Like everything else in the modern world, over time, sneakers have evolved to become remarkable feats of technology in comparison to what they originally once were.
Building upon the foundations laid by previous generations of shoe designers and manufacturers, brands today are developing state-of-the-art footwear and merging aesthetics in ways the fashion industry has never seen before.
So, where did the sneaker start its journey?
Before we start naming off some of the most influential and innovative sneakers in history, let’s go back to the beginning.
The first sneakers were produced in the late 1800s by companies that began opting for rubber soles instead of the hard leather soles of the time.
So, how did the “sneaker” get its name?
Because rubber roles were known to be quieter than conventional sole, it made it much easier to “sneak” up on someone while wearing them, hence the name “sneaker.”
Over time, the obvious comfort advantages of rubber soles made them popular in the mainstream and athletes began gravitating towards the shoe style and it wasn’t long before the first pair of Converse Chuck Taylors were made.
One could argue that Chuck Taylor deserves a spot on this list because it reigned as the unofficial shoe of basketball up until about the mid-70s’. However, in terms of design, the Chuck Taylors didn’t really change the industry the way that some of the following sneakers did:
Nike Air Max 97
The Air Max 97, as the name implies, was introduced by Nike in 1997 as part of an effort to re-solidify the Air Max line as a dominant force in the sneaker industry.
So, what makes the Air Max 97 so influential?
Some experts say that it was one of the first sneakers to really capitalize on the now ubiquitous “athleisure” trend that blends athletic footwear with casual style. This merger between sport and casual is still apparent with one glance at the release catalogs of major sneaker sites like The Sole Supplier.
More than 20 years later, the shoe is still a top seller as Nike re-released the line for its 20th anniversary in 2017 and had a stellar response.
In fact, the Air Max 97 did so well that Nike has even designated the entire month of March as “Air Max Month.”
Nike Air Force 1
Even though the Air Force 1 was released back in 1982, it remains one of the most popular sneakers in today’s market.
Furthermore, it has gone down in history as the best-selling sneaker of all-time thanks to its absurd number of colorways and exclusive variations. With its seemingly endless variety and a remarkable track record for new releases, no other sneaker has been more influential for collectors than the AF1.
Nike Air Jordan 1
The Air Jordan 1s need no introduction, as even people who aren’t sneakerheads can recognize them at a glance.
Although they debuted more than 34 years ago in April of 1985, they’re still one of the top-selling athletic-casual sneakers today.
Nike Air Tailwind
The Nike Air Tailwind is the unsung predecessor of the entire the Air line, as it was the very first sneaker to contain an air pocket within the sole. Surprisingly, this technology was introduced way back in 1979. However, the air bubble didn’t become visible from the outside until the release of the Air Max 1 in 1987.
The Tailwind didn’t just pave the way for Air Max line, as the same technology was also used in the Air Jordan 1s and Air Force 1s.
While the Reebok PUMP line didn’t exactly stand the test of time, there are still some sneakers that use an upgraded version of the same concept. An example of that would be Reebok’s InstaPump Fury OG. These sneakers were revolutionary because they were the first shoe that could be inflated to conform to the shape of your feet.
Unfortunately, the line was released during the golden era of Nike Air. With that, the competition the PUMPs faced were unmatched. If the PUMPs were introduced at a later period, they could have probably stood to become one of the most influential sneakers of all-time.
ASICS is a Japanese sneaker company that was responsible for creating the first shoe with gel soles back in the late 1980s.
That’s right; you can thank them for every gel insert and sole you’ve ever seen advertised.
The entire concept of using gel as a cushion was still largely unexplored until the ASICS GEL line was released. The company reportedly took an interest in the use of gel materials for shoe cushioning, after their engineers conducted a test, in which eggs were dropped onto gel pads from 20 feet, without breaking.
Adidas took a different approach to sole comfort with the Boost, which remains one of the most popular sneakers lines in existence today.
The Adidas Boost picks up where Air Max left off with a bold entry into the athletic-leisure style category. This sneaker essentially started the current trend of wearing running shoes to do everything.
The brand used this line to distance themselves from the straightforward, old-school Adidas designs of the 90s. This move was made in hopes to re-gain a sizeable share of the athleisure market, which they have successfully done in the past four years since the first Boost was released in 2015.
The Nike Flyknit will go down in history as the shoe that completely changed the kinds of materials and textiles that are used in sneaker manufacturing.
The line started as a special limited edition made for the athletes of the 2012 London Olympics. The knitted upper part allows for incredibly intricate threaded designs as well as unprecedented flexibility and lightness.
The shoe instantly had an influential impact on the industry, as Adidas followed suit with the Primeknit and Reebok released their own version called the Ultraknit.
Way back in 1984, the Adidas Micropacer became the first shoe to contain built-in computer technology. The sneaker had an integrated distance tracking calculator that could keep a log of how far the wearer traveled when walking or running.
It was drastically ahead of its time and, as a result, the general public didn’t gravitate towards it for very long. However, with smart wearables on the rise, it’s only a matter of time before the popularity of the Micropacer starts to rise.
Adidas x Parley
Adidas has partnered with designer brand Parley to create the first sneakers that made of recycled materials.
The companies are collaborating to gather ocean plastic and recycle it into composite materials that are used to make sneaker soles. This is a brand-new movement in a sneaker industry that has been highly pollutive otherwise, so hopefully, this line will influence other brands to pursue similar environmental initiatives.
What Will the Future Hold for Sneaker Innovation?
With all of the innovation mentioned above happening in the span of just a few decades, it’s interesting to speculate about what the next three decades will hold for sneaker design.
Will we see shape-shifting shoes that can change colors and styles with a quick smartphone app adjustment? The level of technology being incorporated into sneakers is already so high that it’s hard to imagine where we’ll go from here.