Whether it’s Adidas, Nike, Reebok or even Vans, your choice of sneaker says a lot about you.
But what about the stories behind the sneakers we known and love? Because sneakers, like so much in the world of fashion, have played an important role in some of the most iconic sporting and cultural movements of the 20th and 21st century.
The cult of the Sneaker is explored in greater depth in the new Lyst exhibition, G.O.A.T. Sneakers.
Launched at the Archivist’s Gallery in Haggerston, London and curated by international sneaker expert Neal Heard, the exhibition explores the obsessive devotion these eye-catching pieces of footwear have inspired
“We’ve worked hard to find a balance between giving the broad sweep of sneaker history as well as the secret stories and anecdotes associated with the personalities, companies, controversies, cultural movments and, of course, the sneakers themselves,” Heard says.
Arguably the standout centrepiece from the exhibition comes via the countdown of the 25 greatest sneakers of all time. Voted for via an online poll as well as the input of industry experts, loaded has managed to get its hands on the list, complete with the fascinating story behind each design. How many do you recognise?
Certainly one of the most innovative sneakers ever released, the Air Max i was a game changer. When first released in 1987, we had literally seen nothing like it. Nike had utilised the Air System in a few of their previous models, but the technology had always been hidden away.
Then a familiar name crops up again, as it was when Nike sneaker legend Tinker Hatfield visited the Pompidou in Paris, a building turned inside out to show it’s workings, that he had a brainwave, “let’s make the internal workings visible” and visible Air and a legend was born.
Just goes to show that basketball shoes aren’t just the domain of the Swoosh clan. In the mid 80’s, the 3 stripes threw themselves into the arena with expensive, well-made models, branded overtly with larger trefoils.
The Forum was released in 1984 and they looked mean with the crossover lock down ankle straps. They were high end, costing three times as much as the Air Jordan, the shoes were loved by the Hip Hop and Basketball Fraternity who got their hands on them by whatever means necessary.
A shoe with its design roots firmly in the origins of sneaker history thanks to its gum sole and cotton upper, it stayed along the lines of the original sand shoes. This model, officially named model #95 was released in 1976, and was an example of the brand listening to their customers.
Vans had seen that their shoes were being worn to death by the new cult of Skateboarders, and invited Z Town Boys, Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva to recommend changes to the skater’s uniform model#44, they added padding and other tweaks and the first actual skate shoe was born. Fast forward 40 years and the shoes are seen in a myriad of colours on nearly every high street across the world
The ZX concept from adidas aimed to create range of shoes that would collectively cover all runner’s needs and the series were a firm part of any self-respecting Casuals wardrobe. The ZX8000 was released in 1989 and for a ZX series nut like myself, this shoe was the ruination of a great series! But hey, it’s not all about me, and this shoe is obviously universally loved.
The footy boys, turned to dig it as they started to drop fighting for dancing, and the shoes eye popping infamous Aqua Blue and Yellow colourway and cutting-edge materials and futuristic design fitted in well with the dance-mad Acid House movement.
First released in 1978, again, an entry equally loved across both sides of the Atlantic. Although this shoe was named in honour of the home of American Lawn Tennis, it actually is a bona fide part of British Casual Trainer folklore. It was in early 80s Britain, under the noses of the brand’s, that the Casual trainer obsession was gathering momentum, especially in its Liverpool heartland. adidas had insisted that the shoe only be stocked at top tennis clubs around the country and of the 500 pairs imported by adidas, around 493 stayed in a warehouse for nearly a year.
But trainer pioneer and legend Wade Smith spotted the insatiable demand for the s stripes in Liverpool and the North West and persuaded adidas to let him have the stock for his Top Man concession in Liverpool. He managed to sell all his stock by December. A legend was born.
The Reebok Work out Lo was released in 1984, just in the sweet spot for the once British brand with roots in the late 1800’s with running shoes. Two years before they had shaken the sneaker world to its core by rising out of nowhere to top the sales charts worldwide with their leisure and aerobics-focused offerings.
The Workout Lo designed by Designer Edward Lussier for multi-purpose gym use utilised a unique H-shaped support strap to the shoe for a custom fit that which along with the supple leather and gum sole gives the shoe a striking look and finish.
