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    The 25 Most Influential Sneakers of All Time

    Written By

    Pete Michael



    As the ever-evolving sneaker culture continues to dominate fashion streets worldwide, it's essential to remember that every pair we lace up today has an origin story—a story rooted in a rich history of innovation, style, and influence.

    Today, we take a journey back in time, exploring the heritage and impact of the 25 most influential sneakers ever made..

    Every pair of VaporMax, Ultra BOOST, or React Foam sneakers we sport are not just trendy, comfortable kicks, but the culmination of a near-century-long refinement process. This journey has twisted, turned, and sometimes veered off course, but it has always pushed forward, continually redefining the sneaker landscape.

    Over the decades, countless sneakers have made their mark, shaping the mainstream market and the ever-growing sneaker culture. While not necessarily the most popular or best-selling, these sneakers have indelibly influenced the industry, sparking trends, shifting perceptions, and inspiring future designs.

    This list is far from a popularity contest. It's a curated collection of game-changers that have left an enduring imprint on the broader market and sneaker culture. So, buckle up, sneakerheads; it's time for a history lesson you won't want to skip.

    25. Reebok Ex-O-Fit

    Year: 1983

    The Reebok Ex-O-Fit, with its distinct name, instantly recalls the fitness craze of the early 80s. These shoes were ubiquitous.

    The Ex-O-Fit was a pioneer in incorporating Velcro, a feature later seen on sneakers ranging from the Air Force 1 to the Air Yeezy. It emerged as a powerful influencer in mainstream sneaker culture, challenging societal perceptions of fitness and health.

    Moreover, the Ex-O-Fit was among the first sneakers to transcend its initial athletic purpose, playing a crucial role in the shift of sneakers from sports arenas to everyday streetwear and fashion. Without this trend, sneakers might have remained confined to basketball courts and gyms. For its significant contribution to this cultural transition, the Ex-O-Fit rightfully earns its place on this list.

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    24. Osiris D3

    Year: 2001

    Chunky shoes are currently trending, yet their emergence didn't materialize from thin air. The origins can be traced back to 2001, when Osiris revolutionized the skate sneaker landscape by introducing the D3.

    Designed as Dave Mayhew’s signature shoe, the D3 was the epitome of skate footwear - the bulkiest and most technologically advanced skate shoe of its time. Despite its infamous reputation for causing ankle injuries, it became a must-have item for everyone, from hardcore skaters to the world's top musicians. The trend sprawled into every skate shoe of the era, from the Globe CT-IV to the fat-tongued Nike SB Dunk Low.

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    23. New Balance 576

    Year: 1988

    I’m pretty sure everybody’s dad had a pair of these.

    The New Balance 576 gave birth to an entire sneakerhead subculture, which is only now beginning to spill over into the mainstream sneakerhead scene.

    Originally designed for running, the 576 is renowned for its blend of comfort, durability, and minimalist design, but quickly became infused with casual wear, thanks to its versatile grey and blue schemes. It was one of the first pairs that brought New Balance's commitment to high-quality craftsmanship to the mainstream market, kick-starting the slow-and-steady rise of the Boston-based brand.

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    22. Nike Air Huarache

    Year: 1991

    Regarding outdoor footwear, the Nike Air Huarache stands as a significant influencer, not just within the ACG line but extending its impact into the Air Jordan series as well.

    Tinker Hatfield's unique design for the Huarache drew inspiration from water-skiing booties and Mayan sandals. The result was a transformative sneaker that revolutionized aesthetic norms and redefined comfort levels. Indeed, Huarache's comfort is exceptional.

    Similar to the Air Jordan 4, which was released two years earlier, the Huarache introduced plastic caging, a feature that was relatively rare in 90s sneaker design. Moreover, it was the first to incorporate a neoprene bootie, a snug feature that envelops the foot like a warm, soft embrace.

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    21. Reebok The Pump

    Year: 1989

    Just as many brands tried to mimic the Nike Air bubble, the 90s witnessed numerous attempts by competitors to create their own versions of Reebok's inflatable sneakers. These endeavors, however, largely fell short.

