Sneaker Designs - What You Need to Know
While sneakers used to be solely associated with sports and physical activity, they are now a large part of everyday life and culture. In the 1950s, people started wearing sneakers more as fashion statements and the sneaker soon evolved into an item that is significant even in luxury fashion. The global sneaker industry is forecasted to reach $102 Billion by 2025.
The Main Sneaker Designs - Lows, Mids, and Highs
Low Top Sneakers
Low top sneakers or ‘lows’ have a lower collar that does not extend above the ankle. This sneaker design is said to have been inspired by soccer boots, which are light and offer great movement and flexibility. Fun fact - Kobe Bryant’s Kobe IVs were introduced in 2008 and helped start a trend for many basketball players to wear low top shoes. Here are some examples of well known low top sneakers:
One of the first pairs of footwear made by Nike was the Cortez, which debuted in 1972. In the 1970s, Actress Farrah Fawcett famously modeled the Nike Cortez in an episode of Charlie’s Angels. The shoes were also often worn by Sir Elton John, with him dedicating a song to the brand in 1980. Whitney Houston wore the Nike Cortez when she sang the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. The shoes were even seen in the film Forrest Gump and on the popular TV series Seinfeld.
Nike has released over 700 versions of the Cortez and done collaborations with figures like Bella Hadid, Kendrick Lamar, and the Netflix show “Stranger Things.” Other notable iterations of the Cortez include Year of the Tiger in 2010, which paid homage to Chinese New Year and the Asia City Pack in 2013, which presented different colorways of famous Asian cities. The clothing retailer J.Crew made its vintage version of the Cortez collaboration in 2014, which had a vintage look with 1970s-grade nylon and aged laces. For the 45th Anniversary of the Cortez in 2017, Nike released a campaign featuring supermodel Bella Hadid that referenced the original Farrah Fawcett promotion from the 1970s.
The Cortez has evolved with the times as many designs have experimented with materials like leather and suede in addition to the original nylon. Overall, the Cortez design has stayed simple. The sole of the shoe is made of thick rubber for durability and comfort, and the elevated heel helps prevent Achilles tendon strains. The classic colorways are the most beloved by consumers, making the Cortez a timeless shoe for over fifty years.
The iconic Adidas Superstar — the “Shell-Toe” — is a full-grain leather sneaker that was first released in 1969. Originally designed as a low top version of the Pro Model basketball shoe, the Adidas Superstar caught the attention of the NBA and players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Soon afterwards, the Superstar became popular in everyday fashion.
Adidas shoes were famously worn by hip hop group Run-DMC. The group even released a track in 1986 called “My Adidas,” further popularizing the shoe and making sneakers a bigger part of music culture.
The Adidas Superstars have since become a wardrobe staple for many, transcending age, status, and gender. Some celebrities often seen in shell-toes include Kylie Jenner, Victoria Beckham, and Jonah Hill. Adidas has also done collaborations to create unique and exclusive versions of the shoe, such as with musician and artist Pharrell Williams and designer Rick Owens.
Nike Air Force 1
The Nike Air Force 1 has been an iconic shoe ever since it was designed by Bruce Kilgore and released in 1982. This was the very first shoe to feature ‘Nike Air technology,’ a soft, springy cushioning created especially for basketball players. They are comfortable, durable, and have good grip that is suitable for athletic courts.
The Air Force 1s gained popularity in the 1980s and continues to sell well in primary and secondary marketplaces today. It’s estimated that around 10 Million pairs of Air Force 1s are sold each year. Nike has collaborated with globally renowned artists such as Nelly and Jay-Z, who reference the shoe in their lyrics and have released limited editions of the shoe with their albums. This solidified the popularity of the Air Force 1 in popular culture. In 2010, Nike and Jay-Z released the Air Force 1 “All Black Everything” sneakers in celebration of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Basketball World Cup. Nike has partnered with several designers to create different Air Force 1 limited edition colorways. Since its initial release, thousands of color variants of the shoe and many customized aftermarket editions have been produced.
Mid Top Sneakers
In comparison to low top sneakers, mid top sneakers or ‘mids’ have a slightly higher collar but do not go higher than the ankle. Some of the most popular mid tops on the market include the Air Jordan 1 Mid, Reebok Questions, Air Jordan 4, Nike Blazer Mid 77, and Adidas Forum Mid.
