- Looking back as far as the 1820s, sneakers have been changing the way people think about footwear, according to sneaker historians.
- Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto; Nick Engvall, founder of Sneaker History; and Alex Wang, sneaker historian at GOAT; told Business Insider about how certain pairs of sneakers have left their mark on both creators and consumers through the years.
- Semmelhack curated the 2015 travelling exhibit called “The Rise of Sneaker Culture.” Her notes on the exhibit are quoted in this story.
- From the pre-Chuck-Taylor days at Converse to the ever-recognisable Air Jordans and the revival of the Fila Disruptor – a shoe that gained momentum during the 2018 “ugly fashion” movement – it seems like there is always something new happening in the world of athletic footwear.
- Here are the 59 most iconic sneakers from the past two centuries.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In the 1820s, a rubber overshoe made its mark. Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, told Business Insider they were the start of iconic sneaker wear. She wrote in her exhibition notes for “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” that once Westerners became interested in the rubber being made in Brazil, these overshoes were first to enter the market.
Fast forward to the 1890s, and Goodyear Rubber Manufacturing Company was making shoes for athletes. Semmelhack wrote that these shoes are relatively simple, but they have an air of elegance to them. “The attention to detail … reflects the fact that the intended clientele was relatively privileged,” she wrote.
Courtesy of Bata Shoe MuseumThere are small details like leather tabs beneath the lacing that nod to luxury.
In 1916 the United Rubber Company introduced its first sneaker, the Keds Champion. This style is so iconic that it’s withstood the test of time and is still on the market more than 100 years later — with slight upgrades, of course — wrote Semmelhack.
In 1917 the Converse Rubber Shoe Company introduced its indoor gym shoe. The white canvas colorway seen here was called the Non Skid, and the brown colorway — not pictured — was called the All Star.
Courtesy of ConverseBoth colorways had the same features, like the iconic toe cap, toe bumper, licence plate at the heel, and an inner ankle patch, Semmelhack wrote.
In 1934 the iconic Converse All Star shoes got a very important upgrade: Chuck Taylor’s name was added to the logo. The shoes had adopted alterations throughout the years, but Semmelhack wrote that this was the most dramatic. After all, there are plenty of people today who simply refer to these as “Chucks.”
Back in 1950 the Adidas Samba was designed to be worn in icy conditions. Semmelhack wrote that it picked up steam in the ’60s and then was remodeled in the ’70s and given a new purpose: indoor soccer. She wrote that it then became one of the best-selling sneakers in Adidas history.
In 1965 the Adidas Gazelle was introduced as a soccer shoe. Semmelhack wrote that fans of the sport loved wearing the shoe, too. Soon enough, they became what we would refer to today as a lifestyle sneaker — they were being worn “in the pursuit of fashion rather than just fitness,” she wrote.
In 1968 the Puma Suede was introduced as a basketball sneaker. Nick Engvall, founder of Sneaker History, told Business Insider that the shoes became legendary after Olympian Tommy Smith became the first man to run 200 meters in less than 20 seconds. He “carried his Suedes to the podium and raised his fist in protest of racial inequality,” Engvall said. Soon after, the Suede became “a staple in the hip-hop world and a go-to for b-boys breakdancing throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he said.
In 1969 the Adidas Superstar made waves as the first low-cut, leather basketball sneaker, according to Semmelhack. It also earned the nickname “Shell Toe” because of the shape of the shoe’s toe area.
Getty/Miquel BenitezThe Superstar is still being made and has become the basis for many Adidas collaborations.
The 1971 Adidas Stan Smith was essentially a rebranding of the 1964 version of the shoe designed for Robert Haillet. The 1971 remake featured the image of tennis star Stan Smith on the tongue, but with Haillet’s name — the tongue didn’t say Stan Smith until 1977. Later versions of the shoe featured minor detail changes.
Courtesy of Nick Engvall/Sneaker HistorySemmelhack wrote that the 1980s version featured Smith’s signature on the tongue and the Adidas brand embellishment on the heel.
In 1972 Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman released a lightweight running shoe under their company’s then-new name, Nike. This Cortez style was the first of the iconic brand and was designed by Bowerman himself.
Courtesy of GOATBefore the Cortez, Knight and Bowerman’s brand was called Blue Ribbon Sports.
The 1973 Puma Clyde is considered the first signature basketball sneaker in history. They were created for New York Knicks player Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who wanted to put his own spin on the already iconic Puma Suede, Engvall said.
