A little over a year ago, this very site question whether sneakers were "over" in fashion. Well, last time I checked, humanity has not yet found feet to be superfluous appendages and evolved into a race of people with vestigial skin hoverboards running between our legs. (There are plenty of hoverboards though — but you still need feet for those.) Plus, the whole "athleisure" market comprises roughly $97 billion of the $330 billion footwear, apparel and accessories industry. This is to say that, no, sneakers are not going to be irrelevant anytime soon. Or ever, for that matter.
What they are going to get, however, is more confusing to buy. Especially for people who don't want just any sneakers, but want the kind of kicks that say "I'm not like a regular pair of shoes, I'm a cool pair of shoes." Admittedly, that market primarily caters to men, and for the longest time, women have been an afterthought. But now we live in a world where Beyoncé and Kate Hudson both have activewear lines, and numerous designers have left their signature stamps on plenty of iconic sneaker silhouettes.
To help you navigate between the perennial classics and limited-edition gems of the sneaker world, here's a comprehensive primer on the big brands, independent labels and fashion houses churning out some of today's most covetable kicks for women. Soon, you'll be breaking the necks of hypebeasts and pretentious sneakerheads all over Instagram.
The Big Guys
In the first part of this guide, I break down the bigger companies, what they're doing that makes them relevant, and the models you should seriously consider buying.
In a nutshell: Um... it's Nike.
Buy these: Air Force 1, Huarache, Presto, Flyknit Trainer, Sock Dart, Air Max Series, NikeLab collaborations.
The house that Bill Bowerman built has long offered plenty of limited-edition sneakers for women, and some of its current coups include a ladies-only collaboration with Chitose Abe of Sacai (shouts to dudes who can squeeze into a women's 10) and of course, Riccardo Tisci's reinterpretation of the Air Force 1. As far as the classics go, you can't go wrong with a white-on-white Air Force 1. Whether it's the low- or high-top, it's the ideal combination of versatility and comfort. Bruce Kilgore's 1982 masterpiece is a silhouette that really will stand the test of time.
In a nutshell: The greatest basketball player of the modern era's off-court legacy lives on through his sought-after shoes. Also, "Space Jam."
Buy these: Jordan 1, Jordan 3, Jordan 4, Jordan 5, Jordan 6.
Now that the sneaker resale market has cooled down a bit, finding a pair of Air Jordans isn't as hard as say, getting a pair of Kanye West's shoes. Almost all Jordans come in Grade School ("GS" for short) sizes, which you'll have to convert to a women's size by adding 1.5 to whatever number it is. The Peter Moore-designed Air Jordan 1 has gone on to influence kicks by Hedi Slimane and the Common Projects guys, while Tinker Hatfield — who did to sneakers what Christian Dior did to womenswear — is the master architect behind shoes like the Jordan 3, an ahead-of-its-time mid-top that was arguably the first basketball-meets-lifestyle sneaker, and the Jordan 5, a fighter plane-inspired shoe often worn by Will Smith on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."
In a nutshell: The makers of Phoebe Philo's favorite sneaker are putting out some of the best-looking shoes right now.
Buy these: Stan Smith, Samba, Superstar, Campus 80, Boost Series, Tubular Series, NMD, ZX Flux, Designer collaborations, Yeezys (HA, GOOD LUCK)
The Stan Smith may have had its street style moment, but that doesn't make it any less of a perfect sneaker. Beastie Boys fans champion the equally understated Campus 80, while the shell-toed Superstar came back in a big way last year. But the real news is that in addition to its quiver of classics, Adidas's futuristic designs like the Tubular Series (derived from Yohji Yamamoto's Qasa shoe for his Y-3 collection) and the Boost Series have become strong sellers because of their ideal combination of comfort, technology and on-foot appeal. The Boost Sole is super light, responsive and just looks cool, which is likely why Kanye West uses it on his near-impossible to get sneakers. Plus, Adidas has a steady roster of designers like Stella McCartney, Raf Simons, Rick Owens and the aforementioned Yohji Yamamoto reinterpreting some of its most iconic designs season after season.
Fun fact: Adolf and Rudolf Dassler were two brothers who made their living as German shoemakers. After a less-than-amicable falling out in 1948, Adolf went onto form Adidas, and Rudolf formed Puma. If you love cats, then you don't need much convincing to wear the label's feline logo on your feet. The Puma Suede is the company's most classic and versatile option and is readily available in an array of colors. If you like your sneakers weird, consider the Disc Blaze, which ditches laces in favor of an interesting wire system connected to a clicky disc in the middle of the shoe that can be loosened or tightened. More recently, Puma put out campaigns with Kylie Jenner and a now-sold out collection by Rihanna, which included a punk creeper-inspired take on their Suede. Of course, the FENTY stuff is still available on aftermarket sites like eBay — for a premium price.
In a nutshell: Steve Jobs and your dad's favorite sneakers are now everyone's favorite sneakers.