Yet another old skool entry. Another instantly recognisable model, it’s yet another that crosses the boundaries of the various tribes. It’s equally at home on the feet of someone not trying too hard, and who just likes a nice, clean silhouette. The Suede or State as they are more commonly known in Britain, were actually released in 1968.
The shoe was dug in a big way with original 70’s American street ball players, were huge with the Hip Hop B Boys, were totally respected by the 80’s Casuals and were given a boost by the pilgrimage to old skool from the 90’s on. Simple and clean and found in masses of colourways, they are still dug today.
If they’re not your number one brand of choice, and they are for more and more people, it seems New Balance are everyone’s ‘second side’. We all seem to respect and have a soft spot for them. To be honest this could have been many of NB’s retinue, but the 998 was the one name checked the most.
First released in 1993, it featuring a massive ABZORB midsole, finished in usual NB style with classic colours and suede materials. As the high number model name implies, it was also one of the highest spec’d models the brand made. If you want to look like you get style and trainers, but don’t try too hard, then NB seems to be the go to shoe.
Now globally appreciated, for me, it’s a shoe that’s in the American skool of sneakerdom. The Dunk was first released back in 1985 and was the first model that Nike tied in specific design colourways to famous school basketball teams through the College Colour program. Designer Peter Moore even wanted to call it the College Color High.
The shoe was launched alongside matching pieces of apparel in instantly recognisable matching school colour palettes tied to each specific school’s uniforms. Sold with the strap line “Be True To Your School,” the colour-coded shoes allowed fans pick up on the sneaker in combos made for schools that were connected to Nike like Syracuse, Michigan and Kentucky. The design and colours spread across the globe, especially big with skaters in the late 90’s.
It might surprise people, even sneakerheads, that the next entry in our top 25 isn’t the new release they might have thought it was. The Gel Lyte iii came out way back in 1990. At the time it didn’t make the splash that is has today, except among dedicated runners, who still used shoes for their original sporting purposes rather than fashion. Sure, it had a split tongue and excellent internal cushioning, but that’s not always what shoes are about.
However, with a reissue in the mid 00’s, it started to turn heads, and when Asics started to play with the suede pastel shades, a new baby boomer was born, and when I think of a modern sneakerhead, with beard, skull cap and trousers up their legs, I think of these too, in a good way!
Easily the most mind-blowing design of shoes in our top 25 at the time of their release in 1995, the shoe, officially named the Total Air Max was almost like a blow to the senses. It looked like something which had been left behind by fleeing Aliens, nothing had been seen before like it, and it had a genuine love it or loathe it reaction.
It was designed with inspiration from the human body, with parts which mimic the backbone, the muscles and ribs. It was actually the first Nike shoe to utilise the Visible Air unit at the front of the shoe as well as the heel, which along with the neon green and grey colourway all added to the extra-terrestrial look and feel.
There is no way you could have drawn up a top list of sneakers without including the adidas Superstar. Probably the archetypal shoe people think of when you mention Old Skool. The shoe was released as the Superstar in 1969, again at the behest and design of adi designer Chris Severn in cahoots with Horst Dassler. With Horst looking to develop the burgeoning USA market, he saw basketball as the key, so they designed the first all leather basketball shoe, with better grip, traction and protection, by its infamous and instantly recognisable rubber Shell Toe protector unit.
The shoe exploded in popularity, quickly dislodging the Converse All Star off its long held perch. In the 1980’s it had another huge renaissance when Run DMC helped promote it with the song ‘My Adidas’, which brought the spotlight of the world onto the love for the shoe in the Hip Hop fraternity.
The first of three of the Air Max series shoes to make our top 25, which makes it the most popular series of shoes in the list. This model was officially released as the Air Max iii, becoming more commonly known as the Air Max 90 after its release date from the 2000’s onwards. It is yet another example of the prolific design of Tinker Hatfield of Nike, who has a massive legacy on sneaker design.
With its larger visible air sole unit, the shoe wasn’t appreciated as much on release as it is now and exploded in popularity on its reissue with the iconic Infrared colourway in the mid 00’s. It’s still hugely popular with the new youth tribes of today, so much so that we find it here top of the Air Max tree in popularity.
