May 29, 2023 9:36 pm

Our Favorite Sneakers of 2021

2021 is nearly up, and we’ve pumped out all of our lists about the best sneakers of the year. We’ve ranked the best sneakers, the best Air Jordans, and the best new designs. But here’s where the real fun starts: Where we each editor gets to discuss their personal top five sneakers from the past 12 months.

There’s usually consensus picks for the top shoes of the year. If you were to create a time capsule that would be opened in 100 years, there are things you’d want the list to contain. But the top 10 best shoes of the year might not always be someone’s personal favorites. And we know that an obscure model isn’t the best representation when ranking the best sneakers. Hoka Shoes ,This is the chance to include shoes that impacted all eight of us in 2021. Nike SB Dunks, Air Jordans, Virgil Abloh collaborations, LeBron retros, CrossFit shoes, performance basketball shoes, New Balances, Salomons, Fear of God slip-ons, friends-and-family edition Reeboks, and more.

So here they are, Our Favorite Sneakers of 2021.

Mike DeStefano

Stüssy x Nike Air Huarache “Desert Oak”

When deciding on my top 5 sneakers of 2021, I decided to challenge myself a bit. Sure, pairs like the A Ma Maniere x Air Jordan 3 or “Lightning” Air Jordan 4 are shoo-ins for lists like this. And deservedly so. But sadly, I wasn’t able to get my hands on either of those pairs, or some of the many other great drops from across the past calendar year. So, these five are my favorites from 2021 that I actually was able to own. Of this group, there is probably no sneaker that I purchased in 2021 that I laced up more than the “Desert Oak” Stüssy x Nike Air Huarache. For one, Huaraches are just super comfortable once you break them in. The cream and tan colorway on these just always seemed to match the outfits I threw on. I liked these so much I even considered grabbing the green and yellow pair too. I was just a kid when these first released back in 2000, so I may not be quite as nostalgic for these as other people who scooped them up on release day, but Stüssy was one of the first brands I really got into when initially learning about streetwear. Couple that with the consistently stellar output the brand has had as of late and these were a no-brainer for me. The best part, unlike most collabs these days, is that these seem to have flown under the radar. If you still don’t have a pair in your rotation, it won’t cost an arm and leg to acquire them. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Nike SB Dunk Low “What the Paul”

Admittedly, this one is a bit of a consolation prize for me. One of the reasons I initially became so interested in sneakers many years ago was because of all of the creative Nike SB Dunk colorways that were being released throughout the 2000s. They were like no sneakers I had seen before and immediately caught my attention. The “What The Dunk” may be the best representation of this concept, fusing some of the best ideas together into one ridiculous yet somehow wearable sneaker. Despite its wild appearance, it was always a pair I wanted to own. Unfortunately, they were never something I was willing to pay for, a point made even more clear considering my size 11 is currently listed for over $26,000 on StockX right now. So, when I saw that Nike SB was revisiting the concept to celebrate the career of skateboarding legend Paul Rodriguez, it was something I knew I wanted to get my hands on. Like so many “What The” sneakers before this one, it’s sort of a miracle that all of the mismatched panels can look cohesive. But they do, especially if you keep the rest of your outfit super neutral. These may not be quite as good as the original, but they are still a formidable “What The” SB for a new generation. The fact that they honor the career of one of the biggest skaters of all time in the process is just an added bonus.

Nike LeBron 8 “South Beach”

With the exception of Allen Iverson, LeBron James is my favorite athlete of all time. And while Nike Basketball may not have the juice it did a decade ago in the lifestyle space, there are still some LeBrons that I can’t avoid buying when they get retroed. In 2020, it was the “MVP” LeBron 7. This year, Nike blessed us with what might arguably be my biggest sneaker grail, the “South Beach” 8s. I wasn’t able to own the original, but I still remember lining up at the House of Hoops at the Cherry Hill Mall for my chance to. In the years that followed, I would periodically check eBay and local shops for a pair in my size. A few times I came close to paying way more than I wanted to pay just to own these, but for my wallet’s sake I’d always talk myself out of it. When I saw these were coming back this year, I knew it was finally the perfect opportunity to get my hands on them. Will I ever wear them? Yes, of course. The pink laces will be in them. I may even break out a teal Florida Marlins fitted for the occasion. Will I wear them often? Probably not. But in this case that isn’t the point really. As cliche as it sounds, I just needed these.

