How Top Industry Publications Choose Their 'Sneaker of the Year'

From Complex to Hypebeast to Footwear News, we found out what goes on behind the scenes of the deliberation process.
By Rae Witte ,

Virgil Abloh working on "The Ten." Photo: Nike

Back in November, thousands of streetwear and sneaker enthusiasts gathered in the grand ballroom at the Long Beach Convention Center for ComplexCon, where a panel of experts would discuss — and subsequently crown — the 2017 Sneaker of the Year. Just two floors below, thousands more were standing on top of each other in line for a chance to cop shoes (and clothing) so exclusive they brought some guests to tears. The thirst level was high, but the genuine excitement and electricity were, too.

Complex is an authority on sneakers, but in today's drop-obsessed retail landscape, it is not the only media outlet that keeps a close eye on the booming sneaker market. Footwear News, Hypebeast and HighSnobiety, based in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Berlin, respectively (each company also has an outpost in New York), each chooses its own sneaker of the year. In 2017, the big winner across the board was the Off-White x Air Jordan 1 from Virgil Abloh's "The Ten" collection for Nike, but when it comes to each publication's selection process, how do their deliberations differ?

"For our end-of-year Highsnobiety Crowns sneaker list, the main question I wanted to address was: 'Which releases will 2017 truly be remembered for,'" explains Chris Danforth, High Snobiety's footwear editor. "The great thing is we have guys with a ton of knowledge from Hong Kong, New York, Berlin and all over, so we can put together the best list that speaks to our global readership." He adds that he starts to keep a list of major releases at the top of the year and continues updating it throughout so not to miss anything major. "Once our shortlist is finished, the senior editorial staff will sit down together to vet."

"When first compiling the list, we look back at the releases that generated the most engagement from our readers," Hypebeast Fashion Editor Nico Amarca says. An obvious starting point indeed — whether teams are simply putting together a list of the year's most memorable sneakers or selecting only one and naming it the best of the year.

Footwear News's end-of-year favorites are considered as early as January. The staff polls hundreds of analysts, buyers and influencers with a survey that is incorporated into every writer's story assignments throughout the year asking who is hot, who is performing well and who is influencing the market across multiple categories. "The result is a fascinating snapshot of the people, brands and influencers who ruled that particular year," says Michael Atmore, Footwear News's editorial director. "By the time we actually hand out the awards in early December, close to year's end, we feel strongly that the best of the best is on stage. When you look back at each year's winners, you clearly see how we captured the zeitgeist of that particular era."

Without a doubt, Virgil Abloh's "The Ten" collection for Nike will go down in history as the most-hyped shoe release of 2017. Not only was Abloh's redone classic Air Jordan I Footwear News's best, but it fell within High Snobiety's thirty shoes to remember and in the number one spot on both Hypebeast and Complex's ranked top ten for the year. The silhouette was also a hot ticket item at Sneaker Con in New York this month, where resellers were flipping the shoes for hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars higher than retail. 

Off-White x Air Jordan 1. Photo: Nike

In front of a live studio audience at ComplexCon, Complex allowed an inside look at their deliberation process for Sneaker of the Year. Moderated by Joe LaPuma, Complex's VP of Content Strategy and host of the cult favorite YouTube show "Sneaker Shopping," the entertaining group of sneaker experts included DJ Clark Kent, Complex's Senior Editor Russ Bengston, J Balvin, rapper and longtime sneaker enthusiast Wale, former NFL player and team Nike rep Victor Cruz, NBA rookie Lonzo Ball and Jordan's latest collaborator, stylist, model and image consultant Aleali May.

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The Complex top ten ranking was solely dependent on the tastes of the panelists and general hype; no numbers, metrics or sales were cited as supporting reasons for the rankings. This is not to discount their ability or their expertise — they literally eat, sleep, breathe the culture. Full disclosure, as a former managing editor of the sneaker channel at Complex, I once played the role of the moderator in similar debates with the team's most trusted voices and tastemakers, and it was nearly identical to the format ComplexCon's deliberation panel.

"Hype" is a key factor for most of the publications when choosing a sneaker of the year. "It's a combination of what the current 'hype' is in sneaker silhouettes, brands and colorways (which social media plays a huge factor in) along with what's being promoted on the runway by designers relevant within our community," Hypebeast’s Amarca explains. For High Snobiety's unranked list, Danforth points out, "There are definitely some objective metrics that we consider like resale price, and some more abstract criteria that we examine like concepts and originality."

Throughout the panel discussion at ComplexCon, factors like originality in respect to Nike's Kith Floral Lebron 15s were mentioned, as well as Abloh's customizations, rollout and conceptualization of "The Ten" were discussed in supporting arguments. Similarly, Tom Sachs's "Mars Yard" Nikes made appearances on several lists, and were highlighted for their rollout and their look. Wale also pointed out and questioned whether the Undefeated Air Max 97 would be among the best without the longstanding popularity and undeniable influence of Gucci (they're black, red, and green).

While similar factors were considered in "best sneaker" discussions across the industry, it's apparent the foundation of every selection, ranking and reason for a sneaker making the cut can be traced back to one metric alone: the hype. It's no longer good enough to merely attach a star athlete's name to a mediocre looking sneaker and pray that he and his team a have a lights out season — especially since a season doesn't even last a year. Sure, sales for certain sneaker styles might be through the roof, but that is not a factor here: For a shoe to survive the selection process for your favorite publication's end of year list, it needs to have the right person attached to it, the story, the look, the buzz and, (unfortunately) most importantly, the clout to be included among the "best" on the market.

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