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The 15 most important sneakers of all time: from Nike Air Jordan to Adidas Stan Smith

As the Jordan OG1 Dior smashes all records, here are some other trainers that broke the rules

With news that Jordan Brand and Dior have teamed up to create the much-hyped Air Jordan OG 1 Dior, whipping up a frenzy not seen in the sneaker world for some time, we look back at some of the most important trainers of all time.

These are the shoes that made the news, broke the rules and helped shaped the fashion world today.

If you have ever wondered why sports shoes are today such a major part of the everyday wardrobe, then these options will help you understand.

Converse Chuck Taylor All Star (1923)

The Converse All-Star was unveiled in 1917, and then underwent something of a redesign in 1921, when semi-professional basketball player Charles (Chuck) Taylor asked the company to give the shoe better ankle support and more flexibility.

The resulting shoe became very popular and, in 1923, Converse officially added Taylor’s signature to the ankle patch, making it the first celebrity-endorsed sports shoe, and launching a design unchanged in almost 90 years.

Adidas Samba (1950)

Virtually unchanged since launching 70 years ago, this is the biggest-selling Adidas shoe of all time.

It was originally created to allow footballers to train on hard or icy ground, and it was built for endurance, out of hard-wearing kangaroo leather, and a distinctive-shaped toe for added strength.

Simple in design, it has proved to be enduringly popular, and has influenced a host of other shoes, including the Stan Smith and the Superstar (from 1969 and most famous for its association with US rappers, Run DMC), and is considered a design classic.

Puma Suede (1968)

Puma unveiled the Suede in early 1968, but it didn't become famous until the Mexico Olympic Games of that year, when American athlete Tommie Smith broke the 200-metre world record.

At the 1968 Mexico Olympics America athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Panther salute. A single Puma Suede shoe can be seen on the podium. Courtesy Peter Norman
At the 1968 Mexico Olympics America athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Panther salute. A single Puma Suede shoe can be seen on the podium. Courtesy Peter Norman

As he went to the podium to receive his gold medal, he carried a single Puma Suede shoe, which he placed on the ground, before raising his right fist in a silent Black Panther salute for equality and human rights. He indelibly linked the Suede with one of the most powerful moments in sporting history.

Puma Clyde (1973)

The Clyde was named for, and endorsed by, legendary basketball player Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier. Playing for the New York Knicks, Frazier earned the nick name ‘Clyde’ for his habit of wearing a hat similar to that worn by Warren Beatty in the film Bonnie and Clyde.

As well known for his dress sense as his playing skills, Frazier regularly wore Puma Suedes off the court and, although it was already standard for sportswear companies to give players free shoes and clothes to wear, they were not being paid in any way.

That all changed when Frazier, who put his name to the Suede ‘Clyde's in 1973, and became the first basketball player to sign a deal with a sports company, paving the way for the likes of Michael Jordan over a decade later.

Puma extended Frazier's contract in 2018, saying it was "for life".

Onitsuka Tiger Corsair (1969)

The Tiger Corsair is beloved by purists and steeped in controversy. First launched in 1969 as the Cortez, this shoe tapped into the rising boom in running, offering unrivalled cushioning, with arch supports, a full-length mid-sole, and a thicker, wedged heel.

Basketball legend Walt 'Clyde' Frazier in action. Courtesy Google Pictures
Basketball legend Walt 'Clyde' Frazier in action. Courtesy Google Pictures

Renamed the Corsair just a year later, its design impressed Nike founders Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight so much, it is said they closely copied it, added an extra EVA cushion into the heel, reinstated its original name, and sold it as the Nike Cortez.

The Cortez rapidly earned a name for being the perfect shoe, but purists will always think that title belongs to the Tiger Corsair.

Nike Air Jordan (1985)

Widely credited as starting the whole sneaker-head genre, the first Air Jordan was created for basketball legend Michael ‘Air’ Jordan, in 1984. That was when he was still playing for the Chicago Bulls.

In October of that year, Jordan walked onto court wearing a pair of distinctive black and red high-tops, with a red Nike Swoosh and red laces.

America's National Basketball Association deemed them a ‘technical foul’ and threatened Jordan with a $5,000 (Dh18,362 today) fine if he wore them again. Unperturbed, Nike added white, to comply to the NBA footwear code, and Jordan wore them again, this time unchallenged.

The following year, they went into production, and we have seen countless iterations flood the market since, including the most recent tie-up with Dior for the Air Jordan OG1 Dior.

Reebok The Pump (1989)

In response to Nike’s huge success with the Air Jordan – and its capsule of compressed gas in the heel – Reebok came up with something to rival it. All eyes turned to an inflatable ski boot produced by Ellesse (now owned by Reebok) for inspiration, and in less than a year the company had designed The Pump, with a revolutionary bladder inside the shoe that could be inflated and deflated by pressing an orange basketball on the tongue.

Despite being 50 per cent more expensive than any other sneaker on the market, it quickly became the only shoe to be seen in.

New Balance 990 (1982)

Often dismissed as the ‘dad’ sneaker, the 990 was in fact a ground breaker when it launched in 1982.

In an era when sports shoes were in lurid neons, the 990 arrived in steel grey suede, making it immediately identifiable, and ideal to wear off track as well as on.

