctezuma became a prisoner in his own home while Cortes racked his empire.

“And that’s where Mexicans were born, from the combination of the Spaniards and the Aztecs. Our whole race sprouted from those wars.” And so did this bomb ass shoe, inspired by the rich history of Mexico.

“I took the stitching out the side and gave it a gum bottom, which is more the color of an Indian. The tongue of the Nike Cortes is handball glove and net material, because the Aztec warriors used to play handball. Handball is a ghetto and hood sport, and also the number one sport in the prison system…next to boxing. Its one of the first Nikes to not have a swoosh on it.” Did you catch that? The man moved the Nike source of power out the way and replaced it with heritage…..talk about gangster.

“Then there’s a pyramid on the back. The black and gold is like the San Pedro pirates, my high school.” And there we have it, in a simple and very classy design… what seems like the entire history of the Mexican peoples, their origins and travels from home to the city of lost angles….and Cartoon’s high school colors.

Photo of Nike owner Phil knight with Nike Cortes shoe designer Bill Bowerman

The white shoe is a little less packed with history…but just a little bit. It features the “L.A.” logo embossed in blue, integrated with the swoosh. “When I did the blue and white ones, I took the stitches from the side, so it’s a smooth shoe. The tongue is leather instead of nylon, and the “L.A.” logo is connected with the [swoosh]. It’s a very rare that anything comes even close to the swoosh. This one is better to be crispy and clean, and the colors are close to the Dodger colors too.”

Oh, and the third Cartoon design? “Those are the sickest ones,” Cartoon smiles when they come up. “They only made one pair.”

Guess who got em?

So the history of the Nike Cortez comes full circle, from a concept in the mind of Bill Bowerman and gang banger central to an exclusive collector’s item. An old Cortez poster in SA Studios reads “ Like that funny little German automobile, we’re constantly making those hard to notice but important changes. Nike…the shoe for the seventies.”  With all the history the shoe shares with Lalaland, they Nike might consider rephrasing that statement with a few choice words. A suggestion might be, “Nike Cortez…the official shoe for streets of Los Angeles”.

-Sum Patten

Added note: Great review on a great book: Shoe Dog, Memoir of Phil Knight