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These sneaker silhouettes have redefined what we consider to be luxury fashion

Illustration/Sail Ho Studio
Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

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Luxury brands love sneakers. The lucrative, runaway popularity of the shoes has tempted seemingly every high-end fashion label into making its own version, especially as young, sneaker-obsessed shoppers become more important buyers of luxury.

But for as much credit as fashion labels get for starting trends, they’re followers when it comes to athletic footwear. The real progenitors and innovators in the category are sports companies like Converse, Adidas, Nike, and the other big sneaker makers. Just about every popular luxury sneaker on the market today derives directly from silhouettes and ideas previously thought up by these sports labels, sometimes several decades earlier.

Old-fashioned basketball shoes

Few people probably recognize Converse Chuck Taylors as basketball shoes, but that’s what the cap-toed high-tops started as when they were introduced just over a century ago. While their use as athletic shoes has largely faded into history, the design has been one of the most important and enduring in all of sneakers.

Today you can still buy a pair of Chuck Taylor All Stars, only slightly modified from the original, in a range of colors for about $60. Double the price and you can get a pair made in collaboration with Japanese fashion brand Comme des Garçons that boasts the line’s heart graphics.

But the shoe’s influence is also evident across a range of high-end sneakers that cost several hundred dollars each. Remake it in suede with slight tweaks to the silhouette and you get Ann Demeulemeester’s scamosciato sneakers. Do it in roughed-up leather and you have Yves Saint Laurent’s version. Or exaggerate the proportions, particularly on the toe cap, and the result is a pair of Rick Owens Ramones.

The German army trainer

Once issued to German troops, the shoe known in English as the German army trainer has a fuzzy history, as the Wall Street Journal learned when it tried to untangle it (paywall). Credit for the design usually goes to Adidas, which set a template with indoor training shoes like the Samba and did produce a shoe called the BW-Sport for the German military in the 1980s and 1990s, though other sources point to Puma as the originator of the specific style. The genuine government-issue versions that filled surplus stores in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall had no branding to offer, so the creator remains a mystery.

In any case, the silhouette of the GAT, as the name is often abbreviated online, has become popular in fashion, with credit going to designer Martin Margiela. The label made a habit of reproducing vintage garments, and started creating its own replicas some time after putting the actual military-surplus versions on the runway in 1998. Dior offered its own iteration of the GAT in the mid-2000s, and currently Japanese label Hender Scheme, which remakes classic shoe silhouettes in natural leather, does its own homage.

A tennis classic

Adidas launched a new era in tennis in the 1960s when it introduced the sport’s first leather shoes. The company then found a player to wear and promote them: Robert Haillet. A few years later, though, Haillet retired, sending Adidas in search of a new athlete to endorse the shoes. It found that person in Stan Smith.

The simple leather Stan Smith shoe, as it’s still known, has since become a hit off the court, serving as the blueprint for a number of minimal luxury sneakers of recent years. Brands that have pulled obvious inspiration from it include Golden Goose, Common Projects, Gucci, and Alexander McQueen.

The skateboarding slip-on

The Van Doren Rubber Company, later to be known as Vans, found an unexpected audience for its canvas deck shoes in early skateboarders. One of the styles it introduced was a slip-on, and in 1982, that shoe had a small but memorable role as the footwear of choice for Sean Penn’s character Jeff Spicoli in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The clean, stripped-down silhouette has since been adopted by a decidedly different type: Luxury labels such as Celine, Tom Ford, and Vetements have appropriated the relaxed slip-on for themselves.

Basketball’s modern era

Basketball shoes have evolved quite a bit since their early days, thanks in large part to Nike. In the early 1980s, the brand debuted a new basketball sneaker called the Air Force 1. It followed that up with the Air Jordan 1 and the Nike Dunk in 1985. These shoes helped to create a new look for basketball, one that was quickly adopted on the street as well.

Though all three have been influential, the influence of the Nike Dunk can probably be seen most directly in a number of high-end sneakers today. Rick Owens’s Geobasket borrowed from their shape, even down to the Nike swoosh on the side until Nike stepped in, as have shoes like Louis Vuitton’s LV 408 and Common Projects’ Bball.

Sock sneakers

One of the hottest varieties of luxury sneaker today, put out by brands such as Balenciaga, Fendi, and many more, is the sock sneaker. It’s basically a sock-like knit upper, fused to an athletic sole. In 2012, both Nike and Adidas introduced new knit technologies—Flyknit and Primeknit, respectively—that helped spur along the knit uppers that are hugely popular today.

But these weren’t the first shoes to try the concept. Way back in 1986, for instance, Nike put out the Air Sock Racer, a marathon shoe made of an elastic knit upper with a couple of straps for stability mounted to a sole. It was like an early ancestor of Flyknit, and essentially a forebear of luxury sock sneakers by brands such as Prada.

1990s clunkers

These shoes are huge—literally and in terms of their success. Chunky and sometimes ugly sneakers have been big sellers for luxury brands such as Balenciaga recently, which has had a major hit with its $900 Triple S. Labels including Gucci and Valentino have put out their own bulky sneakers, too.

The shoes don’t necessarily hearken back to one specific model, but rather a period of sneaker design in the 1990s that saw brands such as Fila, Skechers, and others putting out sneakers with lots of leather overlays and thick, wavy midsoles. Arguably, though, the collaboration between designer Raf Simons and Adidas, which saw Simons update Adidas’s 1990s Ozweego, kicked off this modern era, where big and ungainly sells. In that sense, the original Ozweego deserves some credit for this particular trend in luxury sneakers.

Illustrations by Sail Ho Studio