If the 70s were the decade of design innovation and the 80s were the time when companies started to build their brand, the 90s were when it was all put together and sneakers became gigantic. It was also the decade that Nike crushed the opposition. 90s Sneakers is usually associated with Nike for that very reason.
The Air Max and Air Jordan’s may have been born in the 80s but they became a cultural phenomenon in the 90s. While Nike may have dominated the decade, the likes of New Balance and Reebok still released some epic sneakers.
Here we take a look at the best 90s sneakers. Let’s go!
1. Nike Air Jordan 11
Year – 1995
The year was 1994 and Michael Jordan was no longer playing basketball. Nike designer Tinker Hatfield decided to continue making Air Jordan’s in the hope that he would return to the court. The XI had some great unique features of a carbon fiber spring plate, ballistic mesh upper and patent leather outsole.
It was a brilliant and unique design but that’s not always enough for an iconic shoe. Hatfield’s hunch was right and Jordan returned to the court and wore the shoe on the way to winning the 1996 NBA Championship. He also wore the shoe in the cult-classic film Space Jam.
That was more than enough to give it ever-lasting popularity. The 90s sneakers have been selling out ever since.
2. Nike Air Max 95
Year – 1995
With a ribbed design loosely based on the human anatomy, Sergio Lozano helped Nike create a pair of 90s sneakers that certainly stood out from the crowd. It was also the first to use two different air cushions in the forefoot.
They were unique in design while also having a much smaller swoosh than many other Nike shoes. The sneakers have been referenced in quite a few songs such as “Hate it or Love It” by The Game and “Bricks” by Gucci Mane.
3. Nike Air Max 90
Year – 1990
Those around at the time will know that these 90s sneakers were originally released as Air Max III. Their biggest design feature was the bright block of color that surrounded the huge air bubble. Nike was never going to miss an opportunity to capitalize on the success of the Air Max 1.
The bubble sat there loud and proud and was surrounded by beautiful colorways. There were also design innovations there too such as multiple lacing options and a reinforced midsole. It showed how Nike had mastered the art of style and quality combined.
4. Air Jordan V
Year – 1990
The Air Jordan V was the first of the series released in the 90s and was another designed by Hatfield. There are plenty of new features on show here with a reflective tongue, translucent rubber and several lacing options.
The design inspiration of the Jordan V’s partly came from painted WWII fighters and Hatfield used that in the shark-tooth midsole. Will Smith helped to popularize the shoe as his character in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air usually had a pair on his feet.
5. Nike Air Huarache
Year – 1991
With no Nike swoosh and a bold exoskeleton, the Air Huarache stood out from most other Nike shoes with their more naked look. They were inspired by the traditional Mexican huarache shoe and designed by Tinker Hatfield.
There was new material technology used here too with a mix of lycra and neoprene along with more traditional fabrics. The result was a shoe that hugged to your feet and provided maximum comfort while also being lightweight and breathable.
6. Asics Gel Lyte III
While Nike were dominant, other manufacturers still made some iconic shoes and nowhere is that more clear than with the Gel Lyte III from Asics. It was a supremely comfortable shoe thanks to the gel cushioning that it featured.
There was another unique innovation in terms of a split tongue which, while not catching on, gave them a distinctive look. The popularity of the shoe was also aided by them being available in a vast number of colorways.
7. Nike Air Max 97
Year – 1997
Nike were never afraid to get design inspiration for their sneakers and the idea for the 97 came from Japanese bullet trains. The sweeping metallic lines that run from front to back gave the impression of speed.
The most distinguishable feature of the Air Max 97 however was the air pockets in the sole which nearly ran for its full length. There are many different colorways available now but it’ll forever look its best in the original metallic silver.
8. Air Jordan IX
Year – 1993
An Air Jordan that he never played in. At the time of their release in 1993, the superstar would be seen in baseball cleats instead. Nike used that to their advantage and these sneakers were inspired by the look of these cleats.
Infamously worn by Tupac in an iconic “Thug Life” photo session in 1994, the success of the shoe was driven by their stunning design rather than anything Jordan did on the court. There are, however, the shoes he’s wearing on his statue outside the United Center.
