- 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 traveling 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-recognizable 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The 1978 Onitsuka Tiger Tai Chi originally became famous after Bruce Lee wore them with a matching tracksuit in the movie “Game of Death.”
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.
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.
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 “memorialized” in the movie that year, and she said it was inspired by the designs kids were drawing on their sneakers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1989 Reebok’s Pump sneaker debuted at a then-obscene price tag of $170, 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 molded first as a liquid and was the strongest sneaker ever made.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 2005 designer Jeff Staple released his Nike Dunk SB Pigeon. Semmelhack wrote that Nike asked Staple to honor New York City, so naturally he found inspiration from the inescapable bird.
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 honoring legendary boxer Mohammad Ali and his values. Adams focused on the value of 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.
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 colors and scarce availability made this drop “the perfect storm of excitement.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 “rumored 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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