All brands have that one sneaker with which they are identified with or put them on the map and we present 25 such models with that type of impact. Obviously several of these brands have more than one iconic model within their lineage, but we tried to pick the defining one in terms of popularity, longevity and/or technological breakthrough(s). Take a look and hopefully you can pick up on something new you may not have known about a particular favorite.
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Year Released: 1969
Why It Was Impactful: Yes, the most infamous historical significance of the adidas Superstar is Run-DMC rocking them throughout the 80s. And, while that breakthrough shouldn’t be ignored, the legend of the Superstar goes back a bit further than that. Originally introduced in the late ’60s as a basketball sneaker, the shell toe offered protection that caught the attention of several basketball stars of the era, most notably Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. With the aforementioned toe protection, an all-leather upper, and non-marking soles (a big deal back in the day), within the first few years of it’s debut, the adidas Superstar was being worn by over 75% of NBA players.
Model: The One
Year Released: 1993
Why It Was Impactful: Perhaps no skate shoe better encapsulates the early ’90s than Airwalk’s The One. Debuting in 1993, and retro’ed in 2002, the clean suede uppers and a flex-groove outsole gave the silhouette an edge over almost every other skate shoe(s) of the era. And it’s casual aesthetic, paired with decent skate performance elements made it a cross-over hit.
Model: Tai Chi
Year Released: 1999
Why It Was Impactful: This one is a recent throwback. Newer sneakerheads may not remember the And1 Mixtapes, but for a certain sneaker-wearing demo, they were a staple of the late ’90s and early aughts. The company started back in ’93, and debuted the Tai Chi in 1999. But it’s popularity didn’t really hit it’s stride until Vince “Vin-sanity” Carter dropped bombs in the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest wearing a special all-red colorway. The instant success (and subsequent downfall) of a company is a testament to how important product placement truly is.
Model: Gel Lyte III
Year Released: 1991
Why It Was Impactful: The forward thinking of the split-tongue design is definitely the one aspect which sets apart the Gel Lyte III from other trainers in its space. While on the market for more than two decades now, it’s really been in the last few years where the Gel Lyte III has made a big impression for those who obsess over sneakers. And just about all of that credit can be given to Ronnie Fieg. Not only have his special, limited colorway makeups and premium builds elevated the pursuit of these trainers, but the consistency of appealing GR colorways that are being released are resulting in a lot of units being moved. Plus, the Gel Lyte III has been a preferred model when it comes to collabs from a whole host of entities, brands and boutique shops.
Year Released: 2007
Why It Was Impactful: Similar to a brand such as Creative Recreation, Clae is a highly underrated brand, making quality shoes at reasonable prices for over a decade now. Their most popular silhouette, the Russell, has been around since 2007. Initially debuting in high-quality leather, over the years, the Russell has seen countless combinations of upper-materials. With subtle, classic styling, Clae dubs this model “The Thinking Man’s Mid-Top”…we concur.
Model: Chuck Taylor “All-Star”
Year Released: 1917
Why It Was Impactful: Originally produced by Converse in 1917 under the “All Star” moniker, these were the original basketball sneakers. Back then, Converse had their own team (coincidentally, also called the All Stars), which they used to promote their product. By 1921, an All Stars player by the name of Chuck Taylor, helped the company make improvements to the early designs of the shoe to keep up with the ever-changing needs of the player. Eventually, Taylor became a Converse salesman, holding basketball clinics and selling shoes across the country, and the legend of the Chuck Taylor, one of the world’s most famous sneakers, was written.
Year Released: 2002
Why It Was Impactful: Though they don’t have the hype, and subsequent instant-sell outs of other brands, Creative Recreation has been steadily doing their thing for over a decade. Their flagship shoe, the Cesario, debuted back in 2002, and has been a cult-classic ever since as these kicks have been laced up by celebrities and the common man alike.
Model: Bjorn Borg Elite
Year Released: 1981
Why It Was Impactful: Another style icon from the late ’70s, Bjorn Borg had game, and not just in the tennis department. His signature Diadora sneakers, the Elite were, at the time, the premier tennis shoe on the market. Though they were produced in a handful of colorways, the gold model was actually made of kangaroo leather! Though unfortunately, the newer re-issues of this tennis classic have dropped the kangaroo leather, and Borg’s signature endorsement, they’re still available from time to time, under the new moniker, the B.