    Reebok's introduction of The Pump in 1989 was a watershed moment in footwear technology. This innovation propelled technology advancements in sneakers and significantly influenced their pricing. The Pump was priced 50% higher than other luxury basketball shoes at the time, yet consumers proved willing to pay a premium for tangible and visible technological advancements, as evidenced by the shoe's robust sales. What resulted was a market dominance of the performance hoops shoe market for the majority of the next decade.

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    20. Nike Air Foamposite One

    Year: 1997

    The audacity of the Nike Air Foamposite truly set a new benchmark in the realm of sneakers. While contemporary technology gifts us with self-lacing shoes and 4D-printed midsoles, casting an eye back to 1997 presents a rather conventional landscape for basketball footwear. The standard materials were leather, mesh, and suede, but Nike, in their relentless pursuit of innovation, decided to defy the norms, opting for an entirely new synthetic material that was lightweight, flexible, and resistant to creasing, all highly desirable attributes at the time.

    This Foamposite material was truly ahead of its time, a product of futuristic innovation. The sneaker, with its almost extraterrestrial appearance, embodies the pioneering spirit of Nike. The Foamposite's legacy has endured, and its influence is still evident today. It spurred an era of creativity, pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible and paving the way for ambitious projects that continue to redefine the sneaker industry.

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    19. Nike Air Trainer 1

    Year: 1987

    While Tinker Hatfield may not have invented cross-training as a concept, he certainly revolutionized it, introducing a form of cross-training footwear unlike anything seen before. A robust Nike marketing campaign and endorsing sports icons such as Bo Jackson and Andre Agassi undoubtedly bolstered the pair's popularity.

    When its original Chlorophyll colorway was released in 1987, its striking design immediately distinguished it from other sneakers, much like its celebrity endorsers who stood out in their respective sports.

    The shoe laid the groundwork for every baseball and football training shoe and cleat that emerged in the '90s; it was a bona fide game changer. If anyone could accomplish a task that had stumped many before, it was Tinker.

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    18. Air Jordan 4

    Year: 1989

    The Air Jordan 4 is not only a significant landmark in sneaker design, but arguably also the coolest basketball shoe ever created. It boasted the era's most sought-after feature, a visible air bubble, and introduced innovations that seemed unthinkable for a basketball shoe; these included plastic-reinforced eyelets on plastic wings, an elongated heel tab for ease of wearing and removing, and an extended tongue that blurred the line between athletic and fashion footwear.

    Furthermore, it secured its place in Hollywood, making a notable appearance in Spike Lee's film, 'Do the Right Thing.'

    Given these groundbreaking attributes, it's no wonder the Air Jordan 4 transcended beyond its initial purpose. It became one of the first Jordans to significantly permeate pop culture, fashion, and streetwear, paving the way for future generations of sneakers.

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    17. Vans Half Cab

    Year: 1992

    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 worldwide. 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 like the Half Cab has stood the test of time.

    It inspired mid-cut skate shoes to vulcanized soles and extra padding and is solely responsible for signature models to 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.

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    16. Gucci Tennis 84

    Year: 1984

    The concept of luxury sneakers was relatively unheard of until the introduction of Gucci Tennis in 1984. Not only did this shoe ignite the trend of premium releases, but it also prompted luxury brands to venture into the sneaker market. The Gucci Tennis quickly became the preferred choice among D-Boys, leading to its adoption by hip-hop celebrities. It evolved into a symbol of status, paving the way for two entirely new sneaker categories.

    First, the premium category accentuates superior construction and materials, adding a premium to what would typically be a general release price. Second is the luxury category, with sneakers averaging over $1000 a pair, indicating a sizable market interest; Jay-Z even released a knock-off version of Reeboks in the 00s — Talk about influence.

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    15. adidas Stan Smith

    Year: 1971

    Stan Smith may have sharked Robert Haillet’s iconic silhouette, but its influence on the sneaker industry cannot be discounted. The Stan Smith was one of the first sneaker designs to feature a smooth toe box constructed from a single piece of leather — a detail that may seem commonplace today but was revolutionary at the time. Additionally, it was the first tennis sneaker to be made of leather, marking a significant shift in the industry that continues to be felt today.