FOG California “Grey”

OK, so this one is bending the rules a bit I guess, but at this point everyone should have a go-to pair of slip-ons to rock around the house. While I didn’t get these until fairly recently, Jerry Lorenzo’s casual take on mules, the California, has immediately become that footwear for me. Since a lot of us are still working from home, these also are probably what I find myself wearing more than anything else from week to week. They aren’t just great for lounging around the house, either. Hey Dudes ,These are perfect to toss on for a quick coffee run down the block or trip to the grocery store in some sweats. Obviously, they aren’t limited to these tasks or this styling, the shape makes them super versatile actually, but I just prefer to use them as such because they’re super comfortable and the foam construction makes them incredibly lightweight. In a lot of ways, I view the California as Lorenzo’s more luxury-leaning take on the Yeezy Foam RNNR. If you shied away from the bulky design of the Yeezys and want something a bit more stylish than Crocs, this is a great candidate. I’ll certainly be keeping these on my feet well into 2022.

Undefeated x Nike Dunk Low “Canteen”

This might not be the Dunk Low that most people think of when they discuss their favorite Dunk releases of the year. There was an insane amount of them to choose from. To be honest, it isn’t even my favorite. But as I said before, my list is about what I actually can grab out of my closet and wear today if I want to. And these check that box. That isn’t to say these are bad though by any means. I spent my money on them for a reason. I actually bought the Air Force 1s from this pack, too. I thought the concept of flipping colorways from its extensive archive of Nike collabs onto new silhouettes was well-executed by Undefeated. But the Dunks have gotten just a bit more wear from me the past few months. Undefeated is another brand I immediately took a liking to when I was first getting into streetwear because of all of its sports-inspired graphics. The brand will always feel special to me for that reason. There’s just something about that five strike logo.

Zac Dubasik

Billie Eilish x Air Jordan 15

I had no idea who Billie Eilish was when she appeared in a 2018 Jordan Brand campaign with Russell Westbrook and Don C, and never would have expected that she’d soon become one of my favorite artists. Similarly, I never saw a Jordan Brand collaboration coming, even after she’d achieved full superstar status in the years since. But then, all of a sudden, it made sense. Eilish didn’t grow up watching Michael Jordan lead the Bulls to six NBA Championships—she wasn’t even born until his late-career run with the Washington Wizards. She discovered Air Jordans her own way though, and that serves as an important reminder of the staying power of these sneakers. They don’t have to mean the same thing to everyone, yet they matter to so many people regardless. Add that to her previously stated love for the Air Jordan 15, and it was a project that felt right on many levels, and one of the few sneakers I told myself I had to have this year. Ultimately, I’d miss out when they dropped on her site, and the SNKRS release didn’t have sizes big enough for me, but the Ls didn’t diminish my appreciation for the project.

Off-White x Air Jordan 2

As a big Air Jordan 2 fan, I was excited from the minute images first leaked of the Off-White x Air Jordan 2. I’ve seen a handful of original Air Jordan 2s in person over the years, and without fail they each had crumbled midsoles. So, without even knowing the full story behind the design choices, the sneaker spoke to my appreciation of the originals. After learning that Virgil Abloh utilized scans of a pair actually used by Michael Jordan in the design of this collaboration, it only added to the appeal. The fact that these would become Abloh’s swan song with Jordan Brand is devastating, but it’s fitting in how well it encompasses what his work was all about—it told a story, it pushed boundaries in sneaker design, and it just plain looked cool.

A Ma Maniere x Air Jordan 3

James Whitner struck the perfect balance with his Air Jordan 3 collaboration by creating a look that’s clean, yet unmistakably something special. So often collaborations veer too far in one direction or the other, looking either like a really good general release that doesn’t quite inspire passion, or daring to the point they aren’t particularly wearable. The AMM3 does both, and adds in some inspiring storytelling on top, making it an easy choice to add to my list.

Jordan Brand Zion 1

It would be remiss of me not to include the new sneaker that I’ve actually spent the most time wearing this year. After many months of playing in the Air Jordan 35,Hey Dude Women’s Shoes  ,I needed a new pair in a pinch while I awaited the release of the Air Jordan 36. I tried on every size 13 basketball sneaker Finish Line had in stock that day, and ended up buying a pair of Zion 1s because they felt the best of the bunch. It could be considered a happy accident, because I ended up preferring it to both of the aforementioned Air Jordan models. It’s disappointing that Zion Williamson himself hasn’t had the chance to create as many on-court moments as we’ve all hoped thanks to his mounting injuries, but it will be my go-to hoop sneaker for the foreseeable future until I find one I like better.