Some trainers, and this is one example of a trainer, not a sneaker, that transcends time, place and style. They just continually exist in a pure form, and let the trivial matters of trends and hype wash over them, leaving them in a pure unaffected state. The Samba is the oldest Adidas shoe in continuous production, and, 65 years after its debut, it “still sells like mad”.
Another entry that gains respect both sides of the Atlantic, but one held in supreme affection in the UK where its wearing in the late 70’s and early 80’s Casuals era was a rite of passage. The people who popularised the Samba then weren’t alive when the shoe was first released in the 1950s, just like the kids who wear them today weren’t around in the 1980s.
The second entry of the Air Jordan series in the top 25, the iii was released in 1988 and is famous for featuring several firsts. This shoe was the first Jordan to feature the now iconic Jumpman logo and left an indelible mark on sneaker history. It was the first in the series to exhibit the ‘Visible Air’ sole units and It was the first Jordan shoe to be designed by legendary Nike designer, Tinker Hatfield.
The shoe is said to be Michael Jordan’s favourite of the series, and its release is said to have kept him on board with Nike at a time when he was thinking about leaving.
Pow, the most recent entry in our entire top 25, the Ultraboost, only released in 2015, sure seems to have left a deep mark. The history of sneakers is littered with the pursuit of utilising the latest technologies, and this model is at the forefront of recent technological developments, giving it that all-important competitive edge.
It certainly is in the stable of the new aesthetic look of trainers, and is in that recent era of shoes that are now starting to look very discernable from the rubber soled, suede or leather upper era of shoes we have become so used to. Daring in both look and design, these shoes include the Aramis system; a technology used by top engineering institutions Boeing and NASA to measure vibration, design, and ergonomics
Probably the first real opinion-dividing entry seen so far in this top 25 list. Obviously loved by experts as well as the public, as it’s made number 9. But to many, and if I am honest, myself included, the first shoe I can say I don’t like. But each to his own. One thing for sure, is that with the passing of time, the shoe can be seen to have been even more ahead of its time than we ever knew.
Originally released in 1991, the shoe still looks and feel fresh to its new fans who picked up the recent reissues of this ‘classic’. Another Tinker Hatfield designed entry, it was based on water ski boots and the whole look of it, from the non swoosh and exposed foam soul to the caged upper, looked other worldly. The start of it all going wrong for me and my ilk, but the future to others.
Yet another one of our entries which makes it in due to its abilities to cross the style divide and trainer tribes, and yet another example of how old skool has become the new skool. The shoe was first released in 1972 and gained fans as it was endorsed by cool cat and style legend, Walt Clyde Frazier.
Frazier was a showman, the first NBA player to drive a Rolls Royce and wear wide-brim hats, he tweaked the shoe and added his own moniker. The shoe was picked up by the early sneaker adopters of 1970’s USA and street basketball players loved the shoe. But it became even bigger still and is most famous today because it was picked up by the B Boys and Breakdancers of early 80’s New York who chose it as one of their must-have shoes of choice.
I‘ll own up, this entry was the one which most surprised me in the top 25. A shoe I wasn’t too aware of and one I was enlightened to find meant so much to the high-end educated Stateside contributors to this list. The shoe was released in 1987 and was the brain child of Nike design guru Tinker Hatfield, not only did it utilise the Nike Air Cushioning system (hence the name) but it was specifically designed as a shoe that could be worn across a variety of sports, and the idea of the Cross Trainer was born.
He wanted it to be as at home on the tennis courts as it was at the gym, which worked out when a returning John McEnroe tested a prototype and refused to send them back as they worked so well for him.
Yet another venerable classic is found in our top 25 and a definite theme seems to be exhibiting itself. Age truly doesn’t matter to a true trainer fiend. The Gazelle was first released in various guises in the late 1960’s but became roughly the shoe we still recognise today in its ‘usual incarnation’ in 1971. The shoe, though overlooked on release, left a mark and started a few aesthetic trends with one being the use of bright colour suedes like red and blue on its uppers.
