A renowned pair of Nike knockoffs steps up to the auction block April 20 at Heritage Auctions
. But here's the kicker: These blue-and-white nylon One Line sneakers were actually made by Nike in 1980 to skirt the federal tariff laws that threatened to knock the upstart company off its feet 40 years ago.
That makes these size 9's the most famous forgeries in footwear history.
"It's a remarkable story that offers amazing insight into the interesting history of Nike," says Mike Monahan, who runs the Los Angeles-based vintage sneaker blog and archive The Deffest. "It shows that Nike was hustling, going to lengths no other brand would in order to succeed."
"We are always on the look for extraordinary and historical sneakers at Heritage, and these are certainly no exception," says Taylor Curry, Director of Modern & Contemporary Art. "These sneakers have played a pivotal role in Nike's history, and we are honored and excited to share this story with collectors globally."
In fact, this is the first pair of One Lines ever to hit the market, and Monahan knows their story better than just about anyone this side of Nike founder Phil Knight: Monahan is the owner of this pair of One Lines, which he bought online several years ago for just a few dollars out of curiosity. He bought them solely because they were old and weird, a pair of vintage running shoes whose backstory he wanted to explore on The Deffest.
"In my mind, these were just content for the blog," Monahan says. "I just wanted to explore the history of vintage running shoes, and to be honest, I had no idea what they were. They were in good shape, looked to be unworn, and I thought they would make a good piece. I didn't think twice about it. Because, at the time, it was no big deal."
In fact, Monahan bought them in 2018, placed them in a plastic boy, then put them in climate-controlled storage. And for almost three years, he didn't give them a second thought.
"Then during the pandemic, I was going through the collection for stuff I wanted to write about it, and I pulled them out of the storage," Monahan says. "I thought, 'Oh, these look cool,' then a little bit of Googling later and it was like, 'Oh, wow, this is something much different than I thought.' That's when I discovered they have a pretty colorful history. I had no idea about that story at all. I had to go back and re-read Phil Knight's memoir Shoe Dog, and then I found the passage where he wrote about The One Lines, and it send me down the rabbit hole of trying to cobble to together the whole story."
The whole story came together in a Nov. 21, 2021, post headlined "WHAT ARE THE RAREST NIKE SHOES OF ALL TIME?" Spoiler alert: The answer was The One Line, which Monahan wrote was "one of the rarest pieces of Nike history and may be the most important line of shoes that Nike ever made because they were introduced as a strategy to gain leverage at one of the most consequential moments in Nike's long history to prevent Nike from going out of business."
As Knight wrote in 2016's Shoe Dog, toward the end of 1977 he received an envelope from the U.S. Customs Service in Washington, D.C. Knight opened it, he wrote, and "my hands started to shake. It was a bill. For $25 million."
According to Nike's founder, as best he could tell, "the federal government was saying that Nike owned customs duties dating back three years, by virtue of something called the 'American Selling Price," an old duty-assessing method." The exorbitant demand confounded Knight and his vice president Rob Strasser, who read the letter and said, "This can't be real." Because it if was, that meant Nike owed the government $25 million, which would have put the shoe company out of business.
But, no. It was real. Very, very real.
"And its origins were sinister," Knight wrote. "Our American competitors, Converse and Keds, plus a few small factories in other words, what was left of the American shoe industry were all behind it. They'd lobbied Washington, in an effort to slow our momentum, and their lobbying had paid off, better than they'd ever dared hope. They'd managed to convince customs officials to effectively hobble us by enforcing the American Selling Price, an archaic law that dated back to the protectionists days, which preceded some say promoted the Great Depression."
As Knight explained, the ASP dictated that the import duties on nylon shoes must be 20 percent of the manufacturing cost of the shoe, unless there was a "similar shoe" made by a U.S. competitor. In that case, Knight wrote, the duty "must be 20 percent of the competitor's selling price." Which means that all Nike's competitors had to do was "make a few shoes in the United States, get them declared 'similar,' then price them sky high and boom. They could send our import duties sky high, too."
Which is exactly what happened. Problem was, $25 million was almost every cent Nike made in 1977. Paying up meant closing up. Knight, who would later describe this moment as the most terrifying in Nike's history, was spoiling for a fight.
Knight and his Nike colleagues spent two years lobbying the Treasury Department and the senators from Oregon in the hopes of erasing the bill. But in early 1980, Knight hatched a crazy plan: Nike would create its own shoe that would essentially compete with Nike "as a new reference point in deciding our import duty."
That shoe was essentially a cheap version of the Nike Oceania "a running shoe with nylon uppers" called One Line, Knight wrote. "A knockoff, dirt cheap, with a simple logo." As J. B. Strasser and Laurie Becklund wrote in Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There, the sole reason the One Line existed was "to produce exact copies of Nike shoes made offshore that could be used by Customs to make comparisons rather than the higher-priced models" made by its competitors.
And in the span of 48 hours, Nike had a logo the "We're No. 1" finger created by future Air Jordan 1 designer Peter Moore and a new shoe with a thick single line replacing the iconic swoosh. The One Lines were then sold to discount outlets "at very low but marginally profitable price," Knight told the Stanford Graduate School of Business' graduates in 2017. "No one could copy us closer than we could copy ourselves."
Knight said Nike sold "a couple thousand pairs" of One Line sneakers while managing to get the feds to reduce its tariff bill to $9 million, which Nike could easily afford by 1980. By then its revenue had spiked to $140 million a year.
Were it not for Monahan's find four years ago, it's likely history would have erased the One Lines. The sole reminder of their existence is an old advertising pamphlet long ago sold at auction. So fascinating was his find that Complex followed up with its own post in December 2021 ("How Nike Bootlegged Its Own Sneakers"), which called The One Lines "a little-known, yet critical portion of Nike's history."
Monahan says he hopes his One Lines wind up in the hands of a Nike collector, or even someone at the shoe company, who wants to take advantage of his own "happy accident." He bought them solely to tell their story. And now that it's out there, he says, it's time for someone else to run with it.