There is perhaps no other shoe imbued with as much history, culture and hype as the sneaker.
The first rubber-soled shoes, which appeared in the 1800s, were designed as a solution: athletes needed footwear that was both flexible and durable. Since then, sneakers have been closely entwined with the world of sports like a pair of shoelaces. In fact, a sneaker’s iconic status was often cemented by a pivotal moment — or figure — in sports history.
Today, much of that history is overshadowed by hype. Riding on the streetwear wave, fashion brands like Dior and Prada have taken it upon themselves to reinterpret classic sneaker styles, throwing in a logo or a monogram and calling it day. Game-changing trainers by the likes of Nike and Adidas are constantly reissued, only to be championed by clout chasers and paraded around by celebrities younger than the shoes themselves (we’re looking at you, Kylie Jenner).
Still, if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, it is the sneaker’s power to inspire and captivate the masses. Below, we take a look of some famous designs that did — and why any self-respecting sneakerhead should have them to their collections.
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If Nike sells 25 pairs a second, you can bet that a good share of them are of the Nike Air Force 1. The world’s most famous basketball shoe debuted in 1982 as a high-top sneaker that echoed the silhouette of the Nike Approach hiking boot. But what was revolutionary about it lies in its sole: it was the first basketball shoe to feature Nike’s Air cushioning.
The genius design created by Bruce Kilgore soon became favoured by basketball stars like Moses Malone and Jamal Wilkes, but it was the 1983 low-cut version that took the shoes out of the court and into the streets. Pretty soon, it was on the airwaves too, highlighted in songs by rappers like Jay-Z and Nelly.
Today, you can find the AF1 in various colourways and silhouettes, but nothing beats the classic all-white, low-cut pair.
While basketball had the Nike AF1, tennis had the Adidas Stan Smiths. The name comes from the former world no. 1 American tennis player, who won the US Open in 1971. It was that same year that Adidas reinvented its all-white leather tennis shoes with an image of Smith on its tongue. The minimal design proved popular: 22 million pairs were sold in 1988 alone.
Today, the Adidas Stan Smith still retains its appeal, especially in the green and white colour combination. The cult trainers have also established themselves as a symbol of nonchalant cool, mostly thanks to Phoebe Philo. Fashion’s obsession with the shoes has since spawned beloved versions by Raf Simons, Yohji Yamamoto and Supreme.
Shortly after the Nike Air Force 1 captivated basketball players and fans alike, another sneaker arrived on the court to do exactly the same. Enter the Air Jordan 1, which made its first public appearance in 1984 when it was sported by rookie Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan.
Jordan would go on to establish himself as a basketball legend with one awe-inspiring slam dunk after another. And he did so wearing his black and red Air Jordan 1s sneakers, which broke the NBA’s dress code of white shoes. (Nike paid off the NBA’s US $5,000 fine so that Jordan could continue to wear them.)
Jordan’s rebellious — and winning — streak catapulted his namesake shoes to iconic status. Long after Jordan’s many retirements from the sport, the high-top shoe continues to find fans in similarly irreverent celebrities such as Billie Eilish.
After becoming the first man to run 200 metres in under 20 seconds, African-American sprinter Tommie Smith received his medal at the 1968 Olympics with a raised fist salute. The gesture was known as the Black Power salute — a protest against racial inequality in America. Smith also made another gesture when he took off the Puma Suede sneakers as a way to protest against poverty.
It was that moment that immortalised Puma’s basketball shoes in sneaker history — and Black American culture. The shoes later went on to be endorsed by NBA legend Walter ‘Clyde’ Frazier in 1973, coinciding with the arrival of breakdancing on the streets of New York. With their thick rubber soles, flexible uppers and unique material, the sneakers inevitably became a hit amongst B-Boys.
Most recently, Rihanna reworked the Puma Suede sneakers into equally popular creepers, but the shoes still very much hold their own in their original silhouette.
Converse created its All Star sneakers all the way back in 1917. Still, it wasn’t until the brand added basketball player Chuck Taylor’s name to the high-tops in 1932 that they really took off. The name has stuck, too: today they are often referred simply as “Chucks”.
Since then, the Converse Chuck Taylors became a staple amongst teenagers. You could spot them on the basketball courts just as much as the skating rinks. The canvas sneakers was also big in the music scene, with fans ranging from Wiz Khalifa to bands like Metallica and Green Day.
The best-selling shoes have mostly stuck to their original silhouette (Kaia Gerber owns them in almost every colour), but it retains its connection with youth culture through reinterpretations by the likes of Virgil Abloh.