The sneakers you need to know about.
I speak to a lot of young lads who are right into their sneakers. Hell, they probably have more pairs than I do. But, not to my surprise, they know very little about the history of their sneakers, or the history of sneakers that influenced what we all wear today.
Sure, it’s easy to live in the moment and accept today’s products on aesthetic and comfort values, but every single sneaker on the market today has an origin story — and we’re here to shed some light on it for you.
Today’s high-tech sneakers like the VaporMax, Ultra BOOST and React Elements are a result of an almost century-long refinement process that has deviated, twisted and turned along the way.
Over the years, there have been so many important sneakers. They might not be the best known, they might not be the biggest selling — hell, they might not even be the most loved — but they were damn influential on sneakers in the mainstream or the sneaker culture that we are a part of today.
Let’s make this abundantly clear, this list is in no way a popularity contest. It’s put together on mere influence on the wider market, as well as the “culture”, so please, don’t get upset if your favorite sneaker isn’t on the list.
So now — schools in session!
Here’s a history class worth learning, and probably one you’ll pay full attention to. Here are 25 of the most influential sneakers ever!
25. Nike Air Foamposite
Never has a sneaker been so ambitious than the Nike Air Foamposite. Sure, we have advanced tech these days with self-lacing sneakers, 4D printed midsoles — only God knows whats next. But in 1997, things were pretty typical for Basketball shoes. Leather, Mesh and Suede were the go to fabrics, but Nike decided the hell with that, let’s make an entirely different synthetic material that’s (at the time) light weight, flexible and doesn’t crease.
The Foamposite material was some space-age shit, and it’s fitting that the sneaker looks alien-like, too. Still, to this day, the material hasn’t died. It pushed innovation beyond what anyone else was doing at the time and opened the door for bigger and better projects, like those mentioned above.
24. Osiris D3
Chunky shoes are back in right now, but they didn’t just appear out of thin air. Way back in 2001, Osiris revolutionized the entire skate sneaker industry with the D3.
Dave Mayhew’s signature sneaker was the fattest, most tech-packed skate shoe ever and everyone had to have ’em — even if they broke your ankles.
Still, to this day, they inspire sneakers, most notably, ASAP Rocky’s collaboration with Under Armour, which is practically a straight rip off of these.
23. Air Jordan 4
The Air Jordan 4 is not only influential, but it’s also probably the coolest sneaker ever. Not only did it have the greatest feature of the period — a visible air bubble — but it came packed full of things you thought you’d never ever see on a basketball sneaker; plastic reinforced eyelets on plastic wings, an extended heel tab to pull the shoes on and off and an extended tongue that made the sneaker feel like it was more a fashion piece than a hoop shoe. Plus, it was the first Air Jordan to make it’s way to the silver screen, sighted in Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’.
Because of all these reasons, it became one of the very first Jordans to push its way into pop culture, fashion, and streetwear.
22. Air Jordan 11
Tinker had nothing left to prove when he took on the Air Jordan 11 in 1995.
The dude had racked up so many classic silhouettes over the past decade and more, that he could have easily opted for something a little more, basic.
But that’s not the Hatfield way. Pushing the envelope is what has made Tinker the legend he is today. But patent leather on a basketball sneaker? You were wild for that, Tink!
The creation influenced an entire decade of patent leather popularity for sneakers. The material has now become a staple consideration of any sneaker design process. And still, over two decades later, it is one of the most popular Air Jordan Retros on the market — if not the most popular.
21. Air Jordan 5
Well, we just established Tinker’s wild antics when it came to sneaker design, but before the patent, there was a little material called 3M, probably one of the most popular non-traditional sneaker materials used today.
The other overlooked aspect of the Jordan 5 is it’s clear outsole — another material that was never done before in the Jordan range, and like the 3M, has become a staple for sneaker designers the world around.
20. A Bathing Ape Bapesta
I know what you’re thinking.
How does such a blatant rip off of the Air Force 1 make the list of influential sneakers?
It’s as simple as this; Nike’s Air Force 1, while popular, was pretty set in its ways. Nigo stole it, draped it in patent leather and all sorts of wild colors and prints. Its popularity was an instant success, which forced Nike to do the same with their original.
And forcing Nike to do something like that on arguably the greatest sneaker of all time is a hell of a feat.