9. New Balance M577
Year – 1990
New Balance may never have quite reached the brand appeal of Nike, Adidas or Vans but they have consistently released fantastic running shoes. Their first shoe of the decade, the M577 showed just that.
There was nothing groundbreaking about the design but they did have an understated elegance to them. It had that distinctive slanted “N” while also being available in a wide range of colorways. It showed that New Balance were a name to be trusted in running comfort.
10. Vans Half Cab
Year – 1991
In many ways, the Vans Half Cab is the ultimate street skater’s shoe. The Vans Caballero had preceded them but this was more of a sneaker for the pure skater with its mid-top design and waffle grip with a vulcanized sole.
They were also relatively affordable which meant that you saw them everywhere. The functionality of these shoes was perfect as they were ideal for an array of skating moves. Added to that were the suede uppers which gave them style on top of the substance.
11. Nike Air Max Plus
Year – 1998
Colorways don’t get much bolder than with the Nike Air Max Plus. They could often be seen in a range of different designs with one of the brightest and most common being the black and orange strips that have been seen on the feet of many runners feet.
They were perfect for running and that was aided by Nike’s now infamous air bubble technology but two bubbles feature on the forefoot and two on the heel. They looked fast and more importantly, allowed you to run fast too.
12. Nike Air Command Force
There were not too many times that Nike was the follower and not the leader but that was certainly the case with internal inflation technology. Reebok produced the hugely popular ‘Pump’ in 1989 and Nike followed with the ‘Air Pressure’.
It was a miss. The shoe was bulky, garish and hastily designed. In 1991 Nike tried again with the Air Command Force. It was a much better sneaker and the air bladders were well positioned. It was still a gimmick of course but a good challenger to the Reebok Pump.
13. Reebok Blast
Year – 1995
Speaking of Reebok, they were nowhere near Nike’s appeal in the 90s but still produced some great 90s sneakers. The colorways were very common for Reebok at the time as they tried to keep it simple with black and white.
The design made it look as though there was a blast coming from the ankle and the sneakers were commonly worn by Nick Van Excel for the Lakers. They were a great basketball shoe that provided plenty of cushioning and stability.
14. New Balance M1500
Year – 1993
As we mentioned before, New Balance never gets it wrong when it comes to running comfort. There is nothing special about this silhouette but there doesn’t need to be. They are still popular today for any runner who demands excellent footwear.
While the silhouette may not be anything special, there is enough detail in the sneaker to have a vast range of colorways which adds to this appeal. The level of comfort and retro look make these timeless 90s sneakers and another classic.
15. New Balance M999
Year – 1996
The New Balance M999 is an iconic running shoe and also one of the most stylish they’ve ever made. The low-top design fits very well and provides exceptional cushioning when compared to most other running shoes made at the time.
This is an occasion where New Balance found the perfect balance between comfort and style. Often seen in the company’s familiar grey, they were also available in a variety of colorways. There was nothing to dislike about the M999.
16. Fila Grant Hill 2
Year – 1997
Grant Hill was a huge star in the NBA and Fila hoped to capitalize on that in the same way Nike did with Jordan. They joined together and made some excellent 90s sneakers with the best of them being the Fila Grant Hill 2.
Of course, despite an $80m endorsement and an advertisement campaign, Hill and Fila couldn’t emulate that success. A cringeworthy SLAM magazine cover in 1997 showed the promise many thought Hill had but at least he was able to collaborate with Fila to make an iconic shoe.
17. Air Jordan VI
Year – 1991
Often stylish design means sacrificing some comfort or usability. The Jordan VI’s were the complete opposite, partly due to a design change requested by Jordan himself. He didn’t like the feel of a heel tab against his Achilles tendon and the result here was a large molded heel tab.
Added to that were finger holes on the tongue, making them very easy to slip on. The black and infrared colorways were particularly striking and Jordan wore them on his way to his first NBA championship and second MVP award.
For more retro Sneakers, check out the best 80s Sneakers Here
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