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  • Writer's pictureOmar Powell

Top Sneakers of 2021

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

After an entire year filled with draws, shock drops, L's and W's ... here is the best of the year.

So you didn't get every pair you wanted this year? That's ok. Maybe there were some you slept on, some you swung-and-miss, some you actually hit on. Congrats! This is the best-of-the-best from the last calendar year in sneakers.

30. UNDFTD x Nike Zoom Kobe VI Protro 'Hall of Fame'

Kobe Bryant was forever immortalized when he took his rightful place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in the spring. After being delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Undefeated x Kobe V Protro was pushed coinciding with his induction - highlighted by a touching speech from his wife, Vanessa. Adorned with a rich gold and true to the Black Mamba with a snakeskin scaled vamp, touched with a transitioning red-to-purple Swoosh and Kobe's two Lakers uniform numbers and his Olympic no. 10. We start this year's list with the one-and-only Kobe Bean Bryant. Mamba Forever.

29. Travis Scott x Air Jordan 6 'British Khaki'

Travis Scott's Nike x Jordan Brand collaborations have become a must-have for a large portion of the sneaker community. And that run continued with the release of the "British Khaki" Air Jordan 6. Cactus Jack applies a clean tan sueded boot-like upper to the silhouette with bright Infrared hints that act as a callback to the signature's 1991 origins. Replacing the collar pocket with the stash pocket completes the outdoor aesthetic. Overall, a clean release.

28. ALYX x Nike Air Force 1

The Air Force 1 is headed for a massive anniversary in 2022, but ALYX decided to kick the party off a little early with their fresh take on the classic silhouette. Over the decades, the AF1 has had its height altered, its upper-based materials; we've seen it all with the Air Force 1, but the move from ALYX doesn't reinvent the wheel, it simply takes what its given from the AF1 and brings it to a more literal theme. Thanks to the airplane-style buckle clasped holding both ends of the strap together in true Matthew Williams fashion.

27. Air Jordan 4 Retro 'Lightning'

Jordan Brand finally reintroduced the fabled "Lightning" Air Jordan 4 to the market after a 15-year hiatus. What seemed like the top rumor across sneaker blogs for seemingly the last five-to-seven years, the wait was finally paid off with a beautiful, high-quality reissue. From its sun-kissed bright yellow suede upper to the deep grey accents and white midsole ... the 2021 re-release was pretty damn perfect and comparable to its 2006 counterpart.

26. Nike Air Max 90 NRG 'Bacon'

The reincarnation of DQM's 2004 Air Max 90 collaboration was cooked to perfection. No detail was overlooked, from the brown hints along the midsole and outsole, the pink Swoosh, red toe, tan mudguard ... even down to the presentation and background story. Nike did not leave any meat on the bone when it came to the 2021 reissue of the 'Bacon' Air Max 90 Premium. We give our compliments to the chef! Magnifique!

25. Air Jordan 1 High OG '85 'Neutral Grey'

Classic. Seeing a release in its true form for the first time since 1985, the 'Neutral Grey' Air Jordan 1 High '85 was perfectly timed. It not only continues the re-introduction of the original cut of MJ's first signature but returns an OG colorway as well. In the perfect time where vintage and neutral is in. From the astute details in the tooling from the height, shape, millimeters, color pallet and stamping inside the collar - this is as good as it gets.

24. CNCPTS x Asics Gel-Lyte III 'Otoro'

One thing for sure, two things for certain - Concepts is going to take a concept and take is as literal as possible and the release will always be top-tier. With Deon Point at the helm, the Boston brand has made their living with literal interpretations and alliteration with their collaborations. The "Otoro" follows a long list that includes just that and seafood coincidentally enough. Released as part of Asics' 25th anniversary collaborative series, the Gel-Lyte III is given a luscious pigskin suede body with a range of pink hues mirroring its sushi inspiration, down to the 3M hits and wasabi with a second lace. The art of the storytelling personified, class is in session.