It was this feature, along with its availability and affordability, which made it an absolute staple in the trainer-obsessed Casuals days in early 80’s Britain. Again, real popularity comes with evolution and the shoe was also adored later by Hip Hop heads and then had another boom in the Rave and Acid eras of 80’s Britain as it was then the perfect antidote of lo-fi sim against the spiralling use of technology. They are yet again being discovered by the ‘yoofs’ of today and have long had a fashion following, including Kate Moss for some time.
To those new to the trainer scene, this might be the most obscure entry in the whole top 25. For those who were there when trainers were just items of sportswear and brands didn’t even know what they were sitting on, then this entry from an obscure Italian sportswear brand makes complete sense.
The shoe has stayed relevant and is loved on both sides of the Atlantic, but this shoe will make grown men, in their late 40s and early 50s go all dewy eyed and romantic. The shoe was of iconic importance to the denizens of the late 70s and 80s British football terraces, a tribe known as the Football Casuals. After it was endorsed by Bjorn Borg, this high-end and expensive Kangaroo leather shoe moved from the tennis courts and spread its fame across the continent.
Love it or not, you just can’t ignore the impact this shoe had on the sneaker world. It may come in at a healthy number four, but in terms of game-changing impact, it could be argued to be number one. When released in 1984, the shoe itself was not that important in design terms, but it’s the effect that it had on the sneaker and sporting world that still reverberates today.
Nike used the ‘Banned by the NBA’ publicity that surrounded the shoe and combined it with the amazing sporting prowess and cool of Michael Jordan, then branded and hyped the hell out of the shoe until more than 1 million pairs were sold in its first year alone. If the Air Jordan were a separate sneaker company it would be in the top five of the industry and its social and commercial impact is still felt across all aspects of society to this day.
Everything changes, but some things stay the same. There are quite a few shoes in this venerable top 25 that can be said to be pensioners, but only one can said to be a centurion, and this is it. The shoe more commonly known as the Chuck Taylor, is the true granddaddy of sneakerdom. The first known example of a signature sporting endorsee shoe, Chuck Taylor’s were first released in 1917 and only came in brown.
The black and white colourways weren’t available until the 1971 issue were released. Since then, they’ve come out in nearly every pattern or colour you can think of. They may not be worn as much for their original remit of basketball anymore, but now you see them everywhere you go. Most dig the 1971 issue the most, as it was given extra strength and padding without changing a genuine design classic.
A close call, but the shoe named after the presidential jet, lands in second place. Released in 1982, it originally came out as a professional basketball shoe. It was the first basketball shoe to utilise Nike Air cushioning technology and was built for basketball defensive specialists, making them ultra-comfortable.
Amazing to think now, but the shoe was withdrawn from release after just two years, and it took unprecedented demand from the public to make Nike alter one of its corporate strategies and re-release an old shoe, which they did in 1986. Now 30 years and over 1000 options later, the shoe is still revered today. Seen as a representative of both Basketball and Hip Hop heads, the shoe is a big part of sneaker legend.
Drum roll, explosives etc. etc., as difficult as it is to list the top 25 trainers of all time, we’ve done it. From a very competitive list and in the closest of finishes, this iconic shoe makes it over the line as our number one. Our winner is a shoe that first came out in a similar guise over 40 years ago, yet is still totally relevant today. There are no whizz bang and whistles with this shoe, there’s no need, because sometimes less is definitely more.
The adidas Stan Smith manages a rare feat, it crosses all the great divides in the trainer kingdom. Loved by the Casuals, Basketball, Hip Hop and Fashionista set alike, this shoe just works with understated ease. It just so happens that the Stan Smith (in Haillet guise) was the first all-leather tennis shoe and was co-designed by adidas designer Chris Severn and Adi’s son Horst Dassler himself.
It’s all the ingredients we love about the shoe, the flashes of green, the iconic Trefoil, and most importantly, the smiling portrait of Stan Smith’s face and signature, that come together to create perfection on rubber soles.
The Greatest Sneakers of All Time exhibition is running at The Archivist’s Gallery in Haggerston, London, from January 26 through to February 5 and comes highly recommended.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.