Some trainers blaze a trail and burn-out. Some never go away. Take the Chuck Taylor All Star: introduced 100 years ago, in 1917, today Converse still sells around 270,000 pairs every day. So if any sneaker deserves the label of a ‘classic’, it’s those, closely followed by the other 19 named here.
Sure, none of these lists will ever be objectively ‘correct’, but in judging the cream of the crepes – from feats in feet-protective engineering to cultural icons – longevity, mixed with style and practicality are often the common denominators in determining the greatest trainers of all time.
Oh, and a whole lot of white leather…
The first trainer ever designed by Nike and a key part of its early success, the Cortez was the brainchild of Olympic coach and sneaker demi-god Bill Bowerman. Introduced as a running shoe during the 1972 Games in Munich, the all-American colours and revolutionary construction helped the company coast to victory and into Hollywood films, most famously as the pair Tom Hanks laced up in Forrest Gump.
Originally, Nike founder Phil Knight wanted to call the sneakers the Aztec, but rival Adidas (which already made the Azteca Gold spikes) threatened to sue: “Bowerman took off his cap, put it on again, rubbed his face,” wrote Knight in his book Shoe Dog. “‘Who was that guy who kicked the shit out of the Aztecs?’ he asked. ‘Cortez,’ I said. He grunted: ‘Okay. Let’s call it the Cortez.’”
New Balance 998
Introduced in 1983 as the premium edition of the market’s first $100 running shoe, the 998’s streamlined (for New Balance, anyway) shape, luxe materials and split-colour midsole made it an instant icon and brought the brand out of its trainers-for-posh-dads phase.
Common Projects Achilles Low
The new classic, the Common Projects Achilles, was dreamed up on two separate continents at the same time. New York-based art director Prathan Poopat and Italian creative consultant Flavio Girolami fired design ideas back-and-forth across the Atlantic.
Eventually, the pair settled on the zenith of simplicity: a solid white leather, low-top sneaker with a subtle gold serial number on the heel.
Yes, they’ve since been hijacked by shuffling lads with bad haircuts, but the Nike Air Huarache was a bold, futuristic shape upon its release in 1991, and somehow hasn’t aged a minute.
It looks a bit like someone stuck two trainers together, but the shoe’s water skiing-inspired fit (Tinker Hatfield was really into water sports, apparently) means it still looks like little else around.
Converse Jack Purcell
The most famous badminton shoe in the world, the Jack Purcell – named after the Canadian player who became world badminton champ in 1933 – is now a men’s wardrobe essential.
You don’t need to bother whacking a shuttlecock around to make them work either, as many greats like Messrs Dean and McQueen proved throughout the years. Just team the signature ‘smile’ marking on the toe with a pair of chinos for a look that serves an ace every time.
Forever linked to pioneering rap group Run D.M.C. (and the cool one million dollars they got from Adidas to wear them), the shell-toe and contrast stripes marked out the shoe as an instant hit.
Originally made famous by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Superstar became the only trainer to be seen in in the late eighties and early nineties for kids who wanted to spin around on their backs on a busted cardboard box. In 2015 Adidas claimed to be still selling 15 million pairs a year – how’s that for staying power?
Nike Air Force One
Streetball legend and chunky, all-white work of art. We’ll let Nelly’s 2002 ode, ‘Air Force One’, take over here:
“I said give me two pairs, ‘cause I need two pairs. So I can get to stompin’ in my Air Force Ones, big boys stompin’ in my Air Force Ones.”
Introduced in 1975 as the Vans #95, the Era quickly became a go-to shoe for the burgeoning skate community in the brand’s home state of California.
More than four decades on, the kick still offer the same much-needed grip and versatility thanks to its padded collar and signature waffle outsole.
Beloved UK Garage icon and one of the comfiest trainers ever produced, Reebok’s Classic range has kept things simple for more than 30 years.
Intricate panelling, a jagged tread with gum finishing and a padded lining made the Classic a trainer for the gym that you wanted to wear outside, way before the athleisure trend.