Buy these: 990, 620, 696, 574
Once the flagship shoe of the oft-derided "normcore" trend, New Balance shoes have a cult status for being unconventionally cool — sort of like one of their most famous stalwarts, Steve Jobs. The 990 has the ugly-cute appeal of a vintage Macintosh, but is anything but obsolete. J.Crew has a bevy of collaborations with the label, with its 997 and 998 men's shoes consistently selling out. Lucky for you, its equally attractive renditions of the women's 620 and 696 shoes remain steadily available.
In a nutshell: The 50-year-old California sneaker company remains the ultimate purveyor of laid-back kicks.
Buy these: Slip-On, Authentic, Old Skool, Sk8-Hi, Era
Whether you actually skate or, you know, just have a thing for skaters, the learning curve for wearing a pair of Vans is a hundred times simpler. The $45 versions you can easily buy are just as cool as the limited-edition collaborations with Gosha Rubchinskiy, Opening Ceremony and Takashi Murakami. One thing you may ask yourself is: "What's the difference between the Authentic and the Era? They both look the same." Which is pretty true, except the Era offers extra padding, as it was originally conceived as a performance shoe for pro skaters Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta back in the '70s.
In a nutshell: The default shoe brand of legit rock legends and recovering emo kids alike.
Buy these: Chuck Taylor, Chuck Taylor 1970s, Comme des Garcons PLAY Collaboration, One Star, Missoni Collaborations
Chuck Taylors really haven't changed much, but there are a few different versions out now that it's worth pointing out the differences. The recently launched Chuck II offers a lighter sole by way of Nike's Lunarlon technology (hooray, corporate synergy!), a more durable upper with an elastic strap around a slightly padded tongue for a better fit, and less breaking in time. Meanwhile, the Chuck Taylor 1970 aims to recreate the hard-wearing Chucks of the past, with a more substantial rubber sole and vintage details on the sole and upper. The 1970 is the latest canvas for Converse's ongoing collaboration with Comme des Garcons PLAY, while their Missoni collaboration combines the fashion house's trademark textures with Converse's signature shoes. If the Chuck Taylor isn't really your thing, the One Star is a low-top tennis sneaker that was a favorite of Kurt Cobain's.
The Little Guys
Meet the independent brands making a case for supporting the little guy.
WOMAN By Common Projects
In a nutshell: Italian-made sneakers with telltale golden numbers on the side have become the unofficial shoe of the fashion illuminati.
Buy these: Achilles Low
Founded a little over a decade ago, Common Projects founders Peter Poopat and Flavio Girolami were making luxury kicks long before people discovered there was a market for them. The Achilles draws on silhouettes like the Adidas Stan Smith and Match Play but reinterprets them with full leather lining, a substantial Margom cup sole, and an understated appeal that only gets better with age. WOMAN By Common Projects isn't that different, sneaker-wise, though they do offer plenty of traditionally feminine silhouettes alongside their minimally attractive kicks.
In a nutshell: Designer sneakers without the ridiculous designer price tag.
Buy these: Low Top, Mountain Cut
If you have caviar taste on a Chicken-of-the-Sea budget, consider Guillaume Philibert's line of mid-priced sneakers that, while more expensive than your average pair of Nikes, clock in at well under a pair of Balenciagas. Made in Portugal from premium materials, Filling Pieces is literally named after Philibert's desire to fill the gap between luxury fashion and reasonably priced offerings. The shoes range from loud statement-makers to more subtle everyday go-tos, ensuring there's something for everyone.
In a nutshell: Like distressed jeans that cost a ton of money? Meet the sneaker equivalent.
Buy these: Super Star, Starter, Ball, Francy
Francesca and Alessandro Gallo make sneakers that look like they've been your favorite pair for decades. The Super Star model is a low-top that comes in everything from silver all-over glitter to a beat-up treatment that makes it seem as if you found a perfect-fitting pair of sneakers in the lost-and-found section of the grimiest dive bar on the planet — minus the smell and potential for carrying communicable diseases. And like all things that are pre-distressed for the sake of fashion, nabbing a pair isn't cheap.
In a nutshell: This Brooklyn brand is trying to do for sneakers what Warby Parker did for eyewear.
Buy these: Royale, Wooster, Kent
Founded two years ago by Ryan Babenzien, Greats makes most of its shoes in Italy but primarily sells them direct-to-consumer, which means you don't have to worry about paying for retail markup. The low-key low-top Royale is their most versatile option, while the Wooster takes the slip-on sneaker and mixes it with a luxe Vachetta leather lining and thicker sole. (It also gets its name from menswear celebrity Nick Wooster.) If you dig plain plimsolls but want something that feels a little more upscale, consider the Kent, a skate-inspired shoe that goes with just about anything.
In a nutshell: Minimal sneakers with a slightly rugged appeal.
Buy these: Low 1, Low 2, Low 3, Mid 1, Mid 2
ETQ is another mid-priced luxury sneaker label that offers subtle, easy-wearing silhouettes that look good with just about anything. What sets them apart is their choice of thicker and lug soles that add a bit of an edge to the brand's otherwise understated wares.
The Expensive Guys
It's no secret that fashion houses and high-end cult labels are fully onboard the sneaker wave. Here are the ones to look out for.
In a nutshell: Um... it's Chanel.
