Whether you know them by another name (trainers, kicks, runners, daps, or in my case, 'my babies'), there's no denying that sneakers' appeal goes way beyond functional footwear. The logo design (opens in new tab), colourway, style and even packaging design (opens in new tab) all play a part, but there is still an indefinable quality that marks out your favourites.
Historically, sneakers have been a mark of our tribe, a product of our time, an outward reflection of context and culture. Countless sneakers have become indisputable design icons, up there with the design classics of any age.
Whether you're an indie gal married to your lo-fi canvas Chuckie Ts; a lanky hoop-scoring 'boss' who wouldn't be seen dead in anything but hi-tech fat Air Jordans; or a modern-day casual for whom vintage Adidas Trimm Trabs are everything, you've got to admit that there are some sneaker designs that are so classic, so iconic, so damn influential that they deserve a place on any classic design list, whatever your tastes.
So with all that said, agonisingly wrestled down from a long, long list of favourites, here's my take on the 20 best sneaker designs ever – and note, these are not in order!
01. Nike Air Max 1
The Air Max 1 wasn't the first shoe to use Nike's technologically advanced air cushioning system. That honour falls to trailblazers like the Tailwind, the almighty Air Force 1 and 1982's Air Ace.
However, 1987's Air Max 1 was the first to bare its innards to all with its 'visible air' window. Despite the technology, they still manage to look ultra-cool even to this day.
02. Converse All Star
A legendary shoe and an undeniable design classic, whatever your personal taste.
Virtually unchanged since first release in 1916, Converse All Stars (or 'Chuck Ts', so named after early endorsement by basketball star Charles Taylor) are ubiquitous amongst students, skaters, indie kids, punks and primary school children. Now there's a demographic to die for!
03. Adidas Trimm Trab
The Trimm Trab has been a hugely popular design classic since its release in Adidas' native Germany in the mid-70s. Adopted with enthusiasm by hordes of 80s UK football 'casuals' as regulation de rigeur Saturday afternoon terrace footwear, the solid chunked-up rubber polyurethane sole remains instantly recognisable.
Sadly, finding a mint vintage pair is practically impossible, as the soles on the original models famously deteriorated over time, even when unworn.
04. Nike Air Jordan 1
It's difficult to overstate the impact that Nike's first Air Jordan release had on sneaker design and fashion in general, back in 1985.
In its original (now-iconic) red/black colourway, the shoe was originally banned by the NBA in the US for breaking its colour rules. History shows that banning rarely harms the banned, and these beefy Michael Jordan (opens in new tab)-endorsed hi-top bad-boys soon became enormous sellers, leading to an seemingly never-ending line of follow-ups.
Interestingly, the Air Jordan 1 is the only shoe in the Jordan series to feature Nike's trademark Swoosh logo.
05. Onitsuka Tiger Corsair
Following its inception in the late 1940s, Japan's Onitsuka Tiger quickly made huge strides in the development of sneaker technology and design.
Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman (later to form Nike) helped Onitsuka design the Corsair, which would be re-designed further to become the Cortez, an early Nike classic.
The Corsair's striking design features the iconic curvaceous tiger 'stripes' weaving along the sides. These were actually first introduced with the also-classic Tiger 'Mexico', the stripes as much a metaphor for speed, movement and power, as a means of providing additional foot support for the wearer.
06. Puma State
Puma States (or Suedes as they're known in the US) are a timeless piece of classic design with a long and illustrious history.
Tommy Smith made his famous Black Power salute (opens in new tab) at the 1968 Olympics sporting a pair, and they've been much-loved by basketball players (Knicks legend Clyde Frazier was a famous endorsee), hip-hop stars, skate crews and street casuals ever since.
07. Adidas Superstar
The old-school classic 'Superstar' is an off-the-scale design sneaker icon. Not just because the instantly recognisable low-top shell-toe design is simply 'cool-as', but because of its massive impact across so many musical trends, cultures and tribes.
Enjoying instant popularity on courts when released in 1969 as a basketball shoe, its subsequent adoption by hip-hop crews in early '80s New York (helped along just a smidge by Run DMC's My Adidas (opens in new tab) homage) led to a massive explosion in popularity for the Superstar.
08. Adidas Stan Smith
Released in 1965 and endorsed by US tennis legend Stan Smith, these eponymous adidas sneakers are quite simply legendary. So much so that they were treated to a re-release in 2014.
The epitome of classic, understated design, these beautifully simple all-leather works of art are a striking triumph in 'less is more', particularly notable for the three rows of perforations where the usual adidas three stripes would appear.
09. Etnies Fader
Not a shoe typically found in top 'all time' lists, and certainly not deemed 'cool' by those in the know, but nevertheless... this is my list, right?
So, I have a confession: I'm a sucker for Etnies Faders. A classic, appealing aesthetic, understated contrasting colourways and solid sturdy construction add up to a modern design classic that I absolutely love to wear. And boo ya to the purists!
10. Adidas Samba
The biggest selling Adidas shoe of all time, this old-school (1950) classic set the blueprint for all sneakers to follow.
A favourite of five-a-side footballers and '80s terrace casuals alike and still undiminished by familiarity, this simple design classic deserves a place in anyone's top 20 sneaker design list. Anyone who claims to have never owned a pair of Sambas is, quite frankly, telling a pack of porkies.
Next page: the next 10 best sneakers of all time...