    Beyond its technical innovations, the Stan Smith has transitioned from the tennis court to become a staple in the world of fashion. Its timeless design has been the target of numerous imitations and has served as inspiration for countless other designs. The versatility and enduring appeal of the Stan Smith make it an essential addition to any sneaker collection.

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    14. Air Jordan 11

    Year: 1995

    In 1995, when Tinker Hatfield took on the design of the Air Jordan 11, he had already established himself as a creative force in the world of sneakers. With a wealth of iconic silhouettes under his belt, he could have easily opted for a more conventional approach.

    However, playing it safe was never Hatfield's style. Embracing innovation and pushing boundaries has cemented his legendary status in the sneaker world. Introducing patent leather to a basketball shoe was a bold move, yet it proved to be a game-changer.

    The Air Jordan 11's groundbreaking use of patent leather spurred a decade-long trend in sneaker design, transforming the material into a go-to option for designers. Even after over two decades, this model remains one of the most popular Air Jordan Retros in the market – if not the most sought-after.

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    13. Air Jordan 5

    Year: 1990

    Before Tinker Hatfield's audacious use of patent leather in sneaker design, he introduced another unconventional material to the world: 3M. This material, often overlooked, has since become one of the most prevalent non-traditional materials in today's sneaker industry.

    Equally innovative was the Jordan 5's clear outsole, a feature previously unseen in the Jordan lineup. Like 3M, this clear outsole has become a customary element in sneaker design worldwide.

    The relevance of the Jordan 5 extends beyond its material innovations. The sneaker also holds a special place in pop culture, thanks to the TV show 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.' The show's protagonist, Will Smith, pictured above, often sported the Jordan 5s, cementing their status as both a fashion statement and a symbol of 90s nostalgia.

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    12. A Bathing Ape Bapesta

    Year: 2002

    You might wonder how a sneaker that seems to be a clear emulation of the Air Force 1 could end up on a list of influential shoes.

    The answer lies in Nigo's audacious creativity. While the Air Force 1 enjoyed considerable popularity, it was relatively traditional in its design. Nigo, however, reimagined it, cloaking the BapeSTA in patent leather and an array of bold colors and patterns. The immediate success of this daring design compelled Nike to imbue similar novelty into their original model.

    Prompting Nike to reinvent arguably the greatest sneaker of all time is no small achievement.

    The BapeSTA's influence on the resurgence of Air Force 1's popularity cannot be overstated. Today, the Air Force 1 is Nike’s highest-grossing sneaker in terms of sales, and even the Swoosh knows it has to thank Nigo for part of that success.

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    11. Puma Clyde

    Year: 1973

    The PUMA Clyde holds the distinction of being the inaugural signature basketball shoe, paving the way for the likes of Michael Jordan to secure his own signature line a considerable 13 years later. This alone places the Clyde at a respectable number eight on our list. But the shoe's legacy doesn't stop there.

    Interestingly, despite Walt Frazier's flamboyant style, the PUMA Clyde design stayed relatively tame. This proved to be a blessing in disguise as it allowed the shoe to make a seamless transition from the basketball court to city streets. Indeed, the Clyde became a favorite among New York City's youth during the mid to late 70s, marking the first time a basketball shoe had made such a cultural leap.

    Essentially, the PUMA Clyde played a crucial role in blending basketball, hip-hop, fashion, and street culture. This cultural fusion has since become a defining characteristic of sneaker culture, and it all began with the PUMA Clyde.

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    10. adidas Samba

    Year: 1950

    The top-selling adidas shoe of all time, the Samba truly established the benchmark for the brand's future offerings. Initially introduced as a soccer training shoe in 1950, it's fascinating to observe how little the category has changed over 70 years.

    But the Samba's influence extends far beyond the soccer field. It has provided design inspiration for other iconic Adidas shoes, such as the Superstar and Stan Smith, pioneered the Adidas Skate range, and continues to play a huge role in the lifestyle market to this day.

