The Read

The Sneakers That Shook The World

A dozen influential kicks that were most definitely on the front foot when it came to style

  • Run-DMC at Montreux Pop Festival, Switzerland, 1987 LFI/ Photoshot

Sneakers have been demonstrating in leather, suede and fly-mesh what’s been happening in popular culture since the invention of vulcanised rubber and demand from robber barons keen to play tennis and croquet led to early sports shoes. In the 1950s, a more consumerist and democratic era, Kedso the Clown appeared on American television between cartoons to encourage the children of the growing middle-class to buy sneakers. In the early 1970s, the Me Generation’s interest in physical perfection got them jogging in their Nikes and New Balances. By the decade’s end The Ramones stripped rock‘n’roll back to its three-chord origins while wearing Jack Purcells – sneakers that hearkened back to an era before disco and soft rock. By the end of the 1990s, athletic companies, artists, fashion designers and hip-hop stars were all circling one another, laying the foundation for today’s street style. Here are our picks of the kicks that were game changers.



  • Converse All Star/ Non Skid, 1917 Converse Archives. Courtesy American Federation of Arts

In 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same town in which Mr Charles Goodyear had worked on the vulcanisation of rubber 50 years earlier, the Canadian American Mr James Naismith invented basketball. High tops existed before Converse introduced the All Star, but that model took off thanks to a basketball player-turned-evangelist for the game, Mr Chuck Taylor. Mr Taylor began working for Converse in the 1920s and travelled the US promoting the game and the shoe. By 1934, his name was added to the All Star now known colloquially as “Chucks”.



  • Adidas Samba, 1962 to 1967 adidas AG/ studio waldeck. Courtesy American Federation of Arts 

Mr Adi Dassler was ahead of his time when it came to the central tenets of success in the modern sneaker business. He strove for technical innovation. When the German football team wore his football boots with removable cleats and beat the Hungarians to win the World Cup in 1954, the brand became a household name in Europe. He courted athletes globally and in numerous sports (80 per cent of contestants at the 1968 Olympics wore adidas). And he was an early proponent of the celebrity endorsement locking up the No. 1 ranked tennis player in 1971, a gentleman by the name of Mr Stan Smith



  • Puma Clyde, 2005 retro of 1973 Puma Archives. Ron Wood. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/ Bata Shoe Museum

When asked whether he helped shape the appearance of contemporary black masculinity, Mr Walter “Clyde” Frazier (the winner of two NBA Championships with the New York Knicks) responded, “Absolutely. I was the first guy to bring the bling to the NBA with my Rolls-Royce, fur coats and the Puma Clyde in suede”. Championed by the Beastie Boys, one of the first brands to blend hip-hop and skate culture, the Clyde was a forerunner of the sneaker as a fashion statement.



  • Nike Waffle Trainer, 1974 Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. Greg Washington. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/ Bata Shoe Museum

Nike did not invent the running shoe (Japanese brand Onitsuka Tiger had been started in 1949 to meet the needs of elite runners). Onitsuka Tiger was introduced into the US by Mr Phil Knight, then a Stanford MBA, who would go on to co-found Nike. Mr Knight, who had been a middle-distance runner in college, partnered with his former coach, University of Oregon track coach Mr Bill Bowerman, in the fledgling sneaker company. As Mr Knight sold his first shipment of Tigers from his green Plymouth Valiant, Mr Bowerman was striving to create a lighter shoe, and his experiment with pouring rubber into his wife’s waffle iron resulted in this trademark sole. 



  • Vans checkerboard slip-on, 2014 retro of 1980s Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, gift of Vans. Ron Wood. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/ Bata Shoe Museum

The goal of Vans co-founder Mr Paul Van Doran was to build the perfect skateboarding shoe, with soles thick enough to withstand high-speed contact with the pavement. When Paul’s son Steve noticed kids were drawing checks on the sidewalls, the California-based company introduced the checkerboard model. The two-tone ascetic went mainstream when the sneakers appeared on the feet of the surfer-skater-stoner extraordinaire Jeff Spicoli (played by Mr Sean Penn) in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. 



