Fashion

The Best Sneakers of 2020

The Sneaker Industrial Complex's most fanatic devotees obsessed over a lot of heat this year, even as they were forced to flex within the confines of their too-small homes.
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The reports of the sneaker's death have been greatly exaggerated. How else to explain a banner year for the style, even as insider-y fashion pundits and venerable industry publications (including, uh, this one) trumpeted the imminent arrival of a post-sneaker society, and world events conspired to make any shoe that wasn't a slip-on and/or lined in fleece all but irrelevant?

Well, folks, we're now officially in the home stretch. The absolute shitshow that was 2020 is finally winding down, and the beginning of the year already feels like a lifetime ago. Pandemic. Lockdown. A pivotal presidential election. It was all more than a little emotionally taxing, to say the least. But if there was one constant throughout this ruinous hellscape of a year it was the tireless grind of the Sneaker Industrial Complex, the finely oiled machine that continued to deliver banger after banger (after banger) to its most fanatic devotees, even as they were forced to flex its wares within the confines of their too-small homes for no one but themselves, their roommates, and their long-suffering followers.

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So cheer up, bucko. There is, indeed, a light at the end of this tunnel. It isn't all doom and gloom around these parts, either. This past year presented more reasons than ever to stay enthused about the state of sneakers today. Vintage-inspired re-releases dripping in retro charm? Check. Newfangled riffs on tried-and-true classics? Hell yes. Forward-looking silhouettes that offered a brief glimpse into the not-so-distant future? You came to the right place. And if all that ain't reason enough to welcome 2021 with outstretched arms and open wallets, I'm not sure what is.

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On that note, I'd like to propose a toast. To all the people still out there setting alarms, entering raffles, and waiting in long, winding lines—six feet apart, when necessary: none of this would be possible without you. Happy holidays, friends. May the coming year bring health, happiness, and only Ws for you and your family.

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And to our plugs and those we plug...may they never meet!

Nike x Sacai Vaporwaffle 'Tour Yellow Stadium Green'

Chitose Abe's freaky takes on classic Nike silhouettes were everywhere this past year, as the Sacai designer set about establishing herself as one of the most formidable collaborators in the Swoosh's deep roster of A-list partners. It only seems right that the duo end the year the way they started it: with the introduction of yet another already sold out sneaker that's sure to dominate the timeline (again) for twelve months straight.

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Nike Air Max 95 'OG Neon' (2020)

This year, the AM95 grew up, celebrating its 25th birthday with an array of enviable collaborations. The best, however, needs little in the way of introduction. Its appeal is obvious. Take one look at that inimitable ribcage-inspired design—now outfitted in shades of grey with key hits of hi-vis neon incorporated throughout—and tell me the silhouette doesn't look as groundbreaking today as it did when it debuted in the '90s. Hey, if it ain't broke...

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Adidas x Prada Luna Rossa 21 Sneakers

When news of an upcoming collaboration between Prada and Adidas hit the web late last year fashion fans collectively lost their shit. After a few takes that, frankly, left a lot to be desired, the duo's latest silhouette, a reimagining of Prada's iconic America's Cup sneaker, is here to make up for any perceived missteps—and then some.

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Jordan 4 Retro 'Fire Red' (2020)

After decades of waiting for a proper retro (with the "Nike Air" branding, thank you very much) the wait is finally over. And with a generous amount of stock dropping, the AJ4 is now suddenly more accessible than in just about any time since it first debuted in '89.

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Asics x Kiko Kostadinov UB1-S Gel Kayano 14 'Graphite Grey'

Over the last few years, Kiko Kostadinov's collaboration with Asics became a surprise hit among fans of the Bulgarian wunderkind's meticulously constructed designs and diehard sneakerheads alike. The Gel Kayano 14 the two released earlier this year combines the best of what both brands have to offer in one sleek, performance-minded silhouette.

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Adidas Originals x Wales Bonner Samba Sneakers

After debuting on the runway during London Fashion Week, Wales Bonner's long-awaited collaboration with Adidas finally hit shelves in November, and it didn't disappoint. The designer's keen eye for detail yielded an updated Samba in rich black tones that'd look right at home mixed and matched with any of her distinctive takes on the luxury tracksuit, or, for that matter, her perfectly cut, deeply expressive tailoring.

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Nike ACG Gore-Tex Mountain Fly 'Khaki'

In ACG's case, All Conditions Gear really does mean all conditions gear. These bad boys—a true masterpiece of brutalist footwear design—will take you anywhere you need to go while keeping your feet protected from whatever the elements throw your way, all thanks to a flexible ankle cuff and the shoe's distinctive Gore-Tex membrane.