The original ad for the New Balance 990. Courtesy New Balance
The original ad for the New Balance 990. Courtesy New Balance

Snapped up by New York's well dressed, soon it was everywhere, despite being the first sneaker to retail for over $100, which is worth more than $273 in today’s money.

Although outrageously expensive at the time, its new look, and high price made it irresistible to many.

Nike Air Max 1 (1987)

Created by the world’s most famous sneaker designer, the improbably named Tinker Hatfield, this was the first shoe to offer a sole with a window.

Inspired by the ‘inside-out’ design of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Hatfield transposed that thinking into the new shoe he was working on, and decided to put the existing ‘Air’ technology (a capsule of compressed gas in the heel) on display.

Launched in what it dubbed “University red and white”, it became a bestseller. Fans were delighted by being able to see the technology normally hidden away.

Nike Air Huarache (1991)

Another design by Hatfield, the Huarache is said to be inspired by a Mayan sandal and a water ski-boot, as Hatfield combined the two to create a snug-fitting shoe.

It was the first shoe ever to be made with an inner sock made of neoprene that was housed inside plastic caging. It was designed for maximum comfort, and to fit like a glove, and shifted the idea of how sneakers should look and fit, forever.

Adidas Stan Smith (1963)

First made in 1963-64, this shoe was called the Adidas Robert Haillet, after the French tennis player. When Haillet retired, however, the hunt was on for another tennis champion to endorse the shoe.

In 1971, it was renamed the ‘Stan Smith’ for the American player, and had distinctive green padding added to the heel.

It was known as the Smith for some reason between 1973 and 1978, as Adidas rather confusingly kept both Smith’s portrait and Haillet's name on the tongue. Only in 1978 was all reference to Haillet removed and it officially renamed the Adidas Stan Smith.

Nike Air Force 1 (1982)

Tasked with creating a shoe to break into the lucrative basketball market, Nike designer Bruce Kilgore began experimenting with a shape taken from a hiking boot, which had a shaft sloping down from the ankle to the Achilles heel. It was supposed to give support, but also allow greater freedom of movement.

Kilgore also ditched the traditional herringbone pattern outsole, designing instead a circular pattern that gave players added grip regardless of which way they pivoted.

His designs were so successful that, at the launch, a record six NBA players had signed up to wear the shoes for the season.

It was named after the US president's plane, the Air Force 1, but in 1986, despite being a bestseller, Nike decided to discontinue it, convinced that its moment had past.

Customer demand, however, meant it was quickly reinstated, and Nike learned that some designs are too well-loved to ever go out of fashion. Today, it comes in 2,000 different variations.

Vans Half Cab (1992)

In 1989 the famous skater Steve Caballero – known for his vertical height out of the half-pipe – teamed up with Vans to create a high-top skate shoe that carried his name, the Caballero.

Immediately popular, it was snapped by the fans, but soon Caballero noticed skaters were cutting down the height around the ankle, to give more flexibility when performing tricks.

So, he went back to Vans and asked them to modify the design, and designer Bunny Caminiti gave the new shoe a sloping mid-top, and in 1992 the mid-height Half Cab was born.

Reebok Ex-O-Fit (1983)

Introduced in 1983 as the male version of the previous year's Freestyle women's sneaker, the Ex-O-Fit tapped into the 1980’s growing obsession with getting fit and working out.

With its single Velcro strap and terry towelling-lined high-top, this leather shoe also helped bridge the gap between sports, street and fashion wear.

Its androgynous design (despite being aimed at men) saw it worn by a wide cross-section of society, helping sneakers migrate into becoming acceptable as everyday wear.

Nike Air Jordan 11 (1996)

When Michael Jordan asked Nike to create him a sneaker in patent black, which he could wear on court as well as to something a bit more dressy, Nike designer Hatfield came up with the Air Jordan 11. And possibly the best loved shape of all time.

A mix of slick black patent, which ran ankle to toe, and laces that ran through industrial meshing, its sloped silhouette is now regarded as the ultimate shape.

Jordan liked them so much he wore them to his 4th NBA championship against the Bulls, as well as in his 1996 film Space Jam, co-starring Bugs Bunny.

The original poster for Space Jam (1996) starring Michael 'Air' Jordan and Bugs Bunny. Courtesy Warner Bros.
The original poster for Space Jam (1996) starring Michael 'Air' Jordan and Bugs Bunny. Courtesy Warner Bros.

And finally...

As for which sneaker is the most expensive of all time, that title goes to the Nike Moon Shoe, sold at auction in 2019 for a staggering $437,500 (Dh1,606,000). Only 12 pairs were ever made.

Designed for the 1972 Olympic trails (in the hope of raising the profile for the then newly formed company Nike), they were designed by co-founder Bowerman.

Using nylon uppers brought in from Japan, the shoes were hand-assembled by Geoff Hollister using fishing wire.

Nicknamed the “Moon Shoe”, because of the distinctive patterning of the soles, they were said to resemble the footprints left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts.

The prototype sole is said to have actually been made by Bowerman pouring rubber into his family waffle iron.

Despite such crudeness, runners liked the feel of this new lightweight shoe, and it was put into production in 1974 as the Nike Waffle Trainer.

Updated: July 2, 2020 08:57 PM

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