After The Last Dance took over our screens in the spring, Air Jordan resale prices skyrocketed. Those rising prices served as proof that in today’s influencer-driven sneaker economy, there’s still nothing that can make a shoe a must-have like putting it on the coolest people on the planet and making sure everyone sees it. Case in point: even decades after its original TV run, there are still few sneaker texts as formative or influential as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The show, which ran for six seasons from 1990-96, recently made something of a generational resurgence, with HBO Max treating the series as a flagship offering on its launch at the end of May. The full run being readily available via streaming (and the recently announced dramatic reboot in development) puts it squarely back in the zeitgeist for the first time in ages—and happens to coincide with series star Will Smith (not to be confused with his character, uh, Will Smith) being back in the spotlight for better (Bad Boys For Life is pretty good!) and worse (turning “entanglement” into a loaded word) in a way the once-most bankable movie star in the world hasn’t been in quite some time. On top of all that, this year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the key sneakers the show helped make famous: the Air Jordan 5.
And Fresh Prince’s sneaker legacy literally begins with that shoe. Smith rocks a pair throughout the show’s opening title sequence, one of the most famous in the history of television. The Black/Metallic 5—the last of the pre-championship-era Jordans—is the primary sneaker on display (though eagle-eyed heads may notice some rad vintage Converse hoop joints on his friends at the playground). He follows them up with a pair of “Fire Red” 5’s in the series’ pilot.
Smith put his own spin on the shoes, yanking out the shoelaces and and relying on the shoes’ interior elastic bands for support. He’d later explain on an episode of Sneaker Shopping that he was taking note from Run-DMC’s laceless adidas Superstars. But at the time, it was just a cool, weird move—and a way, in the Jordan-dominated ‘90s, to make the most famous basketball player on the planet’s signature his own.
Jordans weren’t the end-all-be-all of Will’s wardrobe on Fresh Prince, though. Throughout the series he showed a penchant for Nike basketball joints of all shapes and sizes, and he sparingly rocked with Adidas, too. As such, the show’s six seasons quietly double as a sort of master text of hooping shoes of the era. Smith donned a number of killer basketball silhouettes, from the Air Flight 90 in a number of episodes to the immortal Air Penny 1 ‘Orlando’ during the series finale’s Final Carlton Dance. Not all of them were hits, mind you—Nike’s response to the Reebok Pump, the Air 180 Pump High, proved such a dud that not even Will Smith rocking a pair on Fresh Prince multiple times could help them catch on (the hefty $175 price tag probably didn’t help).
The show made a conscious effort to keep Will’s onscreen wardrobe up with the times, so later seasons saw a wider berth of shoes incorporated into his rotation. While Jordans and basketball shoes were always the bedrock of his sneaker game, he also wound up wearing notable running and training silhouettes like the Air Max 180, Huarache Runner, and Huarache Trainer in season 2.
Behind the scenes, Smith worked closely with his costume designer to ensure that his character’s sneaker game would be untouchable—literally. “I wanted them before they were out. I wanted people to see it on Fresh Prince before they were out,” Smith told Sneaker Shopping. (The extent to which this ended up being the case is a little hard to verify but he definitely sported a pair of Air Force Maxes in an episode that aired around the same time that the Michigan’s Fab Five debuted them in 1993.) Smith’s other priority? “For me, the big thing was color,” he said. “The attitude of the character was always color…whatever was the most colorful [and] nobody could have…They had to see it [on Fresh Prince] and then want to go get it.”