Courtesy of GOATEngvall said, thanks to Frazier, the Clyde ‘became one of the most recognisable and respected sneakers of the all-time.’
Source: Bleacher Report
The creation of the 1974 Nike Waffle Trainer has become “one of the most well-known stories in sneaker history,” Engvall said. He said that Bowerman was trying to create a shoe with the best traction of any on the market and started experimenting with his wife’s waffle iron. It resulted in the waffle pattern on the bottom of the shoe below.
Courtesy of GOATUnfortunately, it also resulted in a ruined waffle iron.
In 1976, Vans collaborated with skateboarders to create The Vans #95, which has become known as the Era style. The padded ankle lining and variety of colorways have helped make it the “shoe of choice for a generation of skateboarders.”
Courtesy of GOATSemmelhack told Business Insider this iconic sneaker was ‘created on the advice of skateboarders.’
Today, the 1977 Bata x Wilson x John Woodens remains “one of the most sought-after sneakers by sneaker collectors,” according to Semmelhack. She wrote that the signature shoes were available for only one year and featured a revolutionary polyurethane sole, making it lightweight, reducing fatigue, and increasing endurance.
Courtesy of Bata Shoe MuseumJohn Wooden is the only person inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, Semmelhack wrote.
The 1978 Onitsuka Tiger Tai Chi originally became famous after Bruce Lee wore them with a matching tracksuit in the movie “Game of Death.”
Courtesy of mlee0517Semmelhack wrote that they resurfaced and relaunched onto the market after Uma Thurman wore a similar outfit in the 2003 film ‘Kill Bill.’
In 1981 Saucony worked with podiatrist Frank Santopietro to create a lightweight, breathable shoe that would fit in with the most on-trend form of exercise at the time: running. They called it the Jazz, and Engvall said it became the building block for future Saucony models.
Courtesy of GOATThe Jazz has been called the ‘best-quality’ running sneaker of the ’80s.
Source: All Sole
1982 marked the beginning for the legendary Nike Air Force 1. Engvall said they earned the nickname “Uptowns” on basketball courts across New York City, and that they “started the sneaker culture as we know it today,” referencing continuous releases of new colorways decades later.
Courtesy of GOATThe original 1982 pair was the same style as the pair pictured above but used grey instead of royal blue for accents.
Also in 1982, the Vans Checkerboard slip-on appeared on the big screen in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Semmelhack wrote that of all the Vans styles, this is the most iconic. The style was “memorialised” in the movie that year, and she said it was inspired by the designs kids were drawing on their sneakers.
Courtesy of GOATIn 2019 they can be seen on the street and red carpets alike.
Semmelhack called the 1984 Adidas Micropacer “revolutionary.” It integrated computer technology with athletics and featured a microsensor in the toe that tracked distance, running pace, and even calorie consumption. Wearers could see collected information on the screen built into the left tongue.
Courtesy of Bata Shoe MuseumThe colorway and style of tongue covers were also an intentional nod to the futuristic vibe of this sneaker.
Semmelhack aptly gave 1985’s most iconic sneaker spot to the very first Air Jordan 1s. The pair appeared on the court in 1984 and were actually banned from the NBA, but Michael Jordan — the rookie for whom the shoes were designed and named — continued to wear them anyway. “Jordan’s defiant flouting of the rules combined with his athletic prowess transformed his footwear into icons,” Semmelhack wrote.
Semmelhack calls the 1986 Converse Weapon “one of the most advanced basketball shoes of the era.” The design offered maximum stability, and it was worn by both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two basketball greats, during the ’86 NBA Finals.
Courtesy of ConverseMagic Johnson wore the Weapon in the LA Lakers colorway seen here while playing for the team.
The 1987 Nike Air Max 1 was designed by Tinker Hatfield and inspired by the Pompidou Center in Paris, Engvall told Business Insider. He said Hatfield loved the “inside-out” design of the building, which inspired the window on the heel of the shoe, making the cushioning tech visible.
Courtesy of Nick Engvall/Sneaker HistoryHatfield is an icon himself, having designed some of the most iconic Nike sneakers to date. He currently serves as Nike’s vice president for design and special projects.
The 1988 Nike Air Jordan 3 “remains one of the most celebrated” pairs of Air Jordans to date, Semmelhack wrote. They were the first Jordans to feature the Jumpman logo, and the printed leather met MJ’s desire for a shoe that looked instantly worn-in, she wrote.
Courtesy of Nick Engvall/Sneaker HistoryThe retro of this style featured the Nike Air logo on the heel.
