Is There an Art to Creating a Classic Sneaker?

February 20, 2022 by Joey Birch

Is There an Art to Creating a Classic Sneaker?

Classic - “Having a high quality or standard against which other things are judged



Is there an art to creating a classic sneaker? A question that many sneaker designers, even those who have created some of the ‘classics’ we love today must think about when conjuring their next design.

What is a classic sneaker? How can one sneaker be considered a classic when another doesn’t? If we look at the base meaning of the word classic, it suggests that the item or thing in question being considered a ‘classic’ needs to set an example. It needs to provide the groundwork for others to build upon and develop. Much like a classic album, a classic sneaker can feel like a flash in the pan, an unexpected high-point met with incredible response. 

When looking at the current sneaker industry, it can feel that a lot of the focus is based around ‘hype’ and owning the most expensive pair to flex on the Gram. People’s appreciation of sneakers has gradually moved towards the hottest pair of the moment over comfort or design. 

Kim Kardashian seen wearing the Nike Air Max 95 'Pink Foam'

Sneakers and the designers that brought them into the world are somewhat disconnected to the current audience, with many peoples reference points being the celebrities on their timeline, such as Kim Kardashian wearing the Pink Foam Air Max 95, causing a 200% spike in searches despite the sneakers lesser appreciated status previously. 

DQM x Air Max 90 'Bacon' advert, 2021

Rewind the clock a little, and you’ll find that sneaker culture is very much different from the one we know today. With a focus on the design and the story behind a sneaker, sneakerheads would walk into a store and find a brand new colourway or silhouette and work the rest out for themselves. Sneakers such as the Dave’s Quality Meat x Nike Air Max 90 (which saw a recent 2021 re-release) hold an incredible story only allowing those lucky enough to be local to, or able to travel down to, Dave Ortiz’s store in downtown New York to get their hands on the exclusive shoe.

It’s these stories and the history of sneakers that are so important and is one of the key factors that can make a sneaker a bonafide classic. Jordan Brand is as big as it is today with the unrivalled level of popularity it’s held since its inception in 1985 with the Air Jordan 1 for a reason; it holds a place in many peoples hearts both sneakerheads and non-sneakerheads alike. 

OG Air Jordan 1 'Chicago', 1985

With that in mind, looking at the Air Jordan 1, we can see that the impact of a sneaker can have a big influence on whether it can be considered a classic. At the time the Air Jordan 1 was released, sneaker culture, while present, was small. Performance footwear and lifestyle footwear were never placed together. Similarly, before the sneaker was released, Michael Jordan himself was playing in the Nike Air Ship, a shoe that has since been almost forgotten about by many. Following the controversial banning of the Black and Red colourway of the Air Ship from the game, Nike decided to utilise the discussion to market the AJ 1. The advert was simple, it saw Jordan bouncing a basketball while panning down to his feet where he was wearing the brand new silhouette. During which the narrator announced:

”On October 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe,” the narrator intones. “On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can't stop you from wearing them. Air Jordans. From Nike."

Air Jordan 1 'Banned' advert, 1985

The instant sellout that ensued the release of the Air Jordan 1 can still be seen today. With sneakerheads across the globe taking an L on a Saturday morning SNKRS app drop in an attempt to get their hands on the latest colourway of MJ’s signature shoe, it’s clear to see the impact they’ve had and since left. 

The Air Jordan 1 didn’t just prompt one of the biggest sneaker lineages in history with over 36 silhouettes in the Jordan Brand arsenal, but it moulded sneaker culture as we know it today. Bridging the gap between performance and lifestyle, almost all modern sneakers are inspired by some level of performance whether it’s the technology or the design. 

It’s this longevity that can also be attributed to answering the question, is there an art to creating a classic sneaker? 

OG adidas Stan Smith

Ask a sneaker collector what their favourite sneaker is or what one shoe every collection needs, they’ll almost always say that an Air Force 1 or an adidas Stan Smith. Certified classics that subvert trends and transcend generations, they’re considered classic sneakers that, if touched or tampered with, walk the line between making and breaking the shoe. 

Nike Dunk 'Be True to Your School' pack, 1985

A classic sneaker, while it is to be built upon and used as inspiration, is also one that people keep coming back to without needing to change. For example, in 2021 we saw a myriad of Nike Dunk colourways released. From new colourways that updated the 1985 silhouette designed by Peter Moore, as well as retroing the original colourways first seen released as part of the ‘Be True to Your School’ pack. These new colourways, the ‘flash in the pan’ releases, are forgotten about just as fast as the week they were released in - there is no longevity and in turn, they cannot be considered a classic. 

When discussing the longevity of a sneaker, there is a clear correlation with design. The two seem to go hand in hand. From the Air Force 1 and the Stan Smith providing minimal, clean designs and colourways that are only better over time, the design of a sneaker is imperative to the success and status the product holds. 

The evolution of the Nike Air Max line

There is arguably a no better example of this than the Nike Air Max lineage. While the Nike Air line began in 1978 with the Nike Air Tailwind, a sneaker designed by NASA engineer Frank Rudy, it was Tinker Hatfield that spearheaded the Air Max line into what we know and love to this day. The Air Max 1, released in 1987, was pivotal in Nike’s innovation and technology and provided a completely new take on performance sneakers and how they can resonate with a lifestyle audience. 

Initially met with widely negative responses from Nike itself as well as test audiences, the Air Max 1 was inspired by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Utilising the subverted design features of the centre, from the interior piping and framework of the building - Hatfield wanted to create a sneaker that displayed the features that sit at the heart of the function in the shoe's technology. 

