When Run D.M.C. released “My Adidas” in 1986, they single-handedly turned sneaker culture into a thing. Flash forward to late 2019 and you’ll see that culture living loud in its golden age. The sneaker is one of the most coveted parts of any wardrobe, some would even argue its the most important single element of your daily fit. You can dress in last season’s hoodies, you can keep your wardrobe completely populated by basics, but if you have a fly pair of kicks on, no one will ever doubt that you have style.
Simply put, there’s never been a better time to be a sneakerhead. Thanks to advances in technology like 3D printing, semi-translucent textiles, and data-driven technology, sneaker designs have entered a period where it feels like anything is possible. A period where sneaker designs can actually surprise us, no matter how loud people try to scream, “they’re just shoes!”
One thing I’ve come to understand during my time running UPROXX’s SNX DLX column is that the most vital art isn’t always found on museum walls. Sometimes art is revealed in how a chef pairs flavors, how a mixologist utilizes their spirits, how the sun sets on a sweeping valley, or in the defiant act of spray painting an abandoned warehouse. And yes, art is often found in our very own closets. It’s telling that two of the biggest designers of the decade — Kanye West and Virgil Abloh — are artists prominent in other mediums, too. Or that the host of and designer of one of the biggest streetwear festivals of the year is a traditional fine arts artist.
The message is clear: sneakers aren’t really “just shoes” at all. They’re modern canvases.
As we approach 2020, let’s take a look back at the past ten years of sneaker drops. Some years will have multiple releases, some years won’t have any. Some silhouettes have already been re-released multiple times, proving themselves classics, others might already seem passe. One was deemed wack from pretty much the first day. For better or worse, these are the sneakers that defined the past decade.
Nike LeBron 8 South Beach
Released on October 16th, 2010
January may technically be the beginning of the year, but this past decade in sneakers truly began on October 16th, 2010, the day that Nike released the LeBron 8 South Beach. Made to mark LeBron’s Miami debut after departing from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the South Beach sneaker is dressed in a Miami Vice inspired colorway of pink and teal, rather than adopting the black, red, and yellow colors of the Miami Heat. It was the best design decision Nike could’ve made.
The LeBron 8 South Beach-inspired a decade of loud and vibrant colorways and the sneaker is a tribute to not just LeBron himself, who was at prime levels of his career, but to the new city that he’d call home. Sole Collector claims the shoe was inspired by the Art Deco architecture of Miami, and we can definitely see the bold towering and luxurious characteristics of the movement present in the sneaker’s silhouette.
The LeBron 8 released with a retail price of just $160 but regularly sells for about $1,085 on aftermarket sites like StockX.
Jordan 11 Retro Concord
Released on December 23rd, 2011 and again on December 8th, 2018
A Christmas classic, this release is a bit of a cheat. The Jordan 11 was first debuted by MJ on the court during the 1995 NBA Playoffs, when the Bulls faced off against the Orlando Magic, and eventually received its first retail release in 1995. Then again in 2000, and again in 2006. So the sneaker is part of three different decades, but the hype surrounding them has only grown with each subsequent release.
When the Jordan 11 Retro Concord once again dropped for the holiday season in 2011, all hell broke loose. Eager shoppers camped outside of Nike stores and retailers, and the ensuing hype was so much to deal with that Nike has since restructured how they drop their most hotly anticipated releases. We have the Jordan 11 Retro Concord to thank for Nike’s sneaker raffle system and the SNKRS app, single-handedly changing the way we buy sneakers.
Has it been for the better? No. Well, Kind of. Sure the SNKRS app always crashes, but at least no one gets hurt. Meanwhile, hype for the Retro Concord’s are still high, the sneaker dropped a fifth-time last year.
Debuted in 2004, debut model not pictured
The story of Pharrell’s ICECREAM skate shoe brand is long, and probably deserving of its own dedicated post. It involves a lawsuit with Reebok, discontinuation of the brand, and an eventual brand re-emergence. As such, finding a useable photo of a vintage pair was tough, so instead, we’ll show off a recent release from 2018 made from Italian leather simply because it looks pretty. The thing is, there isn’t one pair of Ice Cream sneakers that defines the decade, it’s what Pharrell and famed streetwear designer Nigo accomplished with the brand that has come to be emblematic of the ‘10s.
