Sneakers started out as functional sports shoes. Over the decades they’ve evolved into a fashion symbol. Today, iconic designers and brands create sneakers, seeking to influence wider fashion and design trends.
As any designer knows, influence and inspiration is a 2-way street. Trendsetting sneaker designers took inspiration from a wide variety of sources. As sneaker design evolved, echoes of African tribal art, American presidential planes, iconic architecture, and the wardrobes of sports celebrities could be seen in the innovative concepts driving sneakers from functional sports shoes to fashion statement.“Creation is often more about functionality than inspiration.”
Marquis Mills Converse was the first to seek to combine fashion footwear with the sports world. Of course, you’ve heard of the Chuck Taylor “All Star”—the Massachusetts-based company created the iconic sneaker brand in 1917. Basketball player Charles “Chuck” Taylor served as muse and spokesperson, helping to sell one of the most popular sneaker brands of all time.
As American consumer culture evolved, so did sneakers. In the 1970s and 80s, sneakers as fashion outgrew sports and became fully-fledged fashion shoes.
Nike designer Bruce Kilgore helped usher in the new era in the 1970s. Able to create fashionable, stylish sneakers practical for active sports, Kilgore’s designs appealed to a new generation of basketball stars.
As sports stars and celebrities eagerly embraced brighter, bolder ideas and colors in their clothes and shoes, consumers mirrored their tastes. Manufacturers found themselves in an arms race to out-design and out-chic their competitors. Hiring and nurturing the best designers became imperative to sneaker success.
Let’s take a look at some of the most innovative sneaker designs of all time—and where their designers found inspiration.
Puma and other manufacturers started moving in on Converse’s turf in the early 1970s, with the Puma Clyde one of their first signature shoe designs on the market. The shoes were designed to channel the epitome of 1970s cool—7-time NBA All-Star and NBA champion with the New York Knicks’ Walter “Clyde” Frazier.
Frazier’s flamboyant style made him a brand in his own right, one of the sports world’s first. He often wore suede (and mink fur, which didn’t make it into the sneaker design for practical reasons), and his lavish dress and lifestyle influenced the Puma sneaker design.
Nike Air Force 1
Created by legendary Nike designer Bruce Kilgore, the Air Force 1 had a long journey from idea to best-selling sneaker.
Trained as an engineer, Kilgore approached the design problem of combining Nike Air shoe technology with a basketball-style shoe from a unique angle. He realized the air unit in the shoe made the midsole higher than it should, effectively making the prototypes too unstable for running and sports, which was their original purpose.
Kilgore drew inspiration from Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris to understand how to angle the midsole properly. He came up with a working solution for the design in the 1970s, with Nike briefly selling a working version in 1982—only for them to drop the design in 1983.
After a lot of trial and error, Kilgore put tiny springs in the heel, ensuring it could be used for basketball and running. Nike loved this, naming the shoe after the Boeing VC-25 that carries the President of the United States. Nike launched the Air Force 1 in 1991 to great acclaim. The NBA immediately started using them, and the shoe went on to to generate hundreds of millions in revenue for Nike.
Nike Air Max 1
No one has influenced sneaker design as much as Tinker Hatfield, Jr., who started working for Nike in 1981. He’s responsible for more iconic shoe designs than anyone else in the world, including most of the Air Jordan range and the world’s first shoes for cross training.
Hatfield, trained as an architect at the University of Oregon, drew inspiration from the daring design of the Pompidou Center in Paris, France. Nike Air technology took up a lot of space in shoes, making them ugly and cumbersome, so he decided to leave the airbag exposed, reminiscent of the way the Pompidou Center and Lloyd’s Building in London leave their plumbing, air conditioning, and elevators exposed to public view.
Nike Air Jordan 7
Over the years, Tinker Hatfield, Jr., has drawn inspiration from varied sources from cars to fighter jets, lawnmowers to Imperial Japanese flags—and, of course, the life and style of Michael Jordan, one of the greatest NBA players in history.
In the case of the Air Jordan 7, inspiration came from West African tribal art and Afropop. The shoes were bright, colorful, and bold—not unlike Jordan’s performance between 1991 and 1993, when he became the first NBA player in history to earn 3 Finals MVP awards.
Adidas Originals by Jeremy Scott – JS Wings 2.0
Jeremy Scott, known as “the people’s designer” reps the cutting-edge new school of shoe designers influencing popular culture. His shoes have graced the feet of many celebrities, including Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry.
Scott started working with Adidas in 2002, debuting one of his most popular sneaker designs inspired by angel wings. The radical design combines the Adidas Attitude and Conductor, with wings appearing from the back of the sneakers.
Designers live in a world of fleeting, sometimes imperceptible inspiration and influence. When sneakers evolved from functional sport shoes to designable fashion canvases, they became one one of the most versatile, mass-market mediums that have ever existed. But ideas, as designers and other creative professionals know too well, only get you so far. Creation is often more about functionality than inspiration.
Through sneakers, functionality meets form, integrating unexpected inspiration with mainstream trends—thereby influencing the very soul and style of popular culture.
Looking for more design inspiration?
- ‘Game of Thrones’ GIFs by illustrator Eran Mendel
- 72 quotes about design and creativity
- Design lessons from Dave Grohl