23. Union x Air Jordan 4 30th Anniversary

Because of course an Air Jordan release would be no. 23. Chris Gibbs' storefront celebrated three decades of business and contributions to the culture and community with a two-pack remix on 2020's Air Jordan 4 collaboration. Coming in Desert Moss and Taupe Haze color schemes, the fraternal twin projects both garnered their share of excitement and buzz around their release, all while being another feather in the cap for what has been a brilliant run by the Los Angeles shop with Jordan Brand.

22. Nike SB Dunk Low 'What the Paul'

Paul Rodriguez may be the most recognizable member of the Nike SB roster. The famed professional skateboarder has been with the Swoosh for well over a decade-and-a-half but has not had a signature since the P-ROD 8 in 2014. Not even that can keep P-Rod from the spotlight, with his famed J-ROD cosplay of the Air Jordan 3, to his boxing-themed SB Dunk High celebrating his Mexican American heritage, the "What the Paul" was the final stamp on what has been a successful and prolific run for Rodriguez with the Swoosh.

True to Nike SB, true to P-Rod.

21. Salehe Bembury x Crocs Pollex Clog

We can absolutely, 100-percent guarantee this will not be Salehe Bembury's only release on the countdown. (Spoiler alert) But when Crocs decided to change the mold of their beloved clog for the first time in the brand's existence with the touch of Salehe, the brand found itself transcending its cult-like following and found itself in the mainstream eye of the sneaker culture with many wanting to have a pair of their own. The Pollex Clog ushered in a new era for Crocs and one that we'll be interested in seeing how the brand maintains the momentum in 2022.

20. adidas Yeezy Foam RNNR

If there is one thing Kanye West knows how to do - it is be ahead of the curve. When the Yeezy Boost 350 was initially released, Ye likened it to the Nike Roshe and his desire to have the 350 be the Three Stripes' version of the Roshe. But what Ye did with the Foam RNNR was more akin to Crocs which we've already seen just one release prior on the countdown. The idea to develop a "cooler" Croc was Ye's idea and he succeeded in doing so. Sure, the design and aesthetic may be polarizing, but that comes with the territory with Ye. But you cannot argue with results.

19. A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 1 High

What a year for A Ma Maniére and The Whitaker Group as a whole. Between a certain Air Jordan retro to the Dunk Mid projects from Social Status - the entire team is winning. And from the concrete grew a rose, this rose is the AMA x AJ1. From its breathtaking quality and cracked leather to its skinned Swoosh and collar - vintage motif and hints of a wine-like maroon, the Maniére 1 is picture perfect. There was no denying that this release would land on the year-end countdown.

18. OFF-WHITE x Air Jordan 2 Low

"design premise: trap the indescribable into the object." – Virgil Abloh

When the images began to surface of what would unfortunately be the last release Virgil Abloh gave the world before his untimely passing, the world was not immediately drawn in. Call it the Air Jordan 2 complex; there were questions of can Virgil make the Air Jordan 2 "cool". As he began to take precious time to explain why he selected the Air Jordan 2, it became overwhelmingly evident Virgil was operating in a headspace others simply could not fathom. With the help of a 3D scan of one of MJ's original game-worn Air Jordan 2s, presently crumbling in the Jordan DNA archives, the premise was birthed. And the final result was a piece of art.

From the crumbling midsole recreated thanks to a 3D scanned mold to the textures - even MJ's signature across the low-cut lateral quarter, the OFF-WHITE x AJ2 became the perfect final mosaic of Virgil Abloh.

17. Air Jordan 1 Retro High 'Patent Bred'

Sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel ... you just need to put a little shine on it. That's what Jordan Brand did with the beloved 'Bred' Air Jordan 1 High Retro. Adorning the classic colorway in a beautiful patent leather motif just in time for the new year. Aside from the dressed-up upper is the embroidered message of "Family" in the inner lining of the retro ... keeping in theme with Jordan Brand's ethos of family, along with a glossy Jumpman hangtag for kicks. A classic is a classic no matter how you slice it.

16. Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 990 V3

Chicago designer Joe Freshgoods has an eye that many would absolutely love to have. His 2021 project with New Balance was every part excellent storytelling, supreme usage of materials, delectable color swatch selection and overall just hits the mark in every category. The New Balance 900v3 gets a clean tonal brown look with touches of blue, green and the slightest hint of orange that has much range as the great outdoors itself. When you talk about encapsulating a concept into reality, Joe Freshgoods is in a class of his own.