Nike SB Dunk Low “What the Paul”

I can’t say I was a huge fan of Paul Rodriguez’s signature Nike SB line, or any SBs that aren’t Dunks, for that matter. I do remember most of the pairs that were incorporated into this mashup, though. But the nostalgia isn’t really the appeal for me. Knowing that we’ll likely never get a retro of the actual “What The” Nike SB Dunk, this is simply the next best thing. Sure, it doesn’t have the rich history of the original, but it achieves the same look—somehow very wearable despite not even matching itself. The story is great, and a well-deserved celebration of P-Rod’s long tenure with the brand, but aesthetics top everything for me with this one.

Brendan Dunne

Carpet x Nike SB Dunk High

There is not a world in which I don’t love this sneaker. I have been a fan of Carpet for a long time now, to the point where I’m constantly bothering Ayman and Osama, the brothers who run the Baltimore-based skate brand, about upcoming items and teasers. It’s one of those shoes where I just have to toss any notion of objectivity out the window because I know that at the core of my adoration here is the fact that I am a total Carpet fanboy and support them in whatever they do. That said, these guys made a super crispy flip on the classic UNC colorway with screenprinted graphics and Arabic writing on a Nike SB Dunk. These are the real “Habibi’’ Dunks as far as I’m concerned.

A Ma Maniere x Air Jordan 3

Despite having owned a good number of Air Jordans in my day, the Air Jordan 3 is the only Jordan model I’ve ever worn with regularity—save for maybe an Air Jordan 6 spell in college when those were floating around every Nike outlet store for $99. It’s a platonic ideal type shoe that is cemented in your brain from a very early age in sneaker obsession as one you must appreciate. And seldom have I appreciated it more than here, on James Whitner’s version, which we’ve already written a great number of words about elsewhere. Story aside, women’s inclusive approach aside, this is an immaculately clean sneaker that will still look good 10 years from now. As far as I can tell, I’ll still be wearing Jordan 3s come then.

Eames x Reebok Club C (F&F)

This one was such a cool swan song for my friend Leo Gamboa, who worked on Reebok’s best collab product before leaving the brand this fall. It is a fitting sneaker as one of his last to come to fruition, a shoe that made so much sense if you know the man behind it. Even if you don’t, you should still be able to appreciate how Reebok was able to coherently mix in with the interior design crowd by linking up with Eames, a historically important purveyor of fine furniture. Truthfully I am a neophyte to Eames, but I got to check out the Case Study House No. 8 house in California for the launch of this project, which was enough to help me understand the sneakers. It no doubt sounds like a flex attempt but I’m just happy to be considered in the friends and family set on this one.

Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 990V3

This is the only sneaker on my list of personal favorites that I don’t actually own, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not a huge fan of Joe Freshgoods’ latest New Balance work. It’s a perfect sophomore album from him, a theme-heavy execution of one of the best New Balance silhouettes out right now. Joe has an important voice, especially at New Balance, and I’m excited to see how much he’s able to put out at the brand in the years to come because when it comes to sneakers, the guy doesn’t miss.

Air Jordan 4 “Lightning”

The good thing about this list is it gives us all a place to selfishly pick sneakers that mean something to us mostly because of our personal experiences with them. The “Lightning” Air Jordan 4 is one such sneaker for this writer. This shoe was never intended to be connected to the Oregon Ducks, but is now forever connected to them in my heart after I wore it for a quick trip to Columbus, Ohio, to watch Oregon’s football team easily defeat the Buckeyes in their season opener. Oregon looked shaky through the rest of the season, but that still stands out in my mind as a shining moment—and accompanying sneaker.

