It's crazy that it has almost been a full century since the first Chuck Taylor All Star dropped in 1917. It's even crazier that the original design has remained pretty much intact over all that time, resisting the ebbs and flows of fashion and function. But what's true for the mother of sneakers isn't for the rest. This poster from Pop Chart Lab offers a look at the evolution of sneaker design (click to enlarge).
What's missing here is some accompanying context. PCL describes the poster thusly:
A meticulously illustrated collection of the 134 greatest sneakers in human history, starting with the Chuck Taylor way back in 1917, progressing through the styling low-tops of the 60s and 70s, delving deep into the great sneaker explosion of the 1980s, and carrying through the instant classics of the modern day. Includes everything from ageless Adidas designs, the many, many permutations of Air Jordans, groundbreaking skate shoes like Vans and Etnies, monsters from the golden age of Reebok (such as the Shaq Attack and Alien Stomper), and the high-fashion collabs of today like Jeremy Scott x Adidas and the Air Yeezy.
So how does one define "the greatest sneakers in human history" objectively? This question often pops up on "best of" lists and grids of this sort; eventually you have to settle for some level of subjectivity.
"We cobbled together an assortment that not only illustrates the evolution of shoe design and technological advancements, but that also represents some of the most sought after colorways/styles in sneaker history," PCL's Rachel Mansfield told me via email, "in addition to some personal PCL favorites."
So subjectivity is inevitable, but it's an interesting decision to include different colorways of the same sneaker as separate entries. This print format doesn't offer much of an alternative, I get that, and I get that some limited editions warrant their own square. But it comes at a cost. The Nike Air Max 1 is one of my top-10 favorite shoes. It's a line I still rock today, and one designers have a field day with when it comes to colorway customization. (If you're up for it, have a go at your own.) But the Air Max Safari, also released in '87, takes up a key spot out of the 134 squares with only minor functionality and design changes from the original.
Some level of repetition is understandable -- this is where the "most sought after colorways/styles" comes into play -- but then what's missing? How about including some of the more creative work adidas has done recently with the ar line? And though his line of shoes never quite caught on like other bigger distributors, dare we venture outside the box with a Patrick Ewing shoe, perhaps the Rogue II?
Assuredly it's an arduous task to compile the best of anything, and PCL's take on the vast world of sneakers with this print is a darn good one. They got all the major players, and the chronological approach has obvious benefits -- mainly that it's a great representation of the evolution of sneakers. Note how certain styles are adapted by various companies, and the progression of a certain line of sneakers is impacted by what's happening in that time frame. You can see how the release of the Nike Air Force I in 1982 influenced the '83 Reebok Ex-O-Fit, the '84 adidas Forum and the still-popular Nike Dunk ('86) while sparking an increase in the use of straps and other accessories:
Traces of the New Balance 1300 ('84) can be spotted in the shaping and sole structure of the Asics GT-II ('86), original Nike Air Max ('87) and the adidas ZX8000 ('88). The Air Jordan I prompted companies to go bigger and bolder, and accelerated a shift from function to fashion.
PCL's print illustrates those trends well. That said, the sneakerhead in me would have loved to see them take on a power rankings approach. The chronological and alphabetized approach eases the process, no doubt. "We felt this not only removed the subjectivity but also visually demonstrated design evolution through time," Mansfield explained.
This still leaves us without a ranked list of the best sneakers of all time. So what are the PCL favorites? Says Mansfield, "We gravitate towards classic styles at PCL, with the 1917 Converse Chuck Taylor All Star & 1950 Adidas Samba being amongst our favorites, but we are also partial to the 1987 Nike Air Max 1 and 1991 Nike Air Huarache."
If you ask me, the Air Jordan 1 gets top billing. And thus the never-ending debate continues ...