15. Nike Go FlyEase

When Nike unveiled the Go FlyEase in February, the first hands-off accessible sneaker for the Swoosh was met with excitement for the inclusiveness it provided. We've seen FlyEase from Nike beginning nearly a decade ago across the LeBron signature line and the Air Jordan line but this was different. This was a sneaker for all, but most importantly a tool - a resource - a beacon of hope for the many across the world who's disabilities may not allow them to tie their shoes. And in a world where inclusion continues to be paramount and rightfully so, the FlyEase go will continue to be at the forefront of that.

14. Bad Bunny x adidas Forum Low

Bad Bunny was everywhere in 2021. He kicked off his year at WWE's Royal Rumble pay-per-view; found himself in a highly celebrated WrestleMania tag-team match where he shocked the world. He announced a tour for 2022, and in-between all of that, Sanbenito found time to drop three collaborations with the Three Stripes. And none more appropriate with his stage name than the spring release of the "Easter Egg" colorway of the Forum Low. Shades of pastel pink personified the fabled Easter Bunny but given some attitude thanks to Bad Bunny.

13. Fragment x Sacai x Nike LDWaffle

When Sacai touched the Nike Waffle in 2019, the double stacked everything was nothing short of cushioned, casual greatness. Having spawned a slew of colorways and mesh and nylon iteration - the obvious step for Sacai thereafter was to collaborate amongst peers. Hiroshi Fujiwara being one of those said peers. Adding just a slight touch of Fragment branding and signature imagery, the Sacai LDWaffle was given a fourth chapter with the tri-branded collaboration. This one however, sticks out from the crowd.

12. Patta x Nike Air Max 1

Patta's love affair with "Trainers" as the Europeans calls them continues to shine through with yet another Air Max project. But what immediately stands out with this Air Max 1 ... the re-designed mudguard. Armed with a burnt orange, the wavy cut-out gives Tinker Hatfield's classic silhouette a look that has never been seen before on the model. Simply dubbed the "Monarch", this Air Max 1 is king over all others in 2021.

11. KITH x Asics Gel-Lyte V 'Salmon Toe'

If you purchased, Ronnie Fieg's KXTH decade celebratory book, you may have noticed the hidden gem on the inner back cover ... the 'Salmon Toe' Gel-Lyte V.

In 2011, Fieg's suede masterpiece took the Gel-Lyte III, which was part of the retro resurgence for the silhouette and became Fieg's early calling card. The Black Friday release was a callback to yesteryear, as part of KITH's 10th anniversary, from the deep and rich navy tones to the beautiful salmon colored perforated toe box. Fieg returns to the Gel-Lyte V to rekindle the vibes of a decade prior.

Mission accomplished.

10. South Park x adidas Campus 80s 'Towelie'

4/20 is usually full of sneakers with green motifs and rightfully so, all things considered. But adidas took the concept and brilliantly collaborated with South Park to utilize Matt Stone and Trey Parker's always smoked-out towel, Towelie to bring a fun-loving take on the smoker's holiday. With a chenille upper, the old school adidas sport Towelie's eyes on the tongue, that change to red when "blazed" by the sun.

Fun and on brand for South Park and the holiday.

9. Parra x Nike SB Dunk Low 'Abstract Art'

“Coming from landscapes, nature elements ... it's like soil, it's like earth, it's the floor, the ground you skate on.” – Piet Parra

When the 2020 Summer Olympics were pushed out to this year due to COVID-19, the long-awaited debut of skateboarding on the world stage was delayed. But in that time, Parra did beautiful to capture the world uniting with an extrapolated design that can only be described as "abstract art". Hence, where the collaboration gets its nickname and with that, safely kickflipping into a top-10 spot.

8. Travis Scott x Fragment x Air Jordan 1 Low

Until this point, we have not seen the Fragment Design x Travis Scott x Air Jordan 1, so it's safe to say the High will net a top-five spot for the year. The inverse of the High comes with the Fragment x Travis x Air Jordan 1 Low. Sporting a sail inverted Swoosh, the look is not only clean but the silhouette is functional all year long, but especially in the summer months. Arguably, the Travis Scott x Air Jordan 1 Low has outshined the High with now its second release, but a top-10 sneaker of 2021 undoubtedly.