Ben Felderstein

Billie Eilish x Air Jordan 15

I’m a bit of a Billie Eilish stan. I have been for about two years now, but it was her set at Coachella in 2019 that really sealed the deal for me. I was ecstatic when it was announced that she signed with the Jordan Brand because I knew the day would come when she was going to get her own sneaker that I was going to get to take an L on. Well in a rare change of pace, I was able to cop these off her site for retail. Did I think it was going to be a Jordan 15 that everyone who doesn’t really know about sneakers asks me, “Are those Yeezys?” every time I wear them? No. On top of me really liking the shoe, this is a project that makes a ton of sense. When Billie was on Sneaker Shopping, she professed her love for the Jordan 15 as well as her love of being different. And that’s exactly what this project resembles. She took an oft-forgotten model, re-tooled the upper, and came out with something truly unique. Love the 15 or hate it, I think she deserves credit for taking the road less traveled, and I just happen to love it, so here we are.

Sneakersnstuff x New Balance 920

It really does not take a lot to get my attention when we’re talking sneakers. If it’s Yeezy, I’m interested. If it’s a collaboration with a brand or a person I mess with, I’m interested. Lastly, and probably most simply, if it’s orange, I’m interested. This sneaker checks off two of those boxes, but the hero here is really the bright orange color scheme. When New Balance really began its ascension last year I’ll admit I was a bit of a hater or a doubter, but this SNS collab is one of the drops that really helped me take notice. Back in January when I grabbed my pair I said that I’d be shocked if they didn’t end up on my personal end of year list, and here we are 11 months later and here I am writing about it. To quote a message Welty sent in my DMs when I wore these at day 2 of ComplexCon, “Good Feets.”

Bodega x New Balance 990v3

I wound up owning quite a few pairs of New Balances this year, but I’d have to say this is probably my favorite. I got to speak to the Bodega team about the inspiration behind the design and learn about how they’re using it to help celebrate their 15-year anniversary. Any time I speak to someone who got to spend the time creating a shoe, it helps my appreciation for the sneaker grow and that’s exactly what happened here. From afar it’s a pretty simple and neutral colorway of the very busy in 2021 990v3 silhouette, but upon closer inspection it comes with a lot of key details and small hits of color that really help it stand out.

Nike Air Max 90 “Bacon”

Before this year I would have spent the last three to four telling you that “Bacon” Air Max 90s were one of my favorite sneakers of all time. It was always a bit of a grail for me. I would pop into the Slack channel and send the group an eBay link to a completely cooked pair for like, 500 bucks that I would absolutely never be able to actually wear. Everyone would tell me I’m crazy, I wouldn’t buy it, and we’d repeat the process in about three months. When it was announced the Bacons would be returning I knew it was a shoe that I absolutely had to have. I even bought my girlfriend a pair for her birthday as well just because I wanted someone else in my life to experience the joy of owning one of my grails (spoiler alert, she doesn’t enjoy owning them as much as I enjoy her owning them). Sure, it doesn’t feel the same as I’d imagine owning the original pair from 2004 feels, but since that ship has almost certainly sailed for me, I’m going to continue to wear 2021’s version with a smile on my face.

Adidas Yeezy Knit RNR

First things first, I want to be clear that I wanted this writeup to be about the Adidas Yeezy Knit RNR Boot but I was told that shoe is a boot and it doesn’t count for this list. So I’m settling and writing about the traditional Knit RNR instead, a sneaker that I also like quite a bit this year. If you’ve been paying attention to the sneakers that I tend to write about on these lists, a lot of the time they tend to be the newest Yeezy model of the year. I am generally fascinated by the footwear that Ye puts out, especially when it is more than just a new colorway of the 350. At first glance this Knit RNR certainly looks like a traditional dutch clog that you’d think was carved out of wood. But then when you actually have a pair in hand you realize that there isn’t really anything on the market quite like it. A striking sulfur colorway, sizing details around the collar, and a unique crevice right above its midsole make this one of the most unique silhouettes of the year, on top of one of my favorites. Similar to its Foam RNNR predecessor, it continues Ye’s current infatuation with laceless footwear, something that myself (and I’d imagine a lot of you) have gotten a ton of use out of throughout the pandemic.

Riley Jones

A Ma Maniere x Air Jordan 3

Sure, it’s this year’s obvious pick, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the adulation. James Whitner and company have been designing their own Air Jordans for a few years now, but it was 2021’s A Ma Maniere 3 that really won people over. Simply put, this shoe checks all the boxes. There’s a meaningful, relatable story. There are premium materials that manage to completely elevate the feel of the Jordan 3, which is no small task when it comes to Tinker Hatfield’s elephant print classic. Maybe best of all, the collab was actually attainable: It was one of the few hyped sneakers I managed to successfully buy this year.