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Nike Air Max 90 'Infrared' (2020)

To celebrate the beloved sneaker's 30th anniversary, Nike brought back the AM90 in its OG color way—what was then called "Hyvent Orange" but has long since been dubbed "Infrared"—a fitting tribute to one of the most iconic Swoosh silhouettes of all time.

Jordan 1 Retro High 'Dark Mocha'

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One of the best Jordans to drop this year borrowed heavily from a design sneakerheads around the world were already intimately familiar with: the Travis Scott 1s. This time, though, Jordan Brand added a black toe detail, the surest way to elevate any AJ1 to instant classic status.

Vans x Notre Old Skool 'Black'

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There wasn't much that inspired feelings of hope this year, and the insular world of limited-edition sneakers offered little exception. Then Chicago-based shop Notre outfitted the Vans Old Skool LX with its signature hand-shake detailing and suddenly—whether you were able to get your hands on a pair or not—the world felt a little bit less harsh and a little bit more, well, hopeful.

Reebok x JJJJound Club C 'White Beige'

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The internet's favorite tastemaker released a slew of collaborations this year, but the standout by far was this update on Reebok's timeless Club C silhouette, an all-time style that didn't need much—a little bit of terry cloth here, a hint of a gum sole there—to make a splash.

Jordan x Off-White Retro 5 'Sail'

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No end of year sneaker list would be complete without mention of Virgil Abloh. The mind behind Louis Vuitton's menswear kept it low-key in the footwear department, at least compared to years prior (he does, after all, have other obligations), so the sneakers he dropped throughout 2020 in partnership with the Swoosh tended to make an impact. The AJ5s the two released in October weren't just a fitting tribute to the first Jordans Virgil ever owned—they were some of the best the man's designed yet.

Reebok x Pyer Moss Experiment 4 Trail Fury 'Fresco'

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In 2020, Kerby Jean-Raymond and Reebok formally announced what had long been evident: theirs was a partnership worth preserving. Shortly after the Pyer Moss designer was named Reebok's new VP of Creative Direction, the two released the latest silhouette in their ongoing joint effort—a breathtaking combination of sharp, angular lines and space-age design, with a little color blocking thrown in for good measure. In a year that saw sneakers only get bigger and bigger—literally—the duo managed to offer one of the biggest (and best).

New Balance x Aimé Leon Dore 550 'White Green'

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In 2020, Teddy Santis and Team Aimé Leon Dore turned it *Spinal Tap voice* all the way to 11. Integral to ALD's dominance was the brand's collaborations (plural!) with New Balance, combining '90s-influenced designs with appropriately retro silhouettes, yielding some of the best sneakers of the year in the process. The 550s the duo dropped in October remain a standout, as likely to pop up unprompted on your IG feed as an ad offering whatever product you thoughtlessly searched for last.

New Balance x thisisneverthat 2002R 'White'

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In a year chock full of covetable New Balance collaborations (see above), Korean streetwear label thisisneverthat's low-key take on the unabashedly chunky 2002R might've flown the most under the radar. It also might be 2020's best.

Jordan x Union 4 Retro 'Guava Ice'

What do you do after dropping one of the best sneakers of all time? (OF ALL TIME.) Well, if you're Chris Gibbs you take a year or so off and then you run that shit back. In 2020, the Union L.A. owner proved once again he has the Midas touch when it comes to crafting rare sneakers: every silhouette he's involved with sells out immediately. Despite some early chatter online (you know who you are) the 4s Gibbs dropped this summer—foldable tongues and all—remain a testament to the man's ability to move units, and lots of 'em.

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New Balance x Dime 860 V2 'Black'

For its inaugural collaboration with New Balance this past summer, the Montreal-based skate brand opted to put its stamp on a recently resuscitated '90s runner NB brought back earlier last year. There's no fancy bells and whistles here, only a damn good shoe I haven't stopped thinking about since it dropped. And, really, what more is there to it than that?

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Adidas Originals x Lotta Volkova SL 72 Sneakers

Lotta Volkova might not be the most famous name on this list, but for fans of the insider-y stylist behind some of the most influential runway looks in recent memory—most prominently at Demna Gvasalia's Balenciaga—her stamp of approval means whatever she's signing off on is about to be up next. Volkova's charmingly retro take on an Adidas sneaker from the '70s reimagines the silhouette for the streets of today via a timeless color way that calls for no prior fashion expertise to appreciate.