7. Trophy Room x Air Jordan 1 High Retro 'Freeze Out'

If there's a release in 2021 that checks every single box, it would be the Trophy Room x Air Jordan 1 High Retro. Detailing the story of MJ's first NBA All-Star Game in Indianapolis where his All-Star teammates allegedly "froze out" MJ finished the 1985 iteration with only seven points. Marcus Jordan took the timeless 'Chicago' Air Jordan 1 and spoke to the game's nickname with subtle icy detailing over the paneling and beautiful translucent outsole equipped with stars as a nod to the All-Star Game branding.

Storytelling; check. Classic colorway; check. Chaotic release; double-triple check.

6. Nike LeBron 9 Retro 'Watch the Throne'

"This might be the return of the throne ..." - Jay-Z

In 2021 not only did Jay-Z and Ye reunite on a track for the first time in years, but the LeBron 9 made its long awaited return, and came with a surprise. Bringing forth the coveted, 'Watch the Throne' colorway from 2011. Originally exclusively for LeBron, Ye and Jay ... the sample was crafted with grace and luxury taste, in the same spirit of the luxury rap from the album and befitting a king. A release that we surely never thought we'd actually see, we came close with the LeBron vote earlier in the year which put the even rarer gold colorway up for release, but as fate would have it, the king taketh but the king also giveth.

5. Salehe Bembury x New Balance 200R 'Water Be The Guide'

Since departing Versace, Salehe Bembury has been free to create and all the ideas in his mind are coming forth. Perhaps, none more eye catching than the New Balance 200R collaborations. The follow-up to 2020's initial offering, this fuzzy blue and earth-toned beauty nicknamed 'Water Be The Guide' is a stream of consciousness and design that fits the aesthetics of both collaborators. And adding actor, Jesse Williams into the mix for the product shoot was a solid touch.

4. Supreme x Nike SB Dunk Low

Supreme x Nike SB flipped their original 2003 SB Dunk High and cut the top off to convert the star-filled collaboration into a SB Dunk Low. Armed with a new set of colors that catch the eye; from a slime green to royal blue and black and buttery brown, this wasn't just scaling down the High into a Low, but taking the extra step to try a couple new feels. And in true Supreme fashion, it comes with a cult-mainstream following.

3. Travis Scott x Fragment x Air Jordan 1 High

When you take two of the most coveted Air Jordan 1 High Retros; 2014's Fragment Design x Air Jordan 1 High and 2019's Travis Scott x Air Jordan 1 High - you know hype is going to be at a fever pitch. This crossover between Fragment x La Flame x Jordan Brand isn't just hype but it's a flawless execution of three ideas living harmoniously together to create something so mind-blowing.

And the result, comes our no. 3 release of 2021.

2. OFF-WHITE x Nike Air Force 1 Low 'Lemonade'

No exaggeration, Virgil Abloh absolutely went in on this design. The monochromatic Air Force 1 has been seen before from the Chicago native. From the white and black iterations to the MCA all-blue base, but this one ... this canary yellow was a fresh squeezed take on the concept that has proven to not be on its way out anytime soon. With a shimmery silver leather Swoosh and bold black "AIR" on the midsole, this was a mid-summer classic when it restocked. The icing on the cake for another banner year from Virgil.


1. A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 3 Retro 'Raised By Women'

"The inspiration around the A Ma Maniére 3 was actually rooted in my first experience with Jordan Brand. The 3 was the first shoe that my mom ever brought." – James Whitner

The A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 3 Retro 'Raised By Women' was the manifestation of taking real-life experiences and encapsulating those experiences into what was an early contender for "sneaker of the year". And since its release back in March, the sneaker has held pole position tightly with no signs of relinquishing the crown - fighting off contenders along the way. From its vintage and gracefully aged look, to it the neutral grey pallet, pristine stitching ... simply put, there was no more obvious choice.

The Maniére masterpiece was the frontrunner for the no. 1 spot and held pole position for the next nine months.


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