The BapeSTA is the reason why the Air Force 1’s popularity is sky high right now — it is, after all, Nike’s highest grossing sneaker in terms of sales.
19. New Balance 576 and 770
I’m pretty sure everybody’s dad had a pair of either, if not both, of these. We had such a hard time debating their influence; we decided to include both.
The New Balance 576 (below) and 770 (above) gave birth to an entire subculture of sneakerheads. Now, you can either love these collectors or hate them, but they are some of the most knowledgeable (and conceited) sneaker purists out there.
Both are timeless classics which didn’t only define a generation, but it continues to inspire the New Balance subculture to this day.
18. Nike Lava Dome
A lot of people won’t even know what the hell these are.
Well, these are the grandaddy of hiking sneakers. When the Lava Dome hit the scene in 1981, right at the start of the 80s fitness wave, light hiking was born.
The design doesn’t scream out “hybrid” as we’ve come to know it, but its Dura-mesh design is both rugged and elegant.
While the ACG line didn’t hit stores from another eight years, the Lava Dome set the stage for the outdoor market and adds another string to the bow of Nike’s notorious innovative feats.
Without the Lava Dome, sneakers like the iconic Mowabb probably wouldn’t have been possible, or even thought up. And that’s a world we don’t ever want to imagine.
17. Nike Air Huarache
Speaking of outdoor sneakers, the Nike Air Huarache was one of the biggest influencers to the ACG range. But its influencing didn’t stop there, it also found it’s way into the Air Jordan range.
A water-skiing bootie and Mayan sandals inspired Tinker Hatfield’s design, and the result changed not only how sneakers looked, but how they fit. And damn, are these comfy.
Like the Air Jordan 4 from two years prior, it incorporated plastic caging — a scarce thing for sneakers of the 90s — and was the first sneaker to include the neoprene bootie, which hugs your foot like a warm, cozy blanket.
16. Reebok Pump
We all remember the cop-cat brands of the 90s, all of whom tried and failed miserably at creating their own inflatable sneakers.
When Reebok introduced the Pump in 1989, it not only was a big push forward in tech, but it also played an important role in pricing. Its retail price was 50% higher than other high-end basketball shoes, but it was clear from its sales that people were willing to pay for tech — especially tech they could see and feel.
15. Reebok Ex-O-Fit
Just one look at that name and you can tell these were a part of the early 80s Fitness boom. They were everywhere.
Not only did the Reebok Ex-O-Fit introduce the use of Velcro — something that has been seen on sneakers from the Air Force 1 to the Air Yeezy — it became an influential beast on mainstream sneaker culture, challenging the way popular society thought of fitness and health.
It was also one of the very first sneakers to be worn outside of its purpose, playing a monumental role in the migration of sneakers from sports to the streets and into fashion. Without this movement, sneakers may have remained on the hardwood and in the gym — and for that reason, the Ex-O-Fit makes the list.
14. Nike Air Trainer 1
While Tinker Hatfield didn’t invent cross-training per se, he did introduce a new kind of cross-training, something like we’ve never seen before — obviously helped along by a massive marketing push by Nike, and some big names in Bo Jackson and John McEnroe.
When it’s original Chlorophyll colorway dropped in 1987, it’s wild design stood out from the pack — just like the two athletes mentioned above that endorsed it.
It is the grandfather of every 90s baseball and football trainer and cleat of the ’90s; it indeed was a game changer. And if anyone could take on the task that so many had failed to do before him, it was Tinker.
13. Vans Half Cab
If we’re talking skate shoes, there is none better than Steve Caballero’s Vans Half Cab. It is, to this day, regarded as the single best skate shoe ever made and is still the preference of skaters around the world.
The way these took off in the early 90s truly shaped skate shoes, with brands desiring to recreate their very own Half Cab-status sneaker. And through all the wild trends we’ve seen in skate, nothing has stood the test of time like the Half Cab.
It’s inspired mid-cut skate shoes to vulcanized soles and extra padding, and is solely responsible for signature models even exist in skateboarding — think of it as the Air Jordan 1 for skate, because in that industry, it’s just as important, and probably twice as influential.
12. adidas Samba
If you’ve never owned a pair of these, where the hell have you been?