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Nike ISPA Road Warrior 'Sail'

Nike's newly launched ISPA (or Improvise, Scavenge, Protect, and Adapt) line is yet another feather in the cap of a brand that tends to lead by example when it comes to material innovation. The Road Warrior isn't so much a sneaker as it is a highly complex feat of footwear engineering. Its concept-driven design offers an experience akin to watching behind the scenes footage from your favorite movie—in other words, a massive thrill for any sneaker fan, no matter what type of shoes you're into.

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Nike Dunk Low 'University Red'

If Nike has any say on the subject, 2020 will go down in sneakerhead history as The Year of The Dunk. The Swoosh has gradually been ramping up production of the style, all while whipping its fans into a frenzy by releasing take after take on the white-hot silhouette. Few were better situated to capitalize on the increase in demand than these, a fitting homage to the brand's original 1985 College Colors program.

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Adidas Yeezy Foam Rnnr 'Ararat'

The Foam Runner (or, sigh, "Rnnr") damn near broke the internet when people got their first glimpse of its instantly identifiable design earlier this year. With its bold ridges and bulbous, architectural shape, the Foam Runner definitely looks odd. But increasingly, it also looks a whole lot like the future.

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Nike SB x Ben & Jerry's Dunk Low 'Chunky Dunky'

When it comes to SB Dunks, the wackier the better. The decidedly wacky Chunky Dunkys ably conducted the Dunk hype train this year, managing to trigger many a long-time collector who couldn't resist their attention-grabbing design, while simultaneously becoming such a "thing" even your Allbirds-wearing family members were asking about 'em.

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On Cloudnova 'Black White'

In 2020, the Swiss running experts at On expanded their purview beyond the world of high intensity training, dropping one of the sleekest lifestyle silhouettes of the year and somehow still managing to incorporate all the performance technology you'd expect from a running brand of its pedigree.

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New Balance x WTAPS M992WT

In 2020 you could spring for a shoe that comes with more technical features than most early smartphones, or you could buy a pair of sneakers that rely on good old fashioned design to get you where you need to go, and then never give it a second thought. Guess which camp these guys fall into?

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New Balance x Casablanca 327 'Orange'

The indisputable shoe of the summer (and a not too shabby year-round option), courtesy of the up-and-coming streetwear sophisticates at Casablancas and the sneaker savants at New Balance.

Jordan x Dior Retro High 1

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What's left to say about the most discussed sneaker of the year that hasn't already been furiously typed out—in long, meandering paragraphs—in message boards and subreddits around the world? Sure, you might've clowned on them. Claimed you'd never buy a pair. Scoffed at the astronomical price. But discuss 'em you did. And that's sort of the point, isn't it? It's the Jordan x Dior's world, baby—we're all just living in it.

Nike x Stussy Air Zoom Spiridon Cage 2 'Fossil'

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Stüssy is having a hell of year. The West Coast skate label linked up with the Swoosh multiple times throughout 2020, but no effort garnered as much attention as the sneaker the two dropped in early April. The Spiridons' kicked off a yearlong period of appreciation for a brand that suddenly looks better than ever, and if my forecasts are correct, the Stüssy-ssaince isn't showing signs of slowing down any time soon.

Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next% 'Black Electric Green'

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In 2020, the sneaker community continued to go crazy for old models with new stories, and too many enthusiasts overlooked the importance of good old fashioned innovation. From almost being banned in competitive track and field races to being named one of TIME's best inventions of 2020, the Zoom Alphafly, and its historical significance, shouldn't go unrecognized. It deserves your respect, along with a spot on this list.

Jordan 'New Beginnings Pack' Retro High 1 & Nike Air Ship

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In February, Jordan Brand paid tribute to the GOAT himself by dropping a pack of two sneakers in homage to the Air Ships (a proto-Jordan style, if you will) MJ wore on and off during his debut season in '84. The following year the Air Jordan 1 was introduced and the rest, as your annoying younger cousin will surely tell you, is sneaker history.

Salomon XT-4 Advanced 'High Risk Red'

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Salomon's reign as the fashion industry's trail-ready sneaker of choice continued largely uninterrupted throughout 2020, the year we all became hikers. The XT-4 helped the brand further solidify its position as the go-to source for eminently wearable sneakers that'll look good whether you're trekking up the side of a mountain or—you guessed it!—en route to pick up toilet paper at the bodega down the street.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Jonathan Evans
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Avidan Grossman
Avidan Grossman is the Style eCommerce Editor at Esquire, covering men’s fashion, shoes, grooming, and accessories. He spends way too much time deciding what to wear. Needless to say, his parents still have no idea what he does.
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