There was a time not so very long ago when attending a special event in a pair of sneakers was a surefire way to flag yourself to your shiny-shoed peers as a sartorial pariah. However, attitudes have shifted in unforeseen ways and what was once the scruffy outlier is now the footwear gold standard.
The transition from running track to runway has been a slow and gradual one, but in recent years it has reached a crescendo. A crescendo that looks set to blare on indefinitely.
This is thanks in no small part to a number of key designers and sneaker brands who have been pushing the footwear to its limits in every conceivable direction.
Some have created white leather kicks that look right at home with tailoring. Others are inventing technology that might as well have come straight out of a lab at Area 51 (or just Back to the Future). Meanwhile, there are those who have elevated the sneaker from its utilitarian roots to the absolute pinnacle of high fashion it is today.
Here we take a look at the most influential sneaker brands in the world right now and what they’re doing to help make the world’s favourite footwear.
The Undisputed Masters Of Hype
Yeah, in 2016 Nike really did go back to the future and produced Marty McFly’s self-lacing sneakers. But this is just one instance when the brand seemingly reached through a tear in spacetime and brought us something directly from the future, making it the biggest trendsetter in sneakers and a reliable barometer for what’s around the corner.
The brand has a long track record of world-beating performance footwear as well as technological innovation (Flyknit uppers and NikeID personalisation in the last decade). More than that, Nike knows how to create products that live up to their considerable hype. It has more icons in its back catalogue than any other sneaker brand. Air Max, Air Force 1 and Air Jordan are all sneaker dynasties in their own right and go back further and you’ll find even more classic retro sneakers like the Cortez and the Blazer.
Still the most recognisable. Still the most wanted. Still the ones to beat.
The Brand That Turned Sneakers Into A Science
The ongoing technological arms race between the world’s sportswear big hitters has produced some of the boldest innovations in footwear. Luckily for us, it doesn’t show any sign of letting up.
Ask any sneakerhead on the street who’s in pole position and they’ll tell you it’s Nike. However, with featherlight materials and mind-bending sole technology, it could be easily argued that good old three stripes is manoeuvring for an overtake.
Yes, there are beloved classics – the Superstar, Stan Smith and Gazelle all come to mind – and they’re not going away, but in recent years the brand’s R&D lab has become the sneaker world’s Q branch. Forget the Yeezy collab, it was the Ultra Boost that changed the game and most recently, the German sports giant has been experimenting with 3D printing as a production method for groundbreaking webbed sole units. Don’t take your eyes off them for a second.
The 100-Year-Old Design Icon
It’s incredible (and slightly terrifying) to think about how much the world has evolved in the last 100 years. Commercial flight, television, mobile phones and the internet are just a few of the inventions that have revolutionised the way we live.
With that in mind, it’s a real triumph of design when something introduced a century ago is still being used globally today.
Converse’s famous high-top, the Chuck Taylor All Star, is one such item. Born in 1917, the iconic basketball shoe has remained 99.9 per cent unchanged and is now the best selling shoe in the US, UK and far beyond. Yes, the brand has other excellent shoes, but this is arguably the most iconic sneaker ever made. And what’s more, it’s for everyone.
The Luxe Trendsetter That Made Minimalism Cool
When luxury New York sneaker brand Common Projects first introduced its Achilles Low model in 2004, the menswear world went mad for it. But why? Was it innovative? No. Was next-level comfortable? Hardly. Did it come in at bargain prices? Quite the opposite.
This shoe was nothing more than a plain, leather sneaker. However, the thing that had the fash pack fawning over this minimalist trainer was that every little detail was meticulously executed to the nth degree. This was a sneaker created like an Oxford shoe handcrafted in Northamptonshire.
Buttery Italian leather, exquisite streamlined shapeliness and a timeless wearability that made each pair the perfect accompaniment to anything from a suit to shorts. It arguably started today’s thriving luxury sneaker market, and all of this, in a world now dominated by Balenciaga beetle-crushers, is not to be taken for granted.
Making Ugly Trainers Must-Have
Balenciaga’s output under the guidance of Georgian fashion maverick Demna Gvasalia may be the sartorial equivalent of Marmite or Björk, but whatever you think of his work, there’s no denying he’s changing the face of fashion, one broken ankle at a time.
