The greatest sneakers of all time
Words by Rob Chilton
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Sneakerheads, this one's for you. The Ultimate Sneaker Book contains every lovingly and outrageously created shoe ever, from the mid-20th century to today
If you like sneakers, you need The Ultimate Sneaker Book in your life. The almost-400 page tome is a compendium of articles from cult magazine Sneaker Freaker that charts the evolution of the sneaker industry and includes profiles of such gems as Adidas Yeezy, Reebok Pump, Vans, Converse All Star , Puma Clyde, Air Max and, of course, Air Jordan. Here are some highlights from the wonderful world of sneakers presented in The Ultimate Sneaker Book.
Sneaker Freaker editor Simon ‘Woody’ Wood says Michael Jordan’s deal with Nike is “arguably the most historic moment in sneaker history” and it’s hard to disagree. Writer Vinny Tang goes further and calls the Air Jordan brand “the most influential partnership in the history of basketball – and sneaker culture.”
It all began in 1984 when Nike signed Michael Jordan for $500,000 per year and cautiously predicted shoes sales of $4m by the end of the third year of the deal. Well, the designer Peter Moore’s first Air Jordan shoe did better than expected: in the two months after its release in April 1985, Nike recorded astonishing sales of $70m. Today, 23 shoes later, the Air Jordan brand pulls in around £3bn a year.
However, Peter Moore’s second shoe – which sold for $100 and didn’t feature the Nike swoosh – failed to match the heights of his debut and rookie designer Tinker Hatfield was hired to carry the brand for the next 12 years. Hatfield’s mid-cut Air Jordan III in 1988 was the first to feature the Jumpman and persuaded a hesitant Jordan to extend his contract with Nike, winning his first NBA MVP award that season.
The IV was seen in Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing; V was spotted in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and had 3M Scotchlite tongues. Jordan’s love of fast cars, specifically his Porsche 964 Turbo, inspired 1991’s VI shoe with heel pulls that mimicked the Porsche’s spoiler; he wore the VII model to win gold at the Barcelona Olympics.
Air Jordan X’s claim to fame is that it was the first shoe to be released after Jordan’s retirement in 1993. But when, in March 1995, he announced to the world, “I’m back” he slipped on the X and started a new chapter of his legend. A black patent bottom half set the 1995 XI Concord apart and sparked fights in shopping malls upon its release.
By now Michael Jordan was generally regarded as the greatest player of all time, something Nike recognised in 1997 when they established the Jordan division within the company and launched the XIII shoe. Jordan’s fondness for his Ferrari 550 was the inspiration for 1998’s XIV, the last shoe he wore as a Chicago Bull and also the last from Tinker Hatfield – for a while anyway.
Designer Wilson Smith III took over and made the XVI in 2001, plus the XVII the following year that retailed for $200 and was worn by Kobe Bryant as well as Jordan at his new team, the Washington Wizards. The next supercar to be honoured by Air Jordan was the Lamborghini Murciélago that led to the XVIII shoe, the last Jordan wore in his NBA career.
Now retired, the path was laid out to Air Jordan XXIII and the 23 of his shirt number. Tate Kuerbis designed 2004’s XIX model, and then stepped aside to let Tinker Hatfield return in 2005 with the XX anniversary shoe that presented the IPS (Independent Podular Suspension) on the sole and the controversial and downright bizarre ankle strap. Air Jordan XXI continued the car motif with a tribute to the Bentley Continental GT, before Hatfield was drafted in to create the all-important XXIII in 2008 that featured advanced sole technology, outsoles that resembled Jordan’s thumbprint, as well as his initials hand-stitched on the upper. The greatest journey in sneakers was complete.