In the early 2000s, when Pharrell was mostly known as simply one half of the production duo The Neptunes, the young producer linked up with Bape’s Nigo to create the apparel and sneaker labels Billionaire Boys Club, and ICECREAM, introducing Japanese designed streetwear to a western streetwear audience, who, at the time, had been mostly unaware of imported streetwear.
According to Complex, when Pharrell originally pitched the idea of ICECREAM to Zoo York, brand manager Nino Scalia remembers thinking Pharrell’s ideas were crazy. Time has proven otherwise. ICECREAM sneakers were unique because of their pastel colorways and all-over graphic uppers, which many streetwear enthusiasts saw as childish at the beginning of the decade. These days no one bats an eye to all-over prints, and almost every brand from Nike to Supreme has since released sneakers that owe a significant debt to Nigo’s unique aesthetic.
Released on June 1st, 2015
When Adidas set out to create the UltraBOOST in 2015 the brand was merely trying to deliver a performance-based running shoe designed for comfort and increased energy return. But the Adidas UltraBOOST ended up becoming an industry game-changer that would shape the next five years of footwear. The UltraBOOST utilized three of Adidas’ newest sneaker technologies, Primeknit, a lightweight material used as the upper, BOOST, an extra spongey comfort-enhancing midsole, and a support enhancing Torsion bar, and put them all together into a single shoe for the first time.
It’s hard to pinpoint which came first, did “Athleisure” — the comfort-focused streetwear aesthetic that made it publicly acceptable to rock sweat pants to a function — lead the movement or was it inspired by the comfort-first focus of the UltraBOOST. Either way, every brand has since tried to come up with their own version of the UltraBOOST.
No single person had a bigger impact on making these sneakers cool then Kanye West, of course, who famously rocked a pair of Triple White UltraBOOSTS and made them the shoe that every sneakerhead needed to own. After a period of declining market share for the brand in the early part of the decade, UltraBOOST and YEEZY were the recipes that would lift Adidas back to Nike-level profits.
The UltraBOOST has since been reiterated upon and improved, first in 2018, and every year since. The most recent model, the UltraBOOST 2020 was revealed just last week.
YEEZY Boost 350 V2 Beluga
Released on September 24, 2016
You can’t talk about the last decade in sneakers without paying some respect to Kanye West’s name. Simply put, nobody has had a bigger influence on sneaker culture in the last 10 years than Ye. Having said that, we didn’t want this list to be inundated with YEEZYs. In fact, we made the decision to not talk about the Nike Air Yeezy Red October, which is possibly the most hyped sneaker of the decade, early on in the process.
Hype does not equal influence, and while the Red Octobers and the other few sneakers Ye made outside of his collaboration with Adidas are no doubt legendary amongst sneakerheads, let’s face it — they’ve had zero design impact on the sneakers that have come out in their wake. Instead, let’s talk about the YEEZY BOOST 350 V2 Beluga. The closest thing to a decade-definer in the extended Ye-Adidas collab.
The 350 V2 was a revamp of Ye’s second sneaker designed with Adidas, the YEEZY BOOST 350. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the 350 V2’s — I’m more of a Powerphase guy — but they are the most popular design out of YEEZY Supply with 18 unique colorways released this year alone. More to the point, 350 V2’s are themselves emblematic of YEEZY brand and the popularity of the sneaker began with the release of the Beluga. Since the 350 V2 is the most commonly reiterated upon YEEZY, they’re always in supply and are fairly easy to get. However, if you want the Beluga you’re looking at an aftermarket price of about $729, an over $500 markup from its $220 retail price.
New Balance 990v4
Debuted in 2016
As athleisure continued to gain popularity midway through the decade, streetwear hit a bit of an awkward phase where people collectively decided that we should all start dressing like George Costanza. Enter puffy jackets, 90s inspired cuts, and the era where the dad shoe was king. And no shoe screams “dad” more than a pair of New Balance 990v4s.