In 1989 Reebok’s Pump sneaker debuted at a then-obscene price tag of $US170, which helped to put it on the map. Semmelhack wrote that the sneaker’s pumping mechanism, which was used to make the most custom-fit shoe possible, was inspired by the tech in ski boots.
Courtesy of GOATThe circle on the tongue is what wearers press to pump up the inner padding.
In 1990 Hatfield launched another Air Max after the first one became so popular. The new Nike Air Max 90 kept the airbag visible, but Semmelhack added he “broke the midsole into two sections to allow for increased performance when running.”
Courtesy of GOATShe also credited its ‘instant classic’ status to the ‘post-modern architecture’ and colour-blocking technique.
In 1991 Jordan won his first NBA championship while wearing the Air Jordan 6. This shoe had a few new features like the “spoiler” — a nod to race cars — included for easy on-and-off transitions, and a reinforced toe requested by MJ himself.
Courtesy of Nick Engvall/Sneaker HistorySemmelhack also wrote that this was the last pair of Jordans to feature a window in the midsole.
The 1993 Reebok Instapump Fury was originally designed to have both laces and a manually inflatable “bladder.” But when it was finally constructed, the shoe ended up coming equipped with carbon dioxide cartridges in the instep that inflated the shoe automatically, eliminating the need for laces, Semmelhack wrote.
Courtesy of GOATThe shoe was used during the 1992 Summer Olympics and was released on the market in 1993.
1994 was Jordan’s first year in retirement from the NBA. But even though he wasn’t wearing the new Air Jordan 9 on the court, there were still plenty of other players who were. While the one-pull lacing system was a cool feature, Semmelhack wrote that it was the multi-language collection of inspirational quotes on the outsole that made this shoe special.
Courtesy of GOAT and Courtesy of GOATShe said it was Hatfield’s way of nodding to Jordan’s international superstar status.
In 1995 Jordan Brand introduced the Air Jordan 11. “Tinker made them shine. Mike made them fly. Sneakerheads made them iconic,” Engvall said of the shoe. He told Business Insider that Jordan asked Hatfield to make him a sneaker “he could wear on the court, as well as when he was dressed up. The result is one of the most important sneakers in history.”
Courtesy of Nick Engvall/Sneaker HistoryJordan wore this style — in a different colorway — in ‘Space Jam.’
In 1996 the Reebok Question became basketball player Allen Iverson’s first signature sneaker, Engvall told Business Insider. The sneaker featured cushioning in a way that Engvall says pays tribute to Jordan, Iverson’s idol. The shoes were popular in their own right — so much so that Reebok and Iverson continued to release new colorways for nearly five years.
Engvall dubbed the 1997 Nike Air Foamposite One “Nike’s most outside-the-box sneaker design of all time.” He told Business Insider the shoe was moulded first as a liquid and was the strongest sneaker ever made.
Courtesy of GOATEngvall said it didn’t sell well — it was priced at $US180 — but it ‘became a status symbol in the streets and started an entire sneaker movement in the Delaware, Maryland, Virginia area.’
The 1998 Reebok DMX Run brought Reebok back into the conversation of sneaker technology, Alex Wang, sneaker historian at GOAT, told Business Insider. The series of cushioning chambers made the shoe technically accurate in terms of support and pressure on runners’ feet.
Courtesy of ReebokWang said the cushioning tech meant the heel was taking most of the impact, and then transferring the air to the front of the foot, where pressure would come from next.
The 1999 Air Jordan 14 was inspired by Jordan’s Ferrari 550 Maranello. It was the last shoe the star wore on the court as a Chicago Bull. The shoes made only one on-court appearance during his very last game with the Bulls — the team won their second “three-peat” that game.
Courtesy of GOATThe inlaid logo seen above pays homage to the Ferrari logo on Jordan’s car.
In 2000 Vincent Carter was wearing the And1 Tai Chi when he won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. The event came seven years after the And1 brand was first created and solidified the sneaker’s spot in the “hypothetical sneaker hall of fame,” Engvall told Business Insider.
Courtesy of Nick Engvall/Sneaker History‘It almost overnight became one of the most legendary basketball shoes both on and off the court,’ Engvall said.
The 2001 Reebok x Chanel Instapump Fury is a legendary shoe for any Reebok collector to own, Semmelhack wrote. The shoes were never released onto the market — they appeared on the Chanel runway — but the dull colorway and oversized Chanel logo on the heel still made a lasting impression on both sneakerheads and high-fashion appreciators.