Model: Sal 23
Year Released: 1994
Why It Was Impactful: Sal Barbier’s first signature sneaker, the Etnies Sal 23, is nearly as iconic as the man himself. Dropping in 1994, and pairing heavy-duty suede with sticky gum outsoles, this classic is one of the most highly praised skate shoes ever. Throwing in a nod to Sal’s favorite NBA player, Michael Jordan, with the 23 stitched on the heel, is the icing on the cake.
Model: 33 Hi
Year Released: 1989
Why It Was Impactful: Though the signature shoe was a staple of the ’80s NBA, Patrick Ewing took things to another level…and not just on the court. In 1989, after winning Rookie of the Year, Ewing became the first NBA player with his own shoe company. Though he initially wore the Rebound silhouette for a short time, the first official release from Ewing Athletics was the 33 Hi.
Model: ’96 (Grant Hill II)
Year Released: 1996
Why It Was Impactful: The Fila ’96 (also know as the Grant Hill II) is a classic piece of ’90s style. Originally designed for Grant Hill, and worn in his gold medal-winning campaign with the second iteration of the Dream Team, this is undoubtedly Fila’s most renowned silhouette. If it’s good enough for Tupac, it’s good enough for us!
Model: Jordan III
Year Released: 1988
Why It Was Impactful: Many would argue that the Air Jordan I deserves this spot. And, while those people would have a strong argument in their favor, the AJ III takes this spot for a few reasons. First and foremost, the design. Being the first mid-top in the Jordan line, and sporting the now-iconic elephant print, the III set the bar high for the Jordan Brand line. But, the legendary design isn’t the only reason the III takes the honor here. When a designer by the name of Peter Moore, who created the first two Jordan silhouettes, left Nike, they had some big shoes to fill. So, Nike enlisted the help of the legendary Tinker Hatfield and the rest is history.
Year Released: 1966
Why It Was Impactful: While other sneaker companies are always changing and adapting to the needs of their athletic customers, K-Swiss kept it simple…classic, if you will. Created with the up-scale client in mind, and focusing on tennis players, the K-Swiss Classic made it’s debut at the 1966 Wimbledon tournament, to resounding success. With the exception of a small Swiss flag on the outsole, the remainder of the shoe was dressed up in a stark white, giving it that timeless, simple and yes, classic look.
Year Released: 1988
Why It Was Impactful: New Balance is another company that could have several entries on this list, such as the 576 or the 1500. But, due to the popularity in the casual footwear market, the 574 takes the spot. Mixing the versatile suede and mesh uppers with the ENCAP midsole technology, New Balance created a unique canvas for the sneaker world to collaborate on.
Model: Air Max 1
Year Released: 1987
Why It Was Impactful: Though it could be argued that the Tailwind, or even the Cortez (see the Onitsuka Tiger Corsair) is the more historically relevant sneaker for the Swoosh, the Air Max 1 started a design revolution and brought Nike more commercial success than any of it’s (non-signature) predecessors. Designed by Tinker Hatfield, and developed by Mark Parker, the Air Max 1 turned a lot of heads, and was the very first sneaker with a visible air unit in the heel.
Model: Dunk Low
Year Released: 2002
Why It Was Impactful: In 2002, looking to capture (re: takeover) the growing skateboarding demographic, Nike came out swinging. And, with the introduction of Nike SB, and the SB Dunks, they hit it out of the park. Already an established silhouette, and popular in both athletic and casual circles, the SB Dunks added a thick, padded tongue and sturdy ankle supports, creating the perfect skate shoe from a silo that was already a household name. On top of that, Nike flexed their industry muscle to push the SB Dunk (Lows, in particular) as a blank canvas for artists to collaborate on and, in the process, a sneaker legend was born.
Year Released: 1969
Why It Was Impactful: There are few stories as relevant to the modern sneaker landscape as the Onitsuka Tiger Cosair. Back in the mid-’60s, a Beaverton, Oregon-based sportswear company by the name of Blue Ribbon Sports was the sole US distributor for the Japanese sneaker manufacturer. Helmed by none other than Phil Knight, Blue Ribbon Sports saw the popularity of Tiger models, and their revolutionary layered soles. Working with another familiar name, Bill Bowerman, he and Knight conceived a new sneaker silhouette by piecing together a few of the more important features of existing Onitsuka models, which they rushed into production in the run-up to the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. Originally named the Aztec, in honor of the Olympic host city, the name was changed to the Cortez after adidas announced their competing sneaker would be called the Azteca Gold.