"I just remember being super influenced by it and having my architectural senses turned upside down”, says Tinker in an episode of the ‘Respect the Architects’ docuseries. 

As time went on, the Air Max 1 began to pick up traction and soon became what many believe to be “a piece of art” as described in Nike’s ‘Behind the Design’ short film. Following from the Air Max 1, the Air Max 90 in 1990 further solidified peoples love for the lineage, quickly becoming known as classic silhouettes that stood for a moment in time, a step forward in the history of sneakers. 

OG Air Max 90 'Infrared' retro, 2020

The Original Air Max 90 ‘Infrared’, which saw a sellout 2020 retro, is still seen today as not only one of Nike’s greatest designs but arguably the greatest sneaker ever made thanks to its simplicity yet progressive design. 

OG advert for the New Balance 990 V2, 1998

Similar feats can be found in New Balances 990 series. While the design may have changed over the years, the 990 has remained a mainstay in many sneaker collections and acts as an everyday go-to. Comfort and premium design go hand in hand to provide a timeless finish.

Air Jordan 11 'Cool Grey' retro, 2021

Could it then be, that it’s a sneakers design language that provides its status as a classic? While this certainly plays a role in the success, a products lifetime is only decided by the consumers. The stories and memories that the wearer holds with the sneaker are what makes them mean so much and what will keep them coming back. Releases like the Air Jordan 11 that only return once a year around Christmas have many fans marking their calendars for sentimental reasons outside of simply a new release. 

Unlike earlier releases from the ’90s and 2000s where it felt like brands were creating sneakers with a sportswear purpose in mind, allowing the consumer to add their own stories to them, brands are now creating collaborations and releases that hold their own meaning. 

A Ma Maniere x Air Jordan 3 'Raised By Women', 2021

2021 saw the release of the A Ma Maniere x Air Jordan 3 ‘Raised by Women’ which pushed the message of female empowerment from the title of the collaboration to the details within the sneaker. From the start, the AMM 3’s were slated as being the sneaker of the year, a title it was awarded from many outlets. 

Vashtie holding her Air Jordan 2 collaboration

An earlier release of the Vashtie x Air Jordan 2 in 2010 marked an imperative moment in history with Vashtie Kola becoming the first woman to have a collaboration with Jordan Brand. This collaboration has since become a constant reference point when discussing the ongoing movement to make sneakers more inclusive. Messages that can be built upon and used to further support future projects are what attribute to making a sneaker a classic. 

Going back to an earlier point, a products lifetime is only decided by the consumers. With that in mind, could it be argued that calling a sneaker a ‘classic’ is subjective? For instance, before the Nike Dunk wave returned at the end of 2020 going into the beginning of 2021, the silhouette would simply sit on shelves and eventually go on sale. The same has been seen with the Air Jordan 1, even the ‘Chicago’ colourway which today reaches quadruple figures on the resale market. 

Kanye West wearing the Nike Air Yeezy 2 'Red October' (Left), Nike Air Yeezy 1 'Zen Grey' & 'Blink' (Right) 

Alternatively, you could look at the Nike Air Yeezy collaborations. While many consider them to be some of the greatest sneakers of all time, they have since never been retroed or built upon. They represent a time in Nike and Ye’s history, but by the definition of a ‘classic’, they don’t meet this criterion yet many deem them to be. 

When listing the top classic sneakers, it feels that there is a Mount Rushmore that was released around the ’90s to the early 2000s that are getting consistently retroed with little innovation, making it feel that there was almost a golden era for new and progressive footwear. Silhouettes like the Air Max 90, Puma Clyde (released in the ’70s), the Air Jordan 1 and the Air Jordan 4 were pioneering designs of the time, but are we getting stuck in a loop of rehashing the older favourites without making way for a new set of future classics?

adidas YEEZY 350 'Turtle Dove', 2015

For the answer to that question, we may need to look no further than adidas’ work with Kanye West. YEEZY has taken over streetwear and sneaker culture since its debut in 2015 with YEEZY Season 1. West had already pushed for new and exciting designs with the likes of Louis Vuitton and Nike, but adidas is where Yeezy has been able to grow into more than just a clothing brand. 

During the first show, the adidas YEEZY 350 was shown off. A sock-like upper sitting atop adidas’ then new ‘Ultraboost’ technology outsole providing unmatched comfort and design. What followed was a huge wave of interest in the YEEZY line as well as the adidas NMD and Ultraboost which promoted Ye to release a track on his 2016 project ‘The Life of Pablo’ titled ‘Facts’ which stated that “Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman” referencing the incredible sales West had seen with his new line. 

For West, the stars seemed to have aligned. Even six years after the initial debut of the 350s, the releases are instantly sold out with every rumour of a new release having an impact on the sneaker community. However, whether the hype surrounding the collection will take its toll in time to come is yet to be seen.

Official adidas Superstar advert, 1970

So, the final question still stands: Is there an art to creating a classic sneaker?

The answer is a tricky one. Whether a sneaker is a classic or not, is ultimately decided by the community. And for that certification to become apparent, it takes time for that sneakers influence to be reflected long-term not just on the initial impact it may have. 

Whereas ‘classic’ sneakers were based on the technological advancements they provided, nowadays, it is the collaborations that hold an important message and that help mould the future of the sneaker culture that will stand as reference points. 

Re-releases of our favourite silhouettes will always be special, but as can be seen with what James Whitner has done with the likes of the A Ma Maniere Air Jordan 3, classic sneakers aren’t meant to come around often. But when they do, it’s worth paying attention.