Buy these: Round Toe Sneakers
The only Chanel sneaker worth wearing is its running-inspired model with the label's interlocking Cs on the side. Props if you can manage to track down a version in one of the house's signature tweeds. Its appeal is that it's almost like a dad shoe — but if your dad was Karl Lagerfeld. And really, who wouldn't want that?
In a nutshell: Hedi Slimane's SLP legacy includes covetable footwear.
Buy these: Skate, SL/01, SL/06, SL/37
Guys instantly flocked to Hedi Slimane's SL/10H — a luxe basketball-inspired high-top that came in the iconic black/red and black/royal blue colors of the Jordan 1 sneaker — but he also introduced plenty of other envy-inducing footwear to the French label. The Vans Era-reminiscent Skate shoe is especially sought after in the leopard Babycat print and the cartoony vampire Bloodluster motif. Meanwhile, low-tops like the SL/01, SL/06, and SL/37 offer upscale takes on the classic tennis sneaker. And with the recent news of Slimane's departure, time will tell which of these expensive kicks will remain in the SLP pipeline. Until then, maybe it's wise to buy while you can.
In a nutshell: Womenswear legend Phoebe Philo got the guys jealous of her shoe game.
Buy these: Slip-Ons, Air Force 1
Fine, technically Philo's shoes aren't called slip-ons or the Air Force 1, but her elevated interpretations of two beloved silhouettes became status symbols amongst fashion and sneaker lovers alike. Many guys scrambled to squeeze their dogs into a minimal mid-top that clearly drew from the Air Force 1, while the shoes still fetch a hefty price on the aftermarket. You can find plenty on sites like TheRealReal, but if you prefer your kicks box fresh, Céline readily offers new versions of its thick-soled slip-on sneaker.
In a nutshell: The Italian brand blew sneakerheads' minds when they paid homage to an otherwise obscure Nike silhouette.
Buy these: Neoprene Sneaker
Marni's Consuelo Castiglioni created quite a stir when these sandal-water shoe hybrids entered the line — mainly because of their striking resemblance to a sneakerhead cult shoe, which originally debuted in 1996 and was inspired by Kenyan long-distance runners. Of course, you're not going to be doing any marathons in Marni's upscale take, but at least you'll look cool.
In a nutshell: Surplus-inspired sneakers carry on Martin Margiela's design legacy.
Buy these: "Replica" Sneakers, Future
Margiela's best known sneaker is the "Replica," a low-top shoe inspired by the standard-issue trainers of the German army. You can't go wrong with the white/grey versions with a clean gum sole. If you want something a little more special, opt for the gussied-up versions that vary from season to season, which are reinterpreted with everything from Jackson Pollock-like paint splatters to dipped treatments to basket weaves. It also comes in a mid-top version. Another popular Margiela silhouette is the high-top Future, which hides the eyelets and adds a huge strap to the upper. It's also the shoe Kanye West toured in during his "Yeezus" tour, topping off his looks with Margiela couture masks.
In a nutshell: Fashion's resident dark lord once described his ideal sneakers as "monster trucks on my feet." Hence, the appeal of his exaggerated kicks.
Buy these: Ramones, Geobaskets
Rick Owens's Geobasket primarily owes its existence to the Nike Dunk, a high-top basketball shoe that was a precursor to the Jordan 1. Originally, the shoe featured logos that paid homage to Nike's swoosh, Adidas's three stripes and Puma's downward swoosh. When Nike slapped him with a cease and desist, the designer was flattered, but also changed the motif to a simpler geometric design. The Ramones are essentially Chuck Taylors on steroids, and both are imposing silhouettes that are challenging to pull off casually, unless you happen to have a wardrobe full of Rick or DRKSHDW. His Adidas line is ever-so-slightly more palatable, from hoof-inspired trainers to the Tech Runner, which takes a pared-down running-inspired upper and places it on a chunky, brutalist sole.
In a nutshell: Rappers flocked to the label's pleated high-tops, but every guy wishes his feet were small enough to fit a pair of Race Runners.
Buy these: Race Runner, High-Tops
The most sought-after Balenciaga kicks are its high-top sneakers, which have been made in everything from a pleated material to 3M to an all-over marble print, and the retro-futuristic Race Runner. Part running shoe, part something a technologically-enhanced ninja would wear, it's a sneakerhead status symbol discerning footwear enthusiasts will instantly recognize.
In a nutshell: John Mayer's favorite brand is a wonderland of reimagined Wild West, vintage, and workwear staples.
Buy these: FBT, Skagway, Hockney
Hiroki Nakamura's cult Japanese label Visvim is primarily known for one shoe: the FBT. Short for Fun Boy Three (it's named after the short-lived English new wave pop band), the sneaker melds a Native American-inspired moccasin upper with a modern EVA-midsole resulting in the best of both worlds in terms of comfort. It's sort of like a pair of Minnetonkas with a Nike sole. Nakamura's also given the boat shoe the same treatment in a silhouette called the Hockney, and if you're just looking for a really ridiculously expensive version of the Chuck Taylor, look no further than the Skagway.