  • Nike Air Jordan 1, 1985 Nike Archives. Ron Wood. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/ Bata Shoe Museum

Where were you when you saw your first pair of Air Jordans?” This is a question that is as meaningful for a generation of sneakerheads as “What was your first concert?” Or as Mr Marc Ecko, the founder and chief brand officer of Complex Media, put it “[Seeing my first pair] was the moment that I discovered I wanted to be a designer”. Nike began making sneakers for Mr Michael Jordan during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls. However, the NBA did not allow colourful sneakers to be worn, so each time he wore a pair of red-and-black Air Jordans he was fined $5,000. Jordan’s defiant flouting of the rules combined with his athletic prowess transformed him and his sneakers into a phenomenon. 



  • Adidas Superstar, 1983 adidas AG/ studio waldeck. Courtesy American Federation of Arts 

While a shelltoed version of the Superstar had been around since 1969 and became the underpinning for the Jabbar (named after basketball superstar Mr Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), they achieved immortality when rap group Run-DMC released “My Adidas” in 1986 as a rejoinder to the notion that the only folks who could afford expensive, box-fresh sneakers were gangbangers or drug dealers. “I took that personally,” says Mr Darryl “DMC” McDaniels. The song became a litany of all the legitimate successes the band had achieved in their adidas (“I stepped on stage at Live Aid”).

As the song took off, the group, managed by Mr Russell Simmons, Run’s brother, sent a tape of the song to adidas and asked for $1m. Adidas responded by sending executives to a Run-DMC concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. When the group started to perform “My Adidas”, McDaniels asked everyone in the garden to hold up theirs. Adidas subsequently inked a deal with the band for the amount they asked, and Run-DMC became one of the first performers to have a sneaker endorsement deal.



  • Reebok Pump Prototype, 1989 Reebok Archives. Courtesy American Federation of Arts 

In the quest to make the lightest and most customised fitting sneaker, Reebok’s Mr Paul Litchfield built upon the idea of a pumping mechanism first designed for a ski boot. The inflatable bladder that surrounded the foot was activated by the PUMP on the tongue. The fit, the look and the price tag ($170), made it a status symbol for moneyed suburban youth and inner-city bad boys alike. In 1997, Reebok would collaborate with Chanel on the Reebok x Chanel Insta Pump Fury replete with the interlaced Cs on the heel. Other designers would soon follow (notably Messrs Yohji Yamamoto and Jeremy Scott collaborating with adidas, both in 2002). 



  • Nike X Supreme, Dunk High Pro SB, 2003 Collection of Sheraz Amin. Ron Wood. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/ Bata Shoe Museum

Nike collaborated with Supreme, the NYC-based bastion of skate culture, and only released 1,000 pairs in the white and university blue colourway. The pattern of making small-batch, collector editions would continue with various collaborations with artists and personalities throughout the decade.



  • Lanvin Patent Cap Toe, 2013 Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, gift of Holt Renfrew.
    Faraz Olfat and Celina Hoang. Courtesy of American Federation of Arts/ Bata Shoe Museum

Lanvin, the oldest couture house in Paris, branched out into menswear in 2005 and began offering sneakers. The sleek cap toe is an early example of a fashion house producing a sneaker rather than a designer collaborating with a sneaker company. A new category of footwear (the designer sneaker) was upon us with Gucci, Prada, Common Projects, Berluti and Valentino among others all now in the field. 



  • Louis Vuitton x Kanye West, Don, 2009 Private Collection. Ron Wood. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/ Bata Shoe Museum

Mr Kanye West, internationally renowned rapper, fashion designer and sneaker aficionado, released a line of shoes with fashion house Louis Vuitton. Featuring premium materials (24-carat gold shoelace rings), the sneaker represented a moment when fashion, rap and luxury all coalesced in a sneaker. Other Kanye collaborations would follow – the Nike Air Yeezy and the Adidas Yeezy franchise.



  • Nike Flyknit Racer, 2012 Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum. Suzanne Petersen McLean. Courtesy American Federation of Arts/ Bata Shoe Museum 

With sneakers, technical innovation will always be in fashion. The revolutionary fabrication technique allows structure and support to be knit into the shoe, enabling it to be both formfitting and exceptionally lightweight. After its introduction the Flyknit fabric would have an effect on fashion as contemporary designers sought to use mesh in apparel.


  • Vans OG Classic LX Checkerboard Canvas Slip-On Sneakers

  • Lanvin Cap-Toe Suede and Patent-Leather Sneakers