New Balance 990v3 “Grey”

I’d been waiting for the return of the general release grey New Balance 990v3 for awhile. It used to be an easy sneaker to find, but interest in this particular model hit a peak in recent years thanks to collaborations with the likes of JJJJound and Stray Rats. Thankfully, it’s back this year and fairly accessible if you do a little digging. I prefer this bare bones heritage iteration over the red-accented “Version” pack, but the latter isn’t a bad consolation.

Air Jordan 11 “Cool Grey”

The Air Jordan 11 has had an interesting story arc over the last decade or so. It spent most of the 2000s and 2010s being the Air Jordan, but factors like questionable colorway choices and mass production have dulled some of the aura around it. Still, it’s hard for me to deny colors like this when they come back around. It’s a beautiful shoe: the grey shades fading from the patent leather to the nubuck, the stark white shoelaces, the clear rubber outsole. Maybe it’s my age showing, but Jordan Brand is going to have to do a lot more than make a million pairs and drop some weak colorways to tarnish the Jordan 11 for me. These are just as special as they’ve always been.

WTAPS x New Balance 990v2

I guess I was really into grey this year. A lot of other New Balance collabs could have gone in this spot (JJJJound’s 990v4, Joe Freshgoods’ 990v3, and Bodega’s 990v3 come to mind), but something about the simplicity of the WTAPS pushed it over the top for me. Some people complained that the Japanese brand didn’t simply rehash its work on 2020’s army green 992, but I appreciated what I interpreted as its take on New Balance’s classic grey. There was just enough to set them apart: a mix of blueish and silvery hues, thick nubuck, and subtle heel branding. It might not get the attention that some other recent New Balances do, but I’m perfectly OK with that.

Stüssy x Air Huarache “Dark Olive”

Like the Air Max 90 in 2020, Nike Sportswear completely overhauled the Air Huarache retro in 2021 for its 20th anniversary. The brand should give the teams who worked on those projects a pay bump because they’re some of the best retro sneakers I’ve ever owned, period. It’s kind of puzzling how they’re able to get so close on pairs like these and then fall so short on others, but that’s a whole different story. Anyway, the 2021 Air Huarache is a near-perfect bringback of Tinker Hatfield’s 1991 original. The shape is sleeker than it’s been in years, the materials are mostly good (there are a few exceptions), and even the midsole feels cushier than ever. This Stüssy colorway, originally released in 2000, ended up being my favorite. The consensus seemed to be that this was the ugly duckling of the two-pack, but something about the olive green and yellow lands on just the right combination of nostalgia and wearability for me.

Joe La Puma

Off-White x Nike Dunk Low “50”

Another absolutely ambitious project from Virgil Abloh, “The 50” was one of those projects that, like so many others, allowed Abloh to stand out from the pack through subtly tweaking design from one sneaker to another. You can’t walk around nowadays and not see a Dunk on the street, but even after 50 different iterations, this collaboration somehow didn’t seem like too many to me. Release-wise, Nike’s exclusive access helped a bit and you actually saw people getting their hands on pairs during the several weeks of drops. In 2017 I missed out on the MOMA Air Force 1, which has pretty much reached recent-grail status, so this was the next best thing for me. Like every end of the year list for the past five years or so, an Abloh-designed sneaker continues to rank high. 2021 was no different, and I’m happy to own this pair, from this year. R.I.P, Virgil.

Salomon XT-4 Tie Dye

Admittedly I was a bit late on the Salomon wave, but I’m happy this was the model and colorway that was the first pair I owned from the brand. It has all the guts of the function-first mantra the company prides itself on, but the tie-dye undercut the sneaker feeling like a true trail shoe. They’ve become my weekend go-to for the past couple months and hold up perfectly when you’re logging a lot of steps in the health app.

A Ma Maniere x Air Jordan 3

Nailing a near-perfect design on an iconic silhouette is a daunting task, it’s something that everyone wishes for until they actually have to execute it. James Whitner and the A Ma Maniere team did just that for this Jordan 3. There’s not much more that could be said about how good this sneaker is, but let’s try. A couple of weeks ago in the Complex Sneakers/Sole Collector slack someone mentioned that they had a discussion on if this was a top Jordan 3 colorway ever. At first that may sound crazy (Black/Cement, White/Cement/True Blue for me), but when you think about it, how far off is it actually? Is it a lock for top 5? The fact that it even rates that high shows that not only is it a top choice for 2021, but it’s going to have staying power for years to come.

