by Brandon Edler (@MrBrando3)
A few months ago while prepping work for The 25 Best Sneakers of 2012 (So Far) I felt like it was an easy choice for number one—the Nike Air Yeezy II would take the crown, simply because no sneaker had ever produced that type of hype before. People always ask me how Complex sneaker lists work—generally we do our best to get input from multiple people so it isn’t too biased on one person’s taste and during our endless e-mail thread of sneakers to include for that particular feature, someone suggested the Nike Roshe Runs be number one—and no one argued it. My first reaction was that it was a brilliant curveball, but the more I analyzed the shoe, the more I realized it was exactly the right choice.
Rewind to the start of the year when people were going beyond standard human behavior to try and lock down every Jordan and “Galaxy” pack drop from Nike. This was nothing different from the behavior we'd been seeing for years, sneaker hypebeasts were at an all-time high. But quietly, while basketball shoes continued to reign supreme, runners were being designed better, built with greater technology, and obtainable without paying double through detestable resellers. The $70 Roshe Run was just the personification (sneakerification?) of a greater truth.
Take it back to the '80s where runners were the epitome of a hustler’s shoe—not Jordans, Dunks, or Forces. Why wear $65 Jordans when you could flaunt $130 New Balance? And when the Air Max came out, that was a game-changer. When people think of Nike they tend to think basketball, but the company was built by runners, and the newest technologies were always implemented into running shoes first. Running sneaker connoisseur Gary Warnett gave his take on the rise of runners in the 1980s. “For me, the rise of running shoes as a trend item coincides with those technical pieces released to catch the fitness/jogging boom of the early 1980s," he says. "Europe in particular really took to adidas ZX pieces, V-Series Nikes and shoes like the Epic, which was big in the Netherlands. Only hustlers and really serious runners could afford a pair of New Balance 1300s in 1985, so that created a certain desire. New York dudes who rolled as crews and enjoyed the art of boosting seemed to be big on the expensive stuff that say, Paragon, might have, by New Balance or ASICS, taking hardcore performance out of its usual zone.”
Then in the '90s, running shoes and basketball shoes took it to another level during the golden era of sneakers. With million-dollar endorsements becoming part of the equation, basketball shoes became the centerpiece of footwear fashion (thank you, Mr. Jordan), but running shoes had entered the style wars to stay. Sneakers designed as pure performance pieces made immediate impact on the street as well. “The Air Maxes and Huaraches kept things alive at street level," Warnett says, "plus we started to see retros of 1980s runners later that decade.” It seemed like the futuristic outlook of the next millennium and advances in technology and design would see things continue to progress—not exactly.
When the trend in sneakers turned towards the low and the light, running shoes had a built-in advantage. They were already low and light.
As we all managed to survive Y2K (as well as Sisqo and Will Smith ruling the radio), the sneaker boom seemed to die down somewhat. Nike introduced Shox in 2000, and also produced the prescient Presto and oddball Wovens, along with quirky Zoom offerings like the Spiridon and the Citizen. adidas moved forward with Feet You Wear, and the more technical running companies like Mizuno and Brooks kept their runners happy, but never really moved out of their respective lanes. So to speak. Running didn't return to the performance niche it was in pre-'80s, but the glory days of runners as casual wear seemed to be over nevertheless.
Of course it wasn't. Not by a long shot. Minimalism arose as scientists and runners alike realized that the traditional running shoe—overbuilt and overcushioned—perhaps wasn't the way to ideal fitness. That maybe the evolutionary turn running shoes took when Bill Bowerman added that extra wedge of foam to the Cortez back in the early '70s was a wrong one. And coincidentally, in 2008 Nike introduced two technologies—Flywire and Lunar foam—that drastically reduced weight and bulk. New Balance offered thinner soles developed in conjunction with Vibram. adidas introduced adiZero. And across the board, lower and lighter became the mantra—and not just in running, either. You're welcome. (OK, Kobe, we know.)
And when the trend in sneakers did turn towards the low and the light, running shoes had a built-in advantage. They were already low and light. Perhaps more importantly, given the state of the economy, they were far cheaper than their basketball counterparts, and much easier to pair with slim jeans or khakis. For the price of one pair of LeBrons or Foamposites, you could get two pairs of versatile runners (or three pairs of the intentionally one-step-beyond-minimal Roshe Run). It doesn’t hurt that sneaker companies like adidas, New Balance, and Nike offer the opportunity to tailor some of your favorite models (present or past) to your exact specifications via their respective custom programs. And modern runners are constructed so you can get away with them at Gold Bar or Gold’s Gym. Ronnie Fieg’s ASICS and New Balance collaborations keep the retro torch blazing, and the introduction of Nike's Flyknit through the 2012 Olympics kept the newest technology at the forefront of everyone's mind. Forget the '90s, the Golden Age of the running shoe is right now.
Of course the sneaker game continues to evolve—innovation and tastes are dictating what direction companies move in every day. So who knows what tomorrow will bring? Maybe by 2015 we'll all be wearing self-lacing hightops and pushing around on hoverboards. As of right now, though, running shoes look like the safer bet. Low, light, inexpensive. Pick all three.