It’s the biggest selling adidas shoe of all time, and it truly set the standard for the Three-Stripes entire future. The adidas Samba was introduced as a soccer training shoe way back in 1950, and if you think about the same category of sneakers now 65 years on, not much has changed.
But it’s influence is not just limited to soccer. You can see it’that have inspired the likes of the Superstar and Stan Smith, to frontier the adidas Skate range and empowering the Gucci Tennis 87 (which is next on the list.)
It’s crazy how one sneaker can spark so many new projects — influential? Indeed.
11. Gucci Tennis 84
As good as the adidas Samba was, its parent category of soccer training shoes isn’t that sexy or lucrative. That’s where the Gucci Tennis comes in.
Premium sneakers didn’t really exist before the Gucci Tennis rolled in in 1984. Not only did these kickstart premium releases, but they also gave birth to luxury brands diving into the sneaker market. It became the D-Boy’s sneaker of choice, which had hip-hop stars doing the same. It became a sneaker of status, which created two entirely new categories of sneakers.
The premium; Focusing on premium construction and materials now tacks on extra dollars to what would historically be a general release; and the luxury; averaging at over $1000 a pair, it’s clearly a huge market.
Hell, Jay-Z even released a knock-off version of Reeboks in the 00s.
Talk about influence.
10. adidas Stan Smith
Stan Smith may have sharked Robert Haillet’s iconic silhouette, but that doesn’t change how influential the adidas model is. The Stan Smith it credited for being one of the first sneaker designs to feature a completely smooth toe box made of one piece of leather — something that we don’t even consider in our day to day life, but at the time was a huge deal. It was also the first leather tennis sneaker, which undoubtedly left its mark on the industry, and still does to this day.
It’s since migrated into a fashion staple off the court, lending itself to countless rip-offs and inspiration. You literally can’t go wrong with a pair of these.
9. Air Jordan 3
The Air Jordan 3 wowed Mike enough to keep him on board with Nike after his eyes were wandering from the Swoosh after a lackluster Air Jordan 2.
You see, Mike had always been an adidas man at heart, and he was likely going to leave the Swoosh to start a dynasty with the German powerhouse. That was until Tinker took over.
It was the first basketball sneaker to have that oh-so-popular visible Air bubble, it introduced plastic pull tabs to the Jordan brand, and in true Hatfield fashion, went wild with a ludicrous elephant print.
Mike was in love. The rest is history.
Although the sneaker has had many rip-offs and counterfeits, it’s most significant influence on sneaker culture was its role in keeping Mike at Nike. If Tinker didn’t nail this, MJ would have been out the door and Jordan retros as we know them today would not exist. Life and sneaker culture would have been a hell of a lot different.
8. Puma Suede/Clyde
Basketball’s very first signature sneaker, the PUMA Clyde lead the way for the likes of Michael Jordan to secure his own 13 years later. That in itself gives the Clyde enough clout to sit at number eight on this list — but wait, there’s more.
We’re lucky that the PUMA Clyde didn’t truly encapsulate Walt Frazier’s wild style, because if it did, it would never have made it to the streets. Yep, the Clyde was the first basketball sneaker to transition from the court to the pavement, on the feet of almost every youngster in New York City in the mid to late 70s. This sneaker essentially gave birth to the infusion of basketball, hip-hop, fashion and street culture.
7. Nike Air Max 1
Again we return to Tinker, a man who has started so many sneaker trends over his career as a designer — but none had a more significant influence on sneaker culture than visible Air.
After the Air Max arrived in 1987, if you didn’t have Air showing on your sneakers, you weren’t a true sneakerhead. It was the ultimate must-have, created from the mind of sneaker’s biggest visionary.
The popularity of the sneaker also brought a fresh take to running, a trend that was on the decline in the late 80s. The sneaker single-handedly saved the trainer industry and gave birth to the most successful range of trainers ever, which is still kicking on 31 years later.
6. Onitsuka Tiger Corsair
The shoe that’s influenced all of modern running came from the Onitsuka Corsair.
But this is a bit of a tricky one because the Tiger didn’t directly change the game; that title belongs to the Nike Cortez.
So why is this on the list and not the classic Nike? Well, it was this sneaker that Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight modified with an EVA wedge at the rear, rebranded and sold under their own name, the Nike Cortez, that really changed running.