A more modern update of the 90’s original New Balance 990 — which was made popular by street hustlers who loved the comfort and the above $100 price tag — the v4 happened to drop at just the right time. They looked like something straight out of your out-of-touch dad’s closet, and everyone from Lil Yachty to Kawhi Leonard, to your brothers and sisters, had to have a pair.
The 990 silhouette is now on its fifth iteration, so while the New Balance 990v4 has since been surpassed, it still remains one of the most recognizable dad shoe silhouettes.
Balenciaga Triple S
Released on September 21st, 2017
Yuck — everything about the Balenciaga Triple S sneaker can be summed up with that single word. The Balenciaga Triple S is performance art as a sneaker — it’s not so much meant to actually be worn as it is to provoke a conversation. From the exuberant retail price tag of $795 to its pre-dirtied upper, Balenciaga saw the ugliness of the dad clothes trend and said: “You only think you know what ugly is.”
Designed by Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia and famed high-fashion footwear designer David Tourniaire-Beauciel, the Triple S looks like a mess because that was in every way its intended goal. The “S” in the sneaker’s name stands for “sole,” as the Triple S sought to combine the soles of a running, basketball, and track sneaker into one thing — yes, thing, how else would you describe this mess?
But that’s what makes the Triple S such a sought after shoe. Call it a stupid reason to like something because of its “badness” all you want, but at the end of the day the Triple S got fashion tastemakers talking, that coupled with the fact that it calls attention to itself and is status as a luxury item made waves. These days, the Triple S is practically sneakerhead catnip.
Whether you hate them, love them, or they make it clear to you that fashion is really ultimately just kind of stupid (it’ll always be about how you rock it, not what you rock), the Balenciaga Triple S is a conversation starter that helped bring bulbous over-the-top designs to the streetwear mainstream.
Sean Wotherspoon Nike Air Max 1/97
Released on Air Max Day 2018, March 26th, 2018.
Inspired by vintage Nike caps from the 1980s, this collaboration between Nike and Round Two founder Sean Wotherspoon, sees the classic Air Max 1 midsole mixed with the upper of the Air Max 97 (hence the name), and covered in a groovy hippie-inspired corduroy. The sneaker was originally part of Nike’s 2017 Air Max Day Vote Forward contest that allowed sneakerheads to vote on which sneaker design they most wanted to see released on the next Air Max Day.
Wotherspoon took the top prize, and a year of anticipation around the release of the Sean Wotherspoon Air Max 1/97 culminated in a headline-making surprise release at 2017s ComplexCon.
To date, the Sean Wotherspoon Air Max 1/97 currently retails for an average of $900 and has sold for as high as $1,400 on StockX. Since Wotherspoon and Nike have since had a falling out, it doesn’t look like we’ll ever see a new iteration of this model which is a shame, but only makes a pair that much more coveted.
While Wotherspoon won’t be making any sneakers with Nike in the foreseeable future, he’s currently in the midst of following up the Air Max 1/97s with a joint collaboration with Atmos and ASICS — giving us something to look forward to for the next decade’s list.
Travis Scott Air Jordan 1
Released on May 11, 2019.
The closest thing we have to a modern classic, the Travis Scott Air Jordan 1 was almost un-arguably the biggest sneaker release of the year. Hot on the heels of ASTROWORLD, Travis Scott rocked his pair of brown leather Cactus Jack Air Jordan 1s throughout his world tour of the same name, and the sneaker’s retail release was so anticipated that it crashed the Nike SNKRS servers, angering many fans trying to cop a pair.
It wasn’t the only time a Travis Scott Nike would break SNKRS — in fact, the next time you see Nike SNKRS trending, it’ll likely have something to do with Texas Trav. The sneaker’s most recognizable design flair is the large backward swoosh, but aside from that, it offers little else besides what we’d expect from the Air Jordan 1 silhouette.
As far as the design goes, we don’t have much to say about the Travis Scott Air Jordan 1, but the sneaker is a testament to the star power of the young rapper — 2010s hip hop was defined by the presence of Kanye West, Drake, and Future, but it’s Travis Scott who will help shape the next era of hip-hop music, and we don’t doubt that his influence will be reflected in the streetwear of tomorrow.