After the success of the Cortez, Bowerman and Knight started a little company called Nike, and began distributing a nearly identical version of the Cortez with only Nike swoosh branding differentiating the two models. Once discovered, the relationship between Onitsuka and Blue Ribbon Sports (now Nike) went south. After some significant legal battles, both companies were allowed to continue selling the shoes. Nike kept the name Cortez, while Onitsuka changed theirs to the Corsair. To this day, it’s the only shoe to be a best-seller for two different companies.
Model: City Wings
Year Released: 1986
Why It Was Impactful: Founded in 1972, PONY produced several silhouettes that gained popularity among NBA players of the time. Between the Shooter, and the Top Star, PONY had a nice stable of sneakers, and plenty of athlete endorsements to sustain their business. However, it wasn’t until the 1986 NBA Dunk Contest that their popularity hit a new zenith. Dunk contest fans nowadays have Nate Robinson’s “triumph” over Dwight Howard, but back in ’86, Spud Webb became the talk of the basketball world when, at only 5’7″ he beat out his teammate Dominique Wilkins for the crown. And the sneaker Webb wore? The PONY City Wings.
Year Released: 1949
Why It Was Impactful: Though PRO-Keds no longer has the following it once did, that doesn’t take away from it’s indelible mark on sneaker culture. Created way back in 1926 under PRO-Ked’s forerunner, Keds, it was reborn as the Royal in 1949 and was the go-to sneaker for many of basketball’s top stars. Even if the popularity of the brand has waned over the years, having “Mr. Basketball” aka George Mikan as your flagship spokesman, speaks volumes about your historical legacy.
Year Released: 1973
Why It Was Impactful: Though the Suede may have preceded it by a few years, the story of the Puma Clyde is one of great significance to the business of basketball sneakers. Representing a perfect match between two styles, the Clyde was created in 1973 for Walt “Clyde” Frazier, a style icon in his own right. Today it’s known as the first signature basketball shoe and it was an ideal marriage of on-court performance and off-court style. Or, as Puma puts it “built for the court, embraced on the street”.
Year Released: 1987
Why It Was Impactful: Between the technical innovation (or gimmick) of the Pumps and the iconic status of the Question/Answer series, several Reeboks could have made this spot on the list. But, the most significant silhouette in the Reebok stable is the Reebok Classic. Another silhouette that bridges the gap between a performance running shoe, and a collectible casual sneaker. Clean and simple, the Classic silhouette earns it’s moniker with style.
Model: Jazz Original
Year Released: 1981
Why It Was Impactful: Originally founded way back in 1898, on the banks of the Saucony Creek in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, Saucony was acquired by a Cambridge, Mass-based sportswear distributor in the mid ’60s. Manufacturing quality running shoes, Saucony really hit their stride in 1981 with the Jazz Original model. By the ’90s, the popularity of the Jazz had snowballed to the point where Saucony was the dominant brand for it’s distributor…so much so that they officially changed the company name to Saucony.
Year Released: 2007
Why It Was Impactful: Starting with endorsements from skate stand-out Chad Muska, Supra raised the bar for footwear debuts with the Skytop. Designed by Muska himself, the inital reception to the Skytop was mixed…but it’s eventual impact cannot be denied. Part skate shoe, part fashionable high-top, the Skytop debuted in some crazy colorways. Muska has said that, initially shops were reluctant to stock the shoe, skeptical of how it would sell. But, eventually, the people came around and the Skytop is now the company’s flagship model, spawning 5 different models (1-4 plus a few low-tops).
Model: 6-Inch Boot (Wheat)
Year Released: 1973
Why It Was Impactful: The original Timberland 6-inch boot certainly isn’t a sneaker, but it’s place on this list (and relevance to sneaker culture) is no less significant. Bridging the gap between form and function, the classic Timberland boot has been keeping folks comfortable and protected from the elements for 40 years now. No doubt, a classic.
Year Released: 1975
Why It Was Impactful: The history of skateboarding can barely be told without the inclusion of the Vans Era. Back in 1966, the Van Doren Rubber Company started a sneaker store that sold made-to-order shoes in Anaheim, California. The first model offered was the Vans #44 deck shoe, now known as the Authentic. Though unintentional (at the time), the unique, sticky waffle sole appealed to Southern California’s burgeoning skateboard culture, providing skaters better grip than any shoe on the market. Fast forward to 1975, Vans enlisted the help of local skate legends Stacey Peralta and Tony Alva, to improve the design. Adding a padded collar and a wider selection of colorways, the Vans Era, and a piece of skate (and sneaker) history was born.