Courtesy of ReebokIt was the first time a luxury brand collaborated with an athleticwear brand, Semmelhack wrote.
In 2002 Adidas partnered with couture designer Yohji Yamamoto to create the Adidas x Yohji Yamamoto YY Promodel 2G. Semmelhack said this shoe was iconic because it marked one of the first times an artist of this calibre collaborated with a sportswear brand. “In typical Yamamoto style he took a traditional form, the high-top, and put his inimitable stamp on it,” she said.
Courtesy of Adidas‘Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto is one of the industry’s most avant-garde designers,’ Semmelhack wrote.
In 2003 Nike and Supreme released possibly their most iconic collaboration to date: the Dunk SB Hi Pro. Semmelhack wrote that there were only 1,000 pairs released in the colorway seen here and that they were only released in the US and Tokyo.
Courtesy of GOATComplex calls them a staple for the ‘ideal image of a Hypebeast in the mid-2000s.’
The 2004 Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 paid homage to “classic basketball design principles” while staying modern in a post-Foamposite market, Semmelhack wrote. She also said it aimed to strike a chord with consumers who were part of the then-emerging push for retros.
Courtesy of GOATSemmelhack quoted Eric Avar, vice president of design at Nike, in saying these were meant to be classic in design yet executed in a ‘very modern way.’
In 2005 designer Jeff Staple released his Nike Dunk SB Pigeon. Semmelhack wrote that Nike asked Staple to honour New York City, so naturally he found inspiration from the inescapable bird.
Courtesy of GOATShe wrote that on release day there were way more people in line than there were shoes. Riots ensued, and the sneaker remains one of the most sought-after pairs today.
The 2006 Alife x Reebok Court Victory Pump Ball Out combined the ideas of the streetwear brand with the form and function of the Reebok pump model. This sneaker was designed to resemble a tennis ball and was made using similar, fuzzy materials.
In 2007 the Cey Adams-designed Adidas Superstar dropped. Semmelhack wrote that it was part of a larger project honouring legendary boxer Mohammad Ali and his values. Adams focused on the value of confidence.
Courtesy of mario101gamersdHe used images of the athlete and writing that exemplified his confidence.
The 2008 New Balance 993 became “the quintessential ‘dad shoe,'” Engvall told Business Insider. He said it was one of the first New Balance shoes to be made in the US and come in a variety of widths.
Courtesy of GOATIt was an updated version of the 1982 990 style.
In 2009 Kanye West, whose nickname is “the Louis Vuitton Don,” released a line of collaboration sneakers with the fashion house. The below shoe was aptly called the Don’s. Semmelhack wrote that they were “the epitome of luxury” at the time, featuring “premium materials and 24K gold shoelace rings.
Courtesy of GOATThere were three different styles and 10 different colorways that were released as a part of this collaborative collection.
Source: Sneaker News
In 2010 basketball shoes hit a peak, according to Engvall. LeBron James had made the move to Miami and Nike was celebrating with a “South Beach” colorway of the LeBron 8 shoe. The bright colours and scarce availability made this drop “the perfect storm of excitement.”
Courtesy of Nick Engvall/Sneaker HistoryEngvall said it went on to become one of the first LeBron sneakers to resell for four to five times the original price.
In 2010 Vashtie Kola, a New York City street style influencer, became the first female to collaborate on an Air Jordan retro. Semmelhack thought this was one of the most iconic sneakers from the first year of the new decade, and Wang agreed. He told Business Insider that Kola completely “made it her own.”
Courtesy of GOATShe chose to feature shades of purple on the ‘suede and nubuck upper’ of the Air Jordan 2, according to Wang.
Semmelhack named the Concepts x New Balance 999 Hyannis a 2011 icon. Wang added that the shoe paid homage to Hyannis Port in Massachusetts, as both Concepts and New Balance are New England-based brands. He said this was the first of many collaborations that would come from the duo.
Courtesy of GOATThe design has somewhat of a nautical theme.
In 2012 West released his second sneaker with Nike: the Air Yeezy 2. Engvall said this shoe was even more popular than the rapper’s first Nike release, mainly thanks to his rising social presence, influence, and relationship with Kim Kardashian. Engvall calls it “the most sought-after sneaker for the summer of 2012.”
2013 wasn’t the first time Japanese retailer Atmos worked with Nike. But the Air Max 1 they released that year was “one of the most memorable Maxes to date,” Wang told Business Insider. It combined a woodland camouflage print with snakeskin texture to create the “Animal Camo” style for the sneaker.