Vans Half Cab
The iconic Vans Half Cab is the mid top version of the Vans Caballero. The shoe was released in 1992 when professional skateboarder Steve Caballero asked Vans to create the Half Cab after noticing that skaters were cutting his signature high top shoes. In recent times, the Vans Half Cab has come from being Caballero’s signature shoe to a trending shoe among skaters. Vans Half Cabs are made of leather and suede with a rubber sole. The shoe is known for being super grippy on the skateboard and having a thickly padded collar. Since the shoe was released, many colorways have been created as Vans has also collaborated with several other brands to create unique versions of the shoe. Recently, Vans partnered with the California streetwear brand Brain Dead to recreate the Vans Half Cab, having the shoe’s traditional suede overlays engulfed in a black hue, and Brain Dead engraved at the back.
The Blazer was originally created in 1972 as a shoe for the basketball court, named the “Blazer” after the Portland Trailblazers NBA team. The shoe has a vintage feel that mixes synthetic and real leather, displays a signature exposed foam, and is built for durability and flexibility. In 2005, Nike teamed up with the skateboarder Lance Mountain to release a unique version of the shoe called the Nike Blazer SB. Mountain and Nike have released other renditions of the shoe since. Supreme and Nike collaborated in 2006 to release a limited edition version of the Blazer in black, white, and red, with a snakeskin Swoosh. Over the years, countless colorways of the Blazer have been released.
Reebok first introduced the Pump range of sneakers in 1989. The shoe was the first of its kind to include a patented internal inflating system with a special cushioning fit to enable locking around the ankle. Over four million pairs of the shoe were sold at $170 each within 18 months of its launch. The shoe was attractive to NBA players because it provided strong ankle support, meaning players no longer had to tape their ankles. In 2014, Reebok collaborated with several brands to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the shoe’s release. One example is a collaboration between Reebok and The Hundreds, a Los Angeles streetwear brand, to release a special version of the shoe.
High Top Sneakers
High top sneakers or ‘highs’ extend far above the ankle. They are famous in the athletic world, particularly in basketball. Popular high tops include Converse All Stars, Reebok Freestyles and Adidas Forums.
Air Jordan 1 High
The Air Jordan 1 High is arguably the most popular high top sneaker in the world. Air Jordan 1s were first worn by Michael Jordan during his NBA rookie season on the Chicago Bulls in 1984. The original Air Jordan 1s came in a red-and-black colorway to match the uniform of the Chicago Bulls. A lot of the shoe’s original popularity came from Nike advertising the fact that the Air Jordan 1s were banned by NBA commissioner David Stern, therefore making the shoes even more appealing to the public. Nike later created another colorway with red, white, and black that Jordan wore between 1985 and 1986. The company has released numerous other colorways since then and continues to do so. Some of the most prominent Air Jordan 1 collaborations include the shoes created with Union Los Angeles and with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White.
Converse Chuck Taylor High
Created in 1917 for the sport of basketball, the Converse Chuck Taylor is one of the oldest sneakers in history. The shoe was named after the basketball player Chuck Taylor, who joined Converse as a salesman and helped market the company by hosting basketball clinics across the country. Chuck Taylors come in different materials such as leather and suede but the original and most commonly known version of the shoe is made of cotton canvas. The loose lining of the canvas shoe was designed to provide flexibility and prevent blisters. Over 100 years later, designers and artists from different backgrounds have tried to reinvent the shoe. Fear of God produced its own version of the shoe called the Converse All Star 70 Fear of God. Other notable collaborations include Converse working alongside COMME des GARÇONS, Feng Chen Wang, and GOLF le FLEUR*.
Nike Air Mag
Nike Air Mags are a futuristic, self-lacing, high top sneaker that first appeared in the 1989 film “Back to The Future Part II” as a pair of shoes worn by the character Marty McFly, portrayed by the actor Michael J. Fox. This became an iconic scene in popular culture and Nike eventually released the Air Mags in real life in 2011. The shoe was rereleased in 2016 and both drops featured very limited quantities, with all proceeds going to The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease research. Nike has stated that the shoe was meant for display and should not be worn for recreational purposes.
As much as the final appearance of a shoe is important, what makes a shoe outstanding is the material used for its construction. Basic shoe materials common among designers and footwear factories include leather, rubber, synthetics, wool, and plastic.