Sneaker expert and writer Rob Marfell calls Kanye West’s Yeezy collaboration with Adidas: “The most significant partnership ever created between an athletic brand and a non-athlete.” After falling out with Nike over royalties for shoes he designed with them in a five-year spell, West defected to Adidas and debuted the Yeezy Boost 350 in 2015 with a show at New York Fashion Week in front of A-list faces. More Yeezys followed: Boost 350, 350 V2, Powerphase, Wave Runner and Desert Rat, each drop cementing the shoe’s place in the sneaker hall of fame.
In the late 1980s a tech ace was raging between shoe companies as gadgets and gizmos were implemented into sneakers. Reebok conquered all in 1989 with a mini basketball embedded in the tongue of its court shoes: The Pump. Tennis payer Michael Chang, golfer Greg Norman, and NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Dominique Wilkins added cool points to the new technology, while non-athletes such as Busta Rhymes and Macauley Culkin in Michael Jackson’s video for Black or White pushed it higher.
But when NBA player Dee Brown paused on court during a slam dunk contest in 1991 to bend down and pump up his Reeboks, The Pump achieved icon status. In the year after the release of The Pump, Reebok’s global sales rose by 26 per cent to $2.7billion.
Brown says of his Pump moment, “It was just something that I thought of off the top of my head. It’s entertainment so I had to put on a show. Reebok didn’t tell me to do it. I wasn’t trying to get a contract; I was already under contract. I was just trying to have fun. It was all a show and 20 years later here we are talking about it.”
Paul Litchfield was the designer of The Pump and says the manual pumping system was crucial to its success. “When we first did the shoes, we just looked at how to make bladders,” he explains. “There weren’t many people that made the kind of dynamic air bladders that we wanted. You could do an air mattress that might float around the pool, but that always leaked eventually. We ended up working with a medical grade company that made blood bags and intravenous bags.”
As a kid, Paul Van Doren swept the floor at the shoe factory in Boston where his mother worked. He got a job at Randy’s shoe company and advanced up the company ladder. Impressed by his performance, the boss sent Van Doren to revive its California business. Soon, the west coast operation was outperforming the Boston HQ and Van Doren decided to set up his own company: Vans.
Its first shoe was the #44 made with thick waffle soles, durable canvas and nylon thread. “It was going to outlast anything,” says Steve Van Doren. “My dad’s whole philosophy was to make shoes like Sherman tanks, they were really built tough and you’d have to tell your friends about it.”
The trademark checkerboard style was the result of Van Doren spotting a street trend. “In the late 70s I was just out of high school and I noticed kids were colouring in their Vans with a checkerboard pattern,” Van Doren explains. “So we started making shoes like that. We sent a box of checkerboard shoes for the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Jeff Spicoli – played by Sean Penn – was hitting himself over the head with the shoes in the movie. It was magic because we sold millions of checkerboard Vans after the film came out!”
Shoe designers at Nike unearthed a basketball shoe from the mid-1980s and rejuvenated it as the Dunk. Part of the rand’s skateboard division, it went on to become a phenomenon. These rare eBay Dunk sneakers were auctioned for charity for $26,000. The successful bidder received a pair in their size while the originals were destroyed with a chainsaw, no doubt triggering heartbreak from fans.
The Adidas Superstar – aka the Shelltoe – started its journey in 1969, just as Neil Armstrong was stepping on the moon.
In The Ultimate Sneaker Book, Gary Warnett writes: “From its humble sporting equipment origins through to its present-day stature as a global streetwear staple, the Superstar is arguably the most instantly recognisable sneaker design of all time. Following a fine career in top level basketball in the 1970s, the shoe’s golden era arrived in the 80s, when it found itself at the nexus of urban fashion and hip hop.
"The people had spoken and athletic shoes were not just for athletes anymore. Over the course of four-and-a-bit decades, the Superstar has managed to bypass the fickle boom-bust cycle of fashionable trends, effortlessly changing lanes between sub-cultural movements. Chalk that up to its impeccable sporting pedigree – or the purity of its timeless silhouette – either way, the Superstar is in it for the long haul.”
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