Let’s clear one thing up right off the bat. The best sneakers of 2016 are not the most hyped sneakers of 2016. Best is a measure of quality. Hype is a measure of, well, hype. There are plenty of sneakers that generated long lines and campouts and sold out before even the nimblest of trackpad fingers could click “Add to cart.” Some of those sneakers stand on their own merits and will prove to be well regarded in the years to come. Many more were simply the flavor of the day, providing a fix to fiends who don’t know what to do when they’re not copping kicks.
A certain groupthink tends to emerge around the best sneakers of any given year. Person or Publication A says that Sneaker B is the Sneaker of Year C, that influences Person or Publication X, Y, and Z. That is from whence the abhorrent term “influencer” springs. Other lists of this ilk include the Supreme x Nike Air Max 98 because it’s Supreme and Nike so duh. But that shoe didn’t make my list because, quite frankly, I think it’s ugly. There’s a reason that the Air Max 98 was little known before the collaboration. It’s not that it was lost in some Beaverton archive, it’s that it pales in comparison to its older brothers, the Air Max 95 and Air Max 97.
Diagree with me? Good. You should. My Top 10 shouldn’t be your Top 10. Taste and style are always subjective. Sometimes what you personally discern to be cool aligns with what big groups think is cool. Other times, it’s just a small cadre of folks who appreciate what you appreciate. Either way, it’s important to like what you like because you like it and not because someone else told you to.
So here are the 10 sneakers I really liked this year. I can’t wait to hear how they compare to your choices.
10. BAPE X ADIDAS NMD R1
Japanese streetwear brand A Bathing Ape was founded in 1993 and its iconic ape camouflage has been around almost as long. But the company continues to find creative ways to deploy the pattern. The Adidas NMD R1s received a lot of attention, and it was well-deserved. Wearing camo sneakers can come off a little ostentatious, but somehow with these it seems just right.
9. SUPREME X VANS AUTHENTIC PRO
The Air Max 98 may not have made the cut, but another Supreme sneaker collaboration did. The checkerboard is quintessential Vans, but it isn’t the easiest pattern for a partner to put its own unique twist on. But Supreme found a clever and creative way. Its Futura Bold Italic logo spans three squares, with the “p”, “r”, and “e” obscured, leaving the cryptic “Su me” message legible.
8. ADIDAS ULTRABOOST UNCAGED PARLEY
The Adidas UltraBoost is one of the most comfortable shoes around. But the Parley version made this list as much for how it’s made as how it feels. The upper features 95% Parley Ocean Plastic, which comes from plastic garbage retrieved from the waters around the Maldives. The eco message is great, but none of it would matter if the shoes didn’t look fresh on foot. Fortunately that wasn’t an issue.
7. ADIDAS YEEZY 350 CLEAT
Adidas continued to pump out new Yeezy models in 2016, including a new version of the low top 350 and a glow in the dark high top 750. They all predictably sold out almost instantly. But in my opinion the most clver Yeezys to drop this year weren’t meant to be worn on the streets. The Yeezy 350 Cleats were the rare instance where a lifestyle silhouette carries over to performance footwear and still works. The fact that the NFL fined players for wearing them only added to their allure.
6. NIKE MAG
Ever since Back To The Future 2 first came out in 1989, sneakerheads have been clamoring for the Nike Mags to be released. This was finally the year it happened. While Nike had auctioned off another version of the shoe a few years ago, the 2016 edition featured something those did not: power laces. The Mags may not be sneakers you’d actually want to wear out, but the fact that they exist at all is a testament to the value of moonshot ideas and a very important moment in sneaker culture.
5. FRAGMENT X NIKE TENNIS CLASSIC “RGB”
These sneakers highlight power of restraint. Legendary Japanese creative Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Fragment Design tackled one of his favorite models over the years, the simple Tennis Classic. The three-sneaker pack was dedicated to the RGB color wheel and the only embellishment on the minimal silhouette was a snakeskin embossed heeltab in one of the respective colors—red, green, or blue—printed with the first letter of the color.
4. JUST DON X AIR JORDAN 2 “BEACH”
Like Virgil Abloh of Off-White, Don C. is another F.O.K. (Friend of Kanye) who has made his own mark creatively. Through his label Just Don, Don C. dropped his second collaboration on the Air Jordan 2, an extremely underrated sneaker (and my personal favorite in the series). The sand-inspired “Beach” colorway was luxurious but also classy, which is harder to pull off than it sounds. The quilted leather on the upper even carried over to the lining of the shoe.
3. PHARRELL X ADIDAS “HUMAN RACE” NMD
Pharrell successfully manages to bring a socially conscious message to his Adidas sneakers without them feeling preachy and while still recognizing how important it is that they look dope. He pulled it off once again, creating a new take on the popular NMD that improved the look of the shoe even before it was emblazoned with the “Human Race” messaging.
2. ACRONYM X NIKE AIR PRESTO MID
“Put a zipper on it,” would seem to Acronym’s Errolson Hugh approach to sneaker design. Sometimes it doesn’t work, as was the case with the polarizing Lunar Force 1s. But on these Air Presto Mids, the details like the zippers and heel and tongue pulls complimented the military-inspired design perfectly. They didn’t feel like frivolous bells and whistles, they felt essential.
1. AIR JORDAN 1 “TOP THREE
Nike has experimented with the "What The” concept on other sneakers in the past, combining elements of numerous popular colorways into a single pair of shoes. These Air Jordan 1s riffed off of that conceit but took a more curated approach. The “Top Three” merged only the three most popular colorways of Michael Jordan’s iconic first signature model— the “Chicago,” “Banned,” and “Royal"—to great effect. By referencing only the best of the best, the different panels work with each other yet still stand out individually. That is the mark of a truly great shoe.