Leather is a versatile material that is commonly used for shoemaking because it is durable, flexible, and elastic. Although commonly known for making formal shoes, the material can also be used in sneakers, boots, and sandals. Footwear textiles come in different fiber types, such as cotton, wool, nylon, and polyester, each having unique physical properties like water absorption and insulation. Polyester, lycra, and nylon are the most common textiles for shoe design. Rubber makes up the majority of outsoles of running shoes as it has several benefits, including the ability to withstand tough daily wear, and resistance to hot and cold temperatures. For comfort, foam can be found in almost all shoes for cushioning.
Famous Sneaker Designers
It is because of creators that the industry has been able to come as far as it has, and continues to grow. Let’s take a look at some of the sneaker designers who have played a key role in the space.
Virgil Abloh is best known for being the creator of influential fashion brand Off-White, which he founded in 2012. Off-White became famous for mixing street culture and luxury fashion, outfitting the wardrobes of many celebrities, and creating some of the most sought after sneakers on the market. In 2016, Abloh and Nike successfully partnered on a project called “The Ten,” where they recreated the Nike Air Max 90 and 97, Air Force 1 Low, Blazer Mid, Zoom Vaporfly, SP, Air Presto, Air VaporMax, React Hyperdunk, Air Jordan 1, and the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star.
In 2018, Virgil Abloh became the first African-American menswear artistic director for French luxury brand Louis Vuitton. With his formal training in architecture and engineering, Abloh is well known for bridging the worlds of luxury fashion and streetwear, particularly through sneakers. In 2022, 200 pairs of Abloh’s Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1’s sold for $25 Million.
Peter Moore is famously known for creating the Nike Dunk silhouette in 1985 and the Air Jordan 2 silhouette with Bruce Kilgore in 1987. He was a creative director at Nike and Adidas from the 1970s to the 1990s. When Nike signed Michael Jordan, Moore was the main designer behind the legendary Air Jordan sneakers, including the ball-and-wings logo. The Air Jordan line went on to generate more than $100 million in sales in its first year. A few years later, Moore created the Jumpman logo, which has since become a key symbol of sneaker culture.
Steven Smith has worked with top names in the sneaker industry, including Reebok, FILA, New Balance, and Nike, creating some of the prominent silhouettes we have seen from the brands. Since 2016, Smith has worked alongside Kanye West, being one of the minds behind the Yeezy Boost 700 and Powerphase. He has risen to the position of head of industrial design within the Yeezy brand at Donda. Other notable shoe designs from Smith include the New Balance 1500, New Balance 997, Adidas Artillery, Reebok Instapump Fury, Nike Air Streak Spectrum Plus, and Adidas Yeezy 451.
Eric Avar made a name for himself in the sneaker industry by working under the legendary Tinker Hatfield, creating the Nike Air Flight Huarache OG. Soon after, Avar was placed in charge of Penny Hardaway’s signature shoe line, including the highly sought after Air Max Penny. Eric Avar also created the Nike Foamposite silhouette, which started off as a quite experimental design and has now become a revered design for sneakerheads. Notably, Eric Avar was the man behind Kobe Bryant’s Nike line. This was particularly influential in making low tops popular for basketball payers.
Now Vice President for Design and Special Projects at Nike, Tinker Hatfield first joined Nike in 1981. Hatfield developed the world’s first cross-training shoe and the Nike Air Max 1 in 1987. He also famously designed the boots seen on Michael Keaton’s Batman and Batman returns. Most of all, Tinker Hatfield is best known for being the designer of several Air Jordan sneakers, from the Air Jordan 3s to the Air Jordan 15s to a few other commemorative editions. As the main designer of some of the most popular sneaker silhouettes ever, Hatfield has developed a legendary reputation within the sneaker industry.
The Evolution of Sneaker Designs
While most sneakers can be classified as low tops, mid tops, or high tops, there is a rich and intricate world of distinct sneaker silhouettes and the designers who created them. For these designers, sneakers are a creative canvas that will continue to grow as the overall sneaker market continues to expand globally.
Q: Can I design my own sneakers?
A: Yes, you can design your own sneaker using platforms like Nike By You and YourReebok.
Q: How do you become a sneaker designer?
A: You can launch your career as a sneaker designer by enrolling in shoe design programs offered by fashion and design companies. A lot of educational institutions also offer short courses in shoe design where you can learn more about the history and specifics of designing footwear.
Q: How much do shoe designers charge?
A: Designers’ prices depend on the level of experience and the company they are working for. The range varies between hundreds to thousands of dollars or more.