    The Samba's ability to ignite a myriad of new projects is astonishing — a testament to its undeniable influence.

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    9. Onitsuka Tiger Corsair

    Year: 1969

    The Onitsuka Corsair, a shoe that has shaped the entirety of modern running, holds a unique place in sneaker history. Its influence, however, is not direct; it's more of an indirect catalyst that led to the creation of the iconic Nike Cortez.

    You might wonder why the Corsair is on this list instead of the widely recognized Nike classic. The answer lies in its transformation. This was the very shoe that Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight, the founders of Nike, adapted by inserting an EVA wedge at the heel. They then rebranded and launched it as the Nike Cortez, a sneaker that revolutionized running.

    While the influence of the Cortez is undeniable, it's important to recognize that without the Onitsuka Corsair, the Nike brand as we know it today might not exist — at least as we know it today. Therefore, Corsair rightfully earns its spot on this list due to its pivotal role in the evolution of running shoes — and in the history of Nike, Inc.

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    8. Air Jordan 3

    Year: 1988

    The Air Jordan 3 was more than just a sneaker; it was a game-changer that saved a monumental partnership between Michael Jordan and Nike.

    Despite the success of the first Air Jordan, the second iteration had been a letdown, leading to Jordan considering a shift away from the Swoosh.

    Even before signing with Nike, his heart had always been set on adidas, and he was on the verge of leaving Nike to establish a legacy with the German sportswear giant.

    Enter Tinker Hatfield and his innovative design for the Air Jordan 3.

    It was a groundbreaking sneaker in many respects. It was the first basketball shoe to feature the visually appealing Air bubble, and it introduced the plastic pull tabs to the Jordan line. The design also showcased an outlandish elephant print in a bold and audacious move that was true to Hatfield's style.

    This design not only caught Jordan's attention but won his heart. The Air Jordan 3 was pivotal in keeping Jordan with Nike, altering the course of sneaker history. If Hatfield had not delivered such an iconic design, Jordan might have exited Nike, and the world of Jordan retros, as we know it today, would not exist.

    The sneaker also played a huge role in pop culture, thanks to innovative campaigns directed by and starring Spike Lee, resulting in an injection of streetwear appeal and coolness that paved the way for future retro models.

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    7. adidas Pro Model/Superstar

    Year: 1965

    Innovation is often sparked by problems, and when adidas set out to tackle the issue of crushed toe boxes and drag, they probably didn't expect to create a groundbreaking sneaker that would continue to shape the industry for over half a century.

    The iconic rubber shell toe transformed the Pro Model into a supercharged version of the Chuck Taylor. Moreover, it was the first leather basketball shoe ever, a material choice that remained the staple for basketball footwear for the next forty years. Impressive, right?

    The shoe was so powerful at the time that it ousted the Chuck Taylor from the basketball court entirely, a remarkable achievement considering the long-standing popularity of the latter.

    Beyond its influence on sports, it also enormously impacted fashion. This led to the creation of the low-cut Superstar, Run DMC's first non-athlete sneaker deal, and much more. It started as a solution to a minor problem and swiftly evolved to reshape sneaker culture permanently. Even today, it remains a go-to choice for many.

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    6. Nike Air Max 1

    Year: 1987

    Tinker Hatfield has undoubtedly initiated countless sneaker trends throughout his illustrious career. Yet, none of these trends can quite match the seismic influence of visible Air on the world of sneaker culture.

    The Air Max, introduced in 1987, brought an element of prestige to sneaker ownership. If your shoes didn't flaunt visible Air, you couldn't quite claim the coveted title of a true sneaker enthusiast. This feature, a brainchild of Tinker, quickly became an ultimate must-have in the sneaker world.

    The introduction of the Air Max also reinvigorated the running shoe industry, which was facing a downturn in the late 80s. The Air Max not only revitalized this category but also laid the foundation for the most successful range of running shoes in history. Even after three decades, the Air Max line remains as relevant and sought-after as ever.