Comme Des Garçons x Nike Foamposite

It seemed like it was time for a Foamposite to be in the conversation and this CDG collab came through in the fourth quarter to crack my list. I personally love when CDG goes triple black (Air Max 95, Talaria etc) but this Foamposite felt even bigger than its recent Nike collabs. What really sold me on the sneakers were Anthony Geathers’ black and white photographs he took around NYC basketball courts for the release rollout. A sneaker good enough for Kanye to break contract for.

Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 990V3 “Outside Clothes”

This is a sneaker for me that is a perfect lesson in color blocking. We’ve seen a bunch of brown-based New Balances over the years, but what JFG did by incorporating different shades of blue and the right hints of neon green in the right places was masterful. If you look closely at the sneaker you’ll see that virtually every shade of blue is slightly different, from the “N” logo, to the toe box, to the royal on the outsole. Everything about this sneaker is well-thought out and there’s zero space on this upper that isn’t cerebral. There’ve been a ton of great New Balances to drop this year, but Joe got my vote.

Brandon Richard

A Ma Maniere x Air Jordan 3

It almost feels sheep-like picking a shoe that appears to be the consensus Sneaker of the Year across sneaker media to top my list, but my instant reaction upon first seeing the shoe over the summer was that it would definitely be in the conversation by year’s end. It’s fairly easy to win with a model like the Air Jordan 3 by taking what’s worked in the past and swapping in different colors, but James Whitner went with the bold approach of removing what gives the Jordan 3 its identity––the iconic elephant print overlays––and creating something that’s a little more subtle and refined. The result is an extremely versatile sneaker that you can wear to the gas station with sweats or to a semi-formal event, not that any of us are doing much of the latter these days. This isn’t the shoe that Jordan wore when he took off from the free throw line in ‘88, but it still embodies everything the Jordan 3 has ever been about in terms of pure style.

Nike LeBron 19 “Uniform Hook”

LeBron James isn’t the first athlete with a 19th signature sneaker, but he is the first to actually compete in his at the highest level. By highest level, I don’t just mean the NBA, but also the Serververse, the location of the big game in Space Jam: A New Legacy. We got our first glimpse at the Nike LeBron 19 during the summer, when the vibrant orange “Uniform Hook” colorway was easily spotted in teasers leading up to the film’s release. The shoe syncs up with a redesigned Tune Squad uniform and bears a close resemblance to James’ “Big Bang” All-Star LeBron 9 from 2012. As is the case with most post-Miami LeBron shoes, the 19 is polarizing—even James himself has ditched it in favor of his cheaper Ambassador model at different points throughout the season. However, as a casual wearer who still gets excited about signature hoop shoes, this particular colorway feels like a throwback to that 2008-2014 golden era when Nike Basketball rarely missed.

Aleali May x Air Jordan 14

Aleali May is one of my favorite storytellers in sneakers. Her concepts always feel authentic and she’s able to execute those ideas into wearable works of art that align with her fashion and design background. The Air Jordan 14 is the last model in the Jordan series with that Bulls era mystique surrounding it, but it doesn’t necessarily receive the same level of love as its predecessors. However, May reimagined the shoe in a sleek colorway that pays homage to her Black and Filipina heritage, executed with elements inspired by the gold and jade bracelet that she was gifted from her grandmother. Not only did she produce the best Air Jordan 14 collaboration to date, May put the model back on the map and served up a reminder of how great the design is.

Off-White x Nike Dunk Low “05”

For starters, I can tell you that Lot 01 and 50 are probably better shoes than Lot 05. So why Lot 05? It’s the first Off-White x Nike (or Jordan) collaboration that I was successfully able to obtain. It also marked the first time I was ever granted exclusive access on the SNKRS app. Like a lot of the things Virgil Abloh worked on, there was more to the project beyond what we saw on the surface. He was quoted as saying the collection was meant to “define the gray area between black and white.” He achieved that by making very subtle color tweaks to 48 grey Dunks, creating a variant chase-like effect in the vein of card and vinyl figure collecting. A few months after I acquired my first pair of Off-Whites, the world collectively bid a tearful farewell to Abloh after his private battle with cancer. I had never given any thought to parting with the Lot 05s, but now they’ll certainly never leave my collection.