Courtesy of GOATAtmos’ Hommyo Hidefumi has become known for his collaborations.
The 2014 Adidas x Rick Owens Runner is Semmelhack’s pick for that year’s sneaker icon. Wang agreed, saying it was the perfect combination of both brands: an impeccably crafted, functional running shoe and a sleek, structural, artistic design.
Courtesy of GOATIts shape is undoubtedly the work of Rick Owens.
Semmelhack named the 2015 FENTY x Puma Creeper one of the most iconic sneakers of that year. Footwear News reported that the shoe — which was the first collaboration between the singer and athletic brand — was so hyped up that it sold out within three hours of dropping.
Courtesy of GOATIt was part of the first of many iconic designs that would come out of Rihanna’s Fenty brand.
Source: Footwear News
The 2015 announcement of this Adidas sneaker was made in collaboration with a UN-backed non-profit: Parley for the Oceans. It was the first of a larger collaboration project and featured an upper made entirely from recycled plastic and illegal gillnets — or fishing equipment — found in the ocean. According to Semmelhack, this greater-good collab was also one of the year’s most iconic prototypes.
Courtesy of AdidasThe prototype for the shoe was released in 2015, but it wasn’t released onto the market until 2016.
This 2015 sneaker launched its brand, Common Projects, into the realm of “cult status,” Semmelhack wrote. The minimalist design, low-batch yet high-quality manufacture, and “cryptic” numbering system stamped in gold on the side heel make The Achilles the epitome of “stripped-down luxury.”
Courtesy of GOATSemmelhack wrote that this was the first shoe designed by the Common Projects founders after they launched their company.
Another 2015 icon is the Adidas Ultraboost. Engvall said it was one of the brand’s “most successful sneakers of the modern era,” using tech that was “rumoured to be developed by NASA and BASF.” It was dubbed the “world’s greatest running shoe” by the brand itself, according to Engvall.
The 2016 Pharrell Williams x Adidas Originals NMD Human Race brand was iconic on many levels, Wang told Business Insider. Not only were they comfortable and functional — they combined the Boost tech with a sock-like upper — but they encouraged positivity through colorways and in-your-face wording.
Courtesy of GOATThe collaboration continued to grow with new styles, colorways, words of positivity, and clothing items.
Farfetch wrote that the 2017 Zebra Yeezy Boost 350 V2 might be “the most quintessential Yeezy sneaker ever.” A product of Kanye’s move from Nike to Adidas, this sneaker is an evolved play on the Ultraboost. Farfetch reports Stadium Goods — a sneaker resale hub — calls this shoe and colorway “one of the best Yeezy Boost 350s to exist.”
Courtesy of Nick Engvall/Sneaker HistoryYeezys have become a staple for sneakerheads, according to Farfetch.
In 2017 Jordan Brand called on famed street artist Brian Donnelly, commonly known as KAWS, to design a variation of the Air Jordan 4. The KAWS signature art and “XX” on the heels turned these classics into works of art themselves, Wang told Business Insider.
Courtesy of GOATThe ‘XX’ design is commonly seen on KAWS figures as eyes.
In 2018 Travis Scott collaborated on an Air Jordan 4 sneaker under the name of his record label, Cactus Jack. A Houston native, he took colour inspiration from the Houston Oilers football team — now the Tennessee Titans — and added some personal flair, Wang said.
Courtesy of GOATOne heel plate features the Jumpman logo while the other features the Cactus Jack logo.
After 22 years Engvall said the Fila Disruptor 2 had finally “come into its own” in 2018. “From the feet of Fashion Week trendsetters in Tokyo, Paris, and Milan, to collaborations with sneaker boutiques in New York City, Los Angeles, and more, the Disruptor 2 was the perfect combination of trendy, stylish, affordable, and easily available,” he said.
Courtesy of GOAT2018 was the year of the ‘ugly shoe,’ and this style was everywhere.
- Read more stories in our Sneaker World series:
- Shoppers are now willing to drop hundreds of dollars on sneakers – and they might need to spend even more in the future
- A company that bills itself as a stock market for sneakers is worth $US1 billion. Now it wants to abolish fixed prices for collectibles altogether.
- Here are the most expensive Air Jordans to sell on StockX and Stadium Goods, where rare pairs have gone for as much as $US20,000
- Photos show the rise and fall of Nike’s iconic Air Jordan sneakers – and how the shoes are making a comeback 15 years after Michael Jordan’s retirement
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