1970s - '80s Nike Colors

Infrared.  Dark Neon Royal.  Volt.  Varsity Red.

These aren’t just colors, they’re official Nike colors: shades whose very sight or mere mention elicit intense emotional responses from serious sneakerheads. 

Nike’s official colors are among the most important proper nouns in the sneaker world.  They’ve transcended their place on box labels and catalog pages to become essential sneakerhead vocabulary.  This shorthand identification has exploded over the past few years as Twitter/TXTspeak along with marketing and SEO efforts contribute to nicknames for every significant release.

Nike introduces new colors each season while continuing to mix in established favorites, a process that evolved gradually over the past forty-plus years into the sharpest pigment protocol in the industry.

As hard as it might be for someone knee deep in the 'sneaker game' to imagine, none of those iconic shades in the lede even existed as late as 1989.  From Nike's early '70s genesis, we see a steady increase in product and attention to detail that reaches a crescendo in conjunction with brilliant new designs and genius marketing moving into the '90s. 

SNEAKERscholar will cover Nike boxes and packaging extensively in another in-depth report to follow shortly.  For now, it suffices to say that from the first 1972 original Cortez until about the time Christopher Cross sailed to the top of the charts, Nike box dimensions, graphics and labels were all over the place.  Some of these orange pop-top sneaker boxes spelled out full basic color names, some abbreviated and others avoided it altogether (possibly because so few colorways were issued during this era).

Toward the end of the 1970s, we see a shift to the orange box with all-white branding and a white strip at the bottom of the front listing product number, name, basic color and size.  This new Nike shoebox displays a maximum of two colors as one to three-letter abbreviations separated by a ‘/’ slash and becomes the established standard moving into the ‘80s

For most of the 1980s, Nike releases are typified by simple color codes like ‘Blk/W’, ‘W/R’ and ‘W/Nat’.  The last of these is a rare example where a specific shade is defined by a name we come to see as ‘official’ as Natural and Dark Royal Blue hint at what’s to come at the end of the decade.

SNEAKERscholar just published our Nike Style Number Guide so you can brush up on official Nike product codes.  For the purposes of this entry on the brand's colors, the relevant detail emerges in 1987 as a new sewn-in tag pops up on some releases toward the end of the year.  The following year sees the entire footwear catalog adopt a consistent approach to this internal labeling, foreshadowing the coming shift in box labels and color nomenclature.

1988 marks the introduction of official color names on boxes and in product catalogs.  New shades are mixed interchangeably with basic names like ‘red’, ‘yellow’ and ‘blue’ in the ‘/ -‘ format that endures to this day.

Nike Basketball's 1988 lineup sticks with team-friendly colorways.  New greys including Cement Grey, Charcoal, Dark Tech Grey, and Tech Grey are the most common new-for-'88 selections.

This division's subtle and gradual adoption belies the rest of the year's releases.  Nike introduces over sixty (!) new colors in 1988 and is suddenly equipped with a range of selections that'd make Crayola Greenstone with envy.

From this introductory overview, we begin counting the past quarter century year by year.  

Join us for a thorough breakdown of all new for 1988 Nike colors.