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    5. Nike Dunk

    Year: 1985

    Let’s ignore the fact that the Nike Dunk holds so much sway over proceeding basketball sneakers, as the impact we're addressing here goes far beyond that.

    1Around 15 years after its initial release, in the early 2000s, the Nike Dunk underwent a transformation into its SB (Skateboarding) form, becoming the pivotal reference point for modern sneaker culture.

    SB Dunks, with their vibrant colors, diverse textures, and collaborative efforts, had people queuing up, camping out, eagerly awaiting release dates, and even sporting stuffed tongues in unprecedented ways. However, alongside the positive aspects, there was an unfortunate dark side. Riots, exorbitant resale prices, and even incidents of violence began to emerge as sneaker culture evolved into an uncontrollable force.

    Despite its journey from the basketball court to the streets, then to skateboarding, and back to the streets, the Dunk has never lost its way. Certain colorways from the early 2000s, like Jeff Staple's iconic Pigeon Dunk, continue to serve as the ultimate symbol of influence and status in sneaker culture.

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    4. adidas YEEZY 350

    Year: 2015

    The collaboration between Kanye West and adidas is more than influential in the realm of modern sneaker culture - it's revolutionary.

    After Kanye's relationship with Nike fell short due to contractual issues and creative indifferences, he made the shift to adidas. The anticipation for the freedom that Adidas promised in their collaboration was immense, and it didn't disappoint.

    The partnership immediately altered perceptions of luxury footwear, but it was the introduction of the YEEZY 350, and its subsequent v2 model, that truly ignited the brand's popularity.

    The YEEZY 350, a trailblazer in design, has inspired countless imitations and set a high standard for other footwear brands. Thanks to Kanye's star power, the exceptional quality of the product, and its limited availability and high resell value, each release of the YEEZY 350 sold out in mere seconds. Kanye's strategy of creating a sense of exclusivity and prestige, often as crucial, if not more so, than the product itself, was masterful.

    This successful strategy not only propelled the Yeezy brand to commercial heights but also significantly contributed to the expansion of secondary markets, such as sneaker reselling platforms.

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    3. Converse Chuck Taylor

    Year: 1923

    It's often said that exceptional design is immortal, and the Converse Chuck Taylor beautifully exemplifies that sentiment.

    Starting as a staple basketball sneaker — the only basketball sneaker — it has now evolved into one of the most iconic footwear of all time.

    The Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star epitomizes the concept of a universal sneaker. These shoes can be worn anywhere, from the gym to a formal event. You'll spot them in intense mosh pits just as much as on the runways of high fashion, and never once do they seem out of place.

    Countless companies have imitated it, and cartoon characters do too. This begs the question — is it the inherent charisma of the Chuck that led to its widespread popularity? Or was it the endless duplications that helped cement its legendary status?

    Regardless, it has reached its current iconic status due to its unique characteristics.

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    2. Nike Air Force 1

    Year: 1982

    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 an 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, a blank canvas for creativity and expression, and will likely stay that way for the remainder of our lifetime.

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    1. Air Jordan 1

    Year: 1985

    Air Jordans revolutionized the game, transforming a niche product into a global phenomenon, thanks to an extraordinarily talented and highly marketable athlete. Coincidentally, its inception coincided with the zenith of sports endorsements, a phenomenon that arguably eclipsed even the Air Jordan 1 itself.

    The shoe laid the foundation for the enduring Air Jordan signature series and remains the highest-grossing Jordan Retro to this day. Phil Knight's gamble on a young talent paid off tremendously, but it's not just the financial success that sets this sneaker apart. It stands as the cornerstone of the entire Jordan series. Without this starting point, there wouldn't be a reference to connect the championships, the MVP titles, and the man himself. Everything that occurred during Michael Jordan's career and beyond adds even more significance to this iconic sneaker.

    Its place in the broader Air Jordan lineup—a lineup that is largely responsible for shaping contemporary sneaker culture—explains its influential status.

    There's much more that could be said about the Air Jordan 1, but perhaps its most important aspect is its unique meaning to each individual. That's why it reigns supreme on our list.

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    Author:Pete MichaelDate:2023.05.14Tags:

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