Nike LeBron 8 “South Beach”

I generally prefer to not add re-releases of past colorways on these lists, but this was the first-ever retro of an all-time great sneaker. For better or worse, the “South Beach” LeBron 8 had a hand in shaping sneaker culture as we know it today. It wasn’t the first time a shoe had pre-release hype, long lines, a release event, and an appreciation in value after the drop. But it created a sense of FOMO that helped sell Nike Basketball shoes at a high rate for about a five-year period. Beyond the business, it was just a perfectly executed welcome to Miami for LeBron James that will always be the standard for which city-inspired signature sneakers are compared to. It’s such a good colorway that we even overlook that terrible stretch of time following its release when every brand (including Nike) tried to replicate the Miami Vice magic. This is LeBron’s “Concord” Air Jordan 11. His “Grinch” Kobe 6. His “Dark Neon Royal” Foamposite One. It’s the defining sneaker of what will likely be a 20-plus model line.

Matt Welty

Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 993

I don’t own these shoes, yet they’re the best sneakers I’ve seen all year. I’m a huge New Balance guy and love the 993. I’m also a fan of sneakers in understated colorways, which I feel the brand does the best. New York’s Aimé Leon Dore, which is run by Teddy Santis, the newly crowned creative director for the brand’s Made in USA line, remixed the shoe into the familiar beef and broccoli color scheme (or brown and green for those not in the know) and they’re awesome. They tossed a black sole on them, and I think it’s the perfect touch, despite what others might tell you. There is a similar colorway of the 990v4 from a few years ago that I wear a lot. So I’d like to own a pair of these. Just looking at them makes me happy.

Reebok Nano X1 “Froning”

Rich Froning is a nine-time CrossFit games champion. A pioneer of the sport and, depending on who you ask, the fittest man in history. His version of the Reebok Nano X1 has been my go-to sneaker for nearly any WOD at my local box. Not only are they comfortable and good for movements from clean and jerks, short runs, box jumps, and more, but they’re also a slip-on, which makes them all that much easier to get on and off after a workout. The shoes also have small details which nod to Froning’s persona. There’s “Galatians 6:14” on the heel strap (“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”), which Froning credits for grounding himself after he infamously fell from a rope in the 2011 CrossFit games. There’s also a storm print on the shoe’s upper and the writing “Into the Storm” (not to be confused with QAnon idiots) on the insole. The saying comes from the bison, which he herds. Bison are the only animal that run into a storm instead of away––because the fastest way to get through your problems is to face them head-on.

Bodega x New Balance 990v3

What a year it’s been for New Balance. We’ve been saying that for the past few years, but 2021 took the brand up another notch into the mainstream of sneaker obsessives. One of the most notable shoes was Bodega’s 990v3, which was made to celebrate the shop’s 15-year anniversary. I remember shopping there a decade and a half ago, so this shoe holds sentimental value. But I also just really like 990v3s and ones that come in earth tones. I wore them all summer. Even accidentally wore them into Bodega on a layover from the Amtrak back to New Jersey. I wore them when I sliced my finger open at a cookout at a Portuguese club before the derby with NYCFC, and they got splattered in blood. I also had them on later that evening when I wore them through a hurricane… They’ve been through it all.

Salomon ACS Pro Advanced

Salomon has been on my radar for the past few years, but this was the year I was able to own a pair. The XT-6 got a lot of wear from me, including at ComplexCon. But the ACS Pro Advanced, a reworked version of a shoe from the 2000s, has been my favorite so far. The launch colorway was all-grey, which is a recurring theme with me, and they’re comfortable. They’re also the right balance between tech and subtle. I could wear them every day, and I expect them to continue to get more play in my rotation.

ASICS Gel Kayano 14 “Grey”

I didn’t expect this shoe to make my top sneakers of the year list. I didn’t even like them when they first showed up to my apartment. I thought they crossed the line a bit too far into the true, uncool dad aesthetic. But was I wrong, or maybe I’ve started to care less. These became my favorite sneakers to wear whenever I’m not doing something important. They’re an ASICS Kayano, so they’re comfortable. And I used to sell these back in the day at Foot Locker to actual runners. This pair is also in a grey colorway, which makes them kind of like a New Balance 990, but not as chunky. I think that’s what lets me get away with them. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve leaned fully into being in my mid-30s and unironically enjoyed wearing them with LL Bean shorts and Bass Pro Shops T-shirts this summer.

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