The only Adidas shoe to come close to meeting Stan Smith’s ubiquity. The endless colourways and pure wearability of the Gazelle have seen it favoured by everyone from the football casuals of the eighties, to Britpop coke-heads in the nineties, to every cool, gallery-loving Instagrammer since.
Air Jordan I
In 1984, Michael Jordan’s barn-storming final year of college basketball saw him sign a bumper $2.5m (£1.7m) endorsement contract with Nike. Everyone thought the Oregon brand had lost its mind, but the next year he was Michael Jordan, and Nike brought out his own signature shoe.
The Air Jordan I lacked the tech of Tinker Hatfield’s later models but had the instantly recognisable design of an icon ready to spill off the court and onto the street.
Chuck Taylor All Star Hi
Chuck Taylor All Stars are to sneakers what Levi’s is to denim; a bona fide icon that still shifts at a rate of roughly 100 million pairs a year.
While they’re totally out of place on the basketball courts they once dominated, for fans of white T-shirts, blue jeans and classic style, the high-top version will always be a winner.
The first shoe to jump on the aerobics trend in the eighties, the Reebok Workout was the trainer that helped the Bolton-born brand overtake Nike (even if it was just for a little while).
The Classic’s beefier older brother is wider and meaner, leaving dancercise classes well behind, and are now more likely found on the feet of (fairly anti-aerobic) rapper Rick Ross.
The trainer favoured by The Bride in Kill Bill came to the West from Japan thanks to Nike’s Phil Knight, whose business started solely distributing Tiger sneakers to athletes on the West Coast.
The shoe may never have found the ubiquity of Nike’s greatest shoes despite its vast colour selection but, having not changed much since their 1952 introduction, they still feel like a unique piece of throwback style.
Gel cushioning and shock-absorbing insoles helped make the Asics’ Gel-Lyte range an enduring favourite for fans of high performance, functionality, and an endless array of mix-and-match colours and textiles.
Vans Old Skool
The Vans Old Skool debuted in 1977 as the catchy Style #36 and became the first skate shoe to incorporate leather into its design with the now-iconic ‘jazz stripe’, itself starting life as random doodle by founder Paul Van Doren.
It’s rather less throwaway now, having successfully transitioned from skate staple to the off-duty shoe for everyone who’s ever worked in the creative industry.
Designed in 1950 with indoor football in mind, the Samba’s design has barely changed because it hasn’t needed to: leather upper, contrast accents, gum outsole, suede overlays.
Along with the Stan Smith, the Samba is possibly the quintessential distillation of the Adidas design ethos – evoking hardwearing practicality and timeless style.
Nike Air Max
When Tinker Hatfield designed the Air Max back in 1987, he was inspired by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. “It’s almost punk,” Hatfield said of the building in the Netflix docu-series Abstract.
The exposed heel-bubble (the invention of ex-aeronautical engineer M. Frank Rudy) that featured in the Air Max 1’s sole drove people crazy on release – they thought it was going to explode.
It’s funny what a bit of gold-leaf lettering can do for you. Introduced in 1973 for legendary NBA player Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier, at the time they exemplified Frazier’s colourful style and quickness.
Today the model is relatively low-profile (in both silhouette and attitude) in comparison to what fellow basketball shoes have become. The cursive ‘Clyde’ typography by the final eyelet will always excite fans of the original sports style icon, as will the shoe’s historic ties to the fledgling punk and hip-hop scenes.
Adidas Stan Smith
When it comes to creating sneakers that deliver on mass hype, you can always count on Adidas. Launched in 1963 as a tennis shoe, the Stan Smith was originally branded the ‘Robert Haillet’, after the French tennis player. When Haillet retired, the company replaced him with Smith.
After two years off the shelf, Adidas brought back the all-white kick in 2014 and, in turn, created the ultimate fashion shoe. While you won’t find a single tour player in tennis who wears these now, the Stan Smith has been reinvented without being redesigned. The sign of a true icon.