As influential as the Cortez was, without the Tiger, there probably would be no Nike, at least, not as we know it today.
And that’s why this sneaker takes its place on the list.
5. adidas Superstar/Pro Model
Problems often spark innovation. But when adidas went out to sole the problem of crushed toe boxes and the impact of drag, we bet they weren’t banking on creating such a revolutionary sneaker that would continue to inspire the industry for the next 50+ years.
The now iconic rubber shell toe turned the Pro Model into a Chuck Taylor on steroids. And it was the first ever leather basketball sneaker, something that remained the primary material of hoop shoes for a further four decades.
It was so dominant at the time, that it banished the Chuck Taylor from the hardwood — and that’s no mean feat for the long-lived favorite.
Then there’s the influence on fashion and the birth of the Superstar, Run DMC’s first non-athlete sneaker deal and more. It went from solving one little problem to changing sneaker culture forever in the blink of an eye, and it still remains a staple selection to this day.
4. Nike Dunk
Let’s set aside the fact that the Nike Dunk holds so much sway over proceeding basketball sneakers, the influence we’re talking about here is bigger than that.
15 or so years after it’s first release, in the early ’00s, we saw the Nike Dunk take on its SB form and gave modern sneaker culture its pivotal reference point.
From wild colors, textures, and collaborations, SB Dunks had people lining up — even camping out, looking for release dates, and wearing stuffed tongues in ways that had never been popular before. But the ugly side came out, too. Riots, resale prices, and killings all started to surface as sneaker culture grew into a beast.
And while the Dunk transitioned from the court to the streets to the deck to the streets again, it’s never lost its way. Some of those colorways from early last decade, like Jeff Staple’s Pidgeon, are still the ultimate statement of clout.
3. Converse Chuck Taylor All Star
They say great design never dies. This is a perfect example.
It started as a staple basketball sneaker, has now become one of the most recognizable sneakers of all time.
The Converse Chuck Taylor All Star is the most versatile sneaker to ever exist. I mean you can wear these things to the gym, or with a suit. It’s spotted in hardcore moshs to high fashion shoes and it’s not once questioned about it’s place.
Every company has knocked it off, even cartoons do. Which makes us ask the question — was the Chuck itself responsible for its popularity? or was it the replication that grew the legend?
Either way, it’s got to where it is because of what it is.
2. Nike Air Force 1
Technically advanced and bulky high-tops were the culmination of sneakers before them. But when the Air Force 1 release in 1982, everything that followed in terms of basketball footwear owed some debt to Bruce Kilgore’s 1982 magnum opus.
And while advancements in tech did eventually make the sneaker obsolete on the hardwood, it still didn’t die — and it probably never will. In fact, it’s become Nike’s biggest seller year after year.
So how did it go from on-court powerhouse to finding new life in the culture?
Well, big brands will never admit it, but drug dealers and hustlers were the true style influencers of the era. The crack epidemic that tore apart East Coast inner cities from roughly 1984 to 1993 was the catalyst for the Air Force 1.
For the dealers, there was plenty of expendable cash on hand that needed to be spent. Chains, pagers, and rides were always the focus, but it was the shoes that became a symbol of status — for they were the most attainable adornment for your every day G.
That culture grew and blended with hip-hop, then with fashion. It’s remained a constant in an ever-changing landscape, and will likely stay that way for the remainder of our lifetime.
1. Air Jordan 1
Air Jordans changed the whole dynamic, leveraging such a niche product to the masses via an extraordinarily talented and equally marketable athlete. It was also a pure chance that it was birthed around the same time as peak-level sports endorsements, which in itself was bigger than the Air Jordan 1.
It kicked off the still-strong Air Jordan signature series and is the most profitable Jordan Retro to date. Phil Knight’s chance on the young athlete paid off big time, but it wasn’t just the one event that makes this so special. This is the pillar of the entire Jordan series. Without a starting point, there wouldn’t be an anchor point to tie the championships, the MVPs and the man to. All of what happened during Mike’s life both during and post career, adds even more weight to the importance of this sneaker.
It’s importance in the entire Air Jordan range — a range that is almost single-handedly responsible for modern-day sneaker culture — is the reason why this holds such strong influence.
We could go on and on about the Air Jordan 1, but more importantly, it means something different to each and every one of you. And that’s why it tops the list.