The sleek, minimalist speed sock was the label’s first standout sneaker with Gvasalia at the helm, but it was the now inescapable Triple S that really took things in a new direction.
This beast of a shoe single-handedly remodelled the fashion footwear landscape and made big, chunky silhouettes the new gold standard. Minimalism is giving way to maximalism, and this Spanish fashion house is at the centre of it all.
Still The Purist’s Choice
As time marches on, there are fewer and fewer brands willing to take a financial bullet in the name of quality craftsmanship and have products manufactured on home turf. When talking about sneaker companies, the numbers are lower still.
That’s what makes New Balance one of the best in the game. Not only is the Bostonian firm responsible for some of the comfiest and most iconic running shoes ever made, but it also produces its premium range half in the US and half in the UK’s Lake District, in factories staffed with highly trained craftspeople.
It’s because of this approach to manufacturing that New Balance has a glowing reputation among athletes, sneakerheads and just everyday folks, thus earning itself a spot in the FashionBeans hall of fame.
The Veteran Quietly Breaking New Ground
It may not make as much noise as some of its contemporaries, but while they’re all battling it out trying to come up with the next big thing, Puma is quietly working away in the background, perfecting the classics. And inventing a few new ones, too.
A prime example of this is the brand’s take on the chunky sneaker trend. Puma has taken the look, put its own stamp on it and made it accessible to those whose wallets might not be able to stand up to the strain posed by a pair of Balenciagas that cost as much as a month’s rent.
Turn to the Thunder Electric model for a bulky-but-athletic shape and bold nineties-esque color pops, or the covetable Tsugi line for a more striped-back melding of mesh and neoprene atop a thick cushioned midsole.
The Old Reliable Of Footwear
From riding empty pools in suburban LA to jumping around on stage at the Warped Tour. Over the years, Vans has earned itself a deserved reputation as the shoe brand of choice for alternative lifestyles.
Its appeal is due in no small part to the simple styling, timeless appearance, modest pricing and, of course, plentiful colour options offered by its designs. The Old Skool, Classic and Authentic are all instantly-recognisable designs that haven’t changed in decades, mainly because they don’t need to.
What has changed is how people wear them. Once a shoe for kids and skaters only, it’s now equally comfortable on rock stars and hip-hop icons, with jeans or casual suiting. From the mid-1960s right up to now, Vans has always offered people a way to add a dash of colour and charisma to an outfit without breaking the bank. Something, which has seen its products remain relevant throughout the years, regardless of passing sneaker trends.
The Strongest Collab Game In The Business
Can you confidently call yourself a sneakerhead if your wardrobe isn’t filled with Jordans? Perhaps not.
Technically, a Nike creation but also a brand in its own right, the story is one of the most successful examples of sports marketing in history. After designing the first Air Jordans exclusively for the basketball legend himself, it wasn’t long before Nike opened up production and brought its new creation to the masses in 1984. People went crazy for it, leading to a wave of crime in the US whereby people were being robbed of their sneakers.
One of the main draws to the shoes for some is the collectable element, with many special releases and collabs being issued in seriously limited runs. Some recent partnerships have included Supreme, Off-White, Levi’s and Kaws to name only a handful, making this one instance in which you definitely should believe the hype.
Bringing Retro Back
Okay, so it’s not exactly shaping the future with its footwear offerings, but when you do the classics (and the Classics) this well, why would you need to?
The British-born company, now a subsidiary of Adidas, is one of the oldest UK sneaker brands. Something which is evident when you look at its retro silhouettes.
Its best sneakers like the Club, the Classic and the Workout are nothing short of iconic and all ooze plenty of that throwback charm we all love so much. They may not be made of knitted mesh and be 3D printed, but they look great, are undeniably comfortable, and are never going to go out of style.
Setting The Luxury Sneaker Benchmark
Gucci’s sneaker game has come on leaps and bounds in the past few years, thanks in no small part to a bit of TLC from creative director Alessandro Michele.
In fact, it could be argued that the Italian house’s offerings have set a new standard for luxury sneakers, with the clean lines and eye-catching embroidery of the Ace making it the new favourite white sneaker of the fashion elite.
And it’s not just classic styles that Gucci has been turning its hand to. The brand has also combined two of the moment’s most significant trends with its chunky Rhyton trainer, featuring oversized Gucci branding to the side.