The first rubber-soled shoes, which appeared in the 1800s, were created to meet the needs of athletes who needed lightweight and durable footwear. Since then, shoes, like a pair of shoelaces, have been inextricably linked to the world of sports. In reality, a pivotal moment — or figure — in sports history was often used to cement a sneaker’s iconic status.
Much of the background is now obscured by media speculation. Riding the streetwear boom, fashion houses such as Dior and Prada have reinterpreted classic sneaker trends by adding a logo or a monogram and calling it a day. Nike and Adidas regularly reissue game-changing sneakers, only to be endorsed by clout chasers and paraded around by celebrities younger than the shoes themselves (we’re looking at you, Kylie Jenner).
Even so, the sneaker’s ability to inspire and captivate the masses, as well as its ability to reflect one’s identity in a larger-than-life theme, hasn’t changed. We take a look at some of the most well-known styles that did — and why any self-respecting sneakerhead should own them.
- Nike Air Force 1
If Nike sells 25 pairs every second, you can bet that the Nike Air Force 1 is among them. The Nike Approach hiking boot inspired the design of the world’s most popular basketball shoe, which debuted in 1982 as a high-top sneaker. Its heel, however, was revolutionary: it was the first basketball shoe to feature Nike’s Air cushioning.
Basketball stars like Moses Malone and Jamal Wilkes quickly adopted Bruce Kilgore’s brilliant style, but it was the 1983 low-cut version that brought the shoes off the court and into the streets. It was soon on the radio as well, featuring in songs by rappers such as Jay-Z and Nelly.
The AF1 is now available in a variety of colorways and silhouettes, but nothing beats the all-white, low-cut pair.
2. Adidas Stan Smith
Tennis had the Adidas Stan Smiths, while basketball had the Nike AF1. The name comes from a former world number one tennis player from the United States who won the US Open in 1971. Adidas reinvented the all-white leather tennis shoes with a picture of Smith on the tongue the same year. The simple concept was a hit, with 22 million pairs sold in 1988 alone.
The Adidas Stan Smith is still popular today, particularly in the green and white color scheme. Thanks to Phoebe Philo, the cult trainers have also established themselves as a sign of casual cool. Raf Simons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Supreme have all produced favorite versions of the shoes as a result of fashion’s fascination with them.
3. Air Jordan 1
After the Nike Air Force 1 captivated basketball players and fans, another sneaker came on the scene to do the same. The Air Jordan 1 made its first public appearance in 1984, when it was worn by Michael Jordan, a rookie Chicago Bulls player.
With one awe-inspiring slam dunk after another, Jordan will go on to become a basketball legend. And he did so while wearing his black and red Air Jordan 1s sneakers, which violated the NBA’s white-shoe policy. (Nike charged the NBA a US$5,000 (roughly Rs 3.77 lakh) fine so Jordan could keep wearing them.)
Jordan’s defiant — and winning — streak cemented the legendary status of his name-brand shoes. Long after Jordan’s numerous retirements from the sport, the high-top shoe has found a following among equally outspoken celebrities including Billie Eilish.
4. Puma Suede
Tommie Smith, the first African-American to run the 200 meters in under 20 seconds, won his medal with a raised fist salute at the 1968 Olympics. The Black Power salute was a demonstration against racial injustice in the United States. Smith made another symbolic gesture when he removed his Puma Suede shoes to protest poverty.
That moment cemented Puma’s basketball shoes’ place in sneaker history — as well as Black American culture. In 1973, NBA legend Walter “Clyde” Frazier endorsed the shoes, which coincided with the advent of breakdancing on the streets of New York. The sneakers were an instant success among B-Boys thanks to their thick rubber soles, flexible uppers, and unique material.
The Puma Suede sneakers were recently reworked by Rihanna into equally popular creepers, but they still look amazing in their original shape.
5. Converse Chuck Taylor All Star
Converse’s All Star sneakers were first released in 1917. Even so, it wasn’t until 1932 that the company added the name of basketball player Chuck Taylor to the high-tops that they really took off. The name has stuck, and they are now commonly referred to as “Chucks.”
Converse Chuck Taylors have since become a popular choice among teenagers. They were just as popular on the basketball courts as they were on the skating rinks. Fans included Wiz Khalifa and bands like Metallica and Green Day, and the canvas sneakers were also popular in the music scene.
The best-selling shoes have largely stayed true to their original silhouette (Kaia Gerber owns them in almost every color), but reinterpretations by designers like Virgil Abloh keep them connected to youth culture.