Nike React Element 87
Released in 2018
Nike’s tech-focused answer to Adidas UltraBOOSt, the Nike React Element 87 was the sneaker of 2018 and represents a new era of design from Nike. Just as Adidas has a pre and post-BOOST era, the release of the React Element 87 will act as an era marker in future conversations about Nike. The sneaker’s geometric design is informed by data collected from everyday athletes, as Nike used pressure maps to create algorithmic patterns that would be applied to the outsole to maximize comfort.
Designed by Nike Sportswear Innovation Designer, Darryl Matthews, the most recognizable feature of the React Element 87 is its semi-translucent upper which brings the wearer’s socks into play, making for a sneaker that drastically changes based on sock-color and design.
“People are drawn to the shoe because it has layers… It’s not a flat shoe, and the way it looks depends on the socks you wear. It’s like when Nike exposed the Air bags except now we’re able to expose the inside of the shoe,” said Matthews in a Nike news release on the making of the React Element 87s.
The shoe is both highly researched and thoroughly deconstructed, striking a perfect balance between the Virgil Abloh-influenced modern designs of Nike, and streetwear’s current interest in performance. It continues to release in new colorways every so often but has rarely reached the heights of its original Sail Light Bone colorway.
Honorary Inclusion — The Nike MAG
Released on October 4th, 2016
We’re just going to say it, the Nike MAG is f*cking stupid. No, seriously. I understand that it’s incredibly popular but let’s be real, not only are the Nike Mags ugly, they’re flat-out ridiculous. Yes, they’re from Back to the Future II, yes, they’re the first sneakers ever designed for a movie, yes they self-lace, yes sneakerhead’s all want a pair, but no, none of that makes them good.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Back to the Future! It was partly filmed in my hometown, and Marty McFly was probably my first real style icon growing up, but I think its important to remember that the Nike MAG was designed to be ridiculous. The 2015 imagined in Back to the Future II is a dystopia, and while it ironically isn’t nearly as dark as the actual future we inherited, this sneaker is best left in the fantasy world dreamed up by Robert Zemeckis.
So the Nike Air MAG is on this list as a cautionary tale — it shows the decade at its most indulgent worst. It’s also proof that the sneakerhead buying habit is more influenced by hype than by appreciation of good design. Having said that, we have the Nike MAG to thank for the Fear of God 1s… which are dope.
SNEAKER OF THE DECADE — The Off-White Air Jordan 1 Chicago
Released on September 9th, 2017
We saved the top spot on this list for a sneaker collaboration that not only set the tone for the last quarter of the decade but was designed by someone who is actively shaping the future of streetwear as whole. The Off-White Air Jordan 1 Chicago was part of Nike’s first big collaboration with Virgil Abloh before the Off-White label head would secure his spot as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear, and before Off-White was a need-to-own brand in the canon of 2010s streetwear.
It’s easy to sell a new iteration of the Air Jordan 1, it’s one of Nike’s most iconic silhouettes, but the Off White Air Jordan 1 Chicago represents the best of what Virgil Abloh has brought to modern streetwear. Made as part of Nike’s The Ten project, which saw Abloh redesign 10 of Nike’s most iconic sneaker silhouettes, the Off-White Air Jordan 1 is the perfect encapsulation of Abloh’s three-percent design philosophy, which is inspired by the sampling-culture of hip-hop and is meant to pay reverence to the past by recontextualizing for the future.
Remember when we said the best designers were artists? This is what we meant.
Abloh wisely chose to keep the classic red colorway of the Air Jordan 1s which allowed him more creative freedom to play with the design in small but interesting ways. He implemented an exposed foam tongue, his now-famous zip-tie accents, and a stitched-on Swoosh accented with blue and orange threading that added a deconstructed-feel to the sneakers.
Since The Ten, Nike’s own designs have taken on a heavy Abloh influence and deconstruction is an aesthetic that every brand has since run with. It’s easy to look at the Off White Air Jordans and write them off as pretentious — the Helvetica “Air” text on the midsole isn’t doing the sneaker any favors in that regard — but in truth, the sneaker represents everything about Virgil Abloh that the designer does best.
Abloh respects and glamorizes the icons of the past but retranslates them with a modern touch and tone. In that way, he’s both a historian and a maker of history in the world of streetwear.