Are Panda Dunks the Most Influential Sneakers of the Past 5 Years?

Nike has sold a ton of the Panda Dunks, but did they also change the sneaker game?

The ‘Panda’ Nike Dunk Low. / Via Nike

The "Panda" Nike Dunk Low, love it or hate it, is a shoe everyone has an opinion about. Need proof? When I posted my thoughts on the shoe, all heck broke loose. What did I say that was so controversial? I said that, over the past five years, the Panda Dunk has been the most influential sneaker and has probably gotten the most new people into sneakers. 

The black-and-white Dunk lows have easily been one of the most popular Nike shoes since they first were released in 2021. They’ve been restocked a countless number of times since. But they’re also one of the most hated shoes. “Pandas” are a cultural signifier that someone is new into sneakers or just doesn’t care about them all that much. Or, at least, just its NPC version of a sneaker. Something plain and simple that’s void of character.

The Panda Dunk existed in a perfect vacuum that made it into a big shoe. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, there was a boom in sneaker culture. People had nothing to do, so they went online to look at and buy sneakers. Maybe they’d wear them; maybe they’d resell them. But it felt like every shoe that came out during lockdown had everyone entering a SNKRS raffle to win them.

It was the same time that we saw the Dunk take off again. The energy started a few years prior, with Nike SB releases like the Canary, Purple Lobster, and Black Pigeon Dunks, and was furthered by Virgil Abloh and his Off-White versions. Then the Chunky Dunky and Travis Scott Nke SBs came out in 2020, and the brand brought back some of the original Be True to Your School renditions of the sneaker, which first released in 1985.

Nike was putting up numbers with the Dunks. They were en vogue again after years of being exiled to the sneaker desert. And it was an easy gateway model for a younger generation whose introduction to shoes may have been a cooked pair of white Air Force 1s or a generic Jordan 1 that they saw on TikTok. Nike was making these paint-by-number, every-shade-of-Pantone Dunks by the boatload, with nearly a new one coming out every week. So why, with all these flavors, did the public choose to be boring?

Sometimes when people are presented with so many options, it can be overwhelming. Instead of picking something bold, fun, or exciting, they go with something simple that they can wear any day. I feel like that’s what happened with the Panda Dunks. Are the UNLV or Michigan Dunks better, at least in my opinion, than the Pandas? By a country mile. But I also understand why the casual consumer would want them.

When I worked at sneaker stores, it was hardly ever the most exciting shoes that we sold the most of. But shoes in black and white, black and grey, black and red, etc. were the ones we couldn’t keep in stock. The average consumer wants an average shoe. And that’s OK. There’s a reason why Big Macs and Whoppers are the most popular items at McDonald’s and Burger King. People just want something simple that hits the spot. That’s the Panda Dunk. It can be worn with everything. If you’re going to only have one pair of “cool shoes,” it makes sense for them to be versatile. That’s something you can’t exactly say about Neon 95s, Infrared 90s, or Bred Jordan 1s. But you can say that about grey New Balance 990s and white (or black) Air Force 1s. They may not be the most exciting sneakers on the market, but they hit every single time.

But I understand the pushback against the Pandas too. It is a little annoying to see them everywhere. As I was writing this, I saw about five pairs between walking around the Complex office and to the corner 7-Eleven. In a sneaker world that usually champions individuality, it’s a little lame to see everyone flock to the same shoe, whether they’re super into sneakers or not. But I guess the same can be said about anything Travis Scott or “Lost and Found” 1s, “Reimagined Bred” 4s, etc.

Those who seem to be the most upset about the everywhereness of the Panda Dunks aren’t even the old salty heads (I’m one of them) that you’d expect to be mad about everything. It’s a pretty inoffensive shoe. Rather it’s the younger generation, who likely got into sneakers the same time that the Panda Dunks came to rise, who are most upset about them. There are plenty of videos at Sneaker Con with people saying it’s the worse shoe of all time. I get it. When I was in high school and college, it was annoying to see every guy in fried Nike Shox or girls in salt-stained Uggs. When you’re young and passionate about something, it’s much easier to get worked up about things you see around you. I can be guilty of that at times too. But I’ve learned to live and let live as the years go on. You want to wear Pandas? Knock yourself out, bud.

I don’t think we’ve ever seen a shoe like the Pandas. Restock after restock after restock, they continue to sell. Although, I did see them sitting on the shelves of the JD Sports in Times Square late last year. It’s hard to tell if they sold out time and time again because of people who wanted to buy and wear them or because resellers knew they could flip them. After my thoughts on “Panda” Dunks went semi-viral, I saw people reminiscing on reselling the shoes for much more than their box price early on. But seeing so many pairs in the wild leads me to believe that people are able to get them for retail. 

While I don’t believe that everyone who wears Pandas is a self-proclaimed “sneakerhead” or deeply cares about collecting footwear, I do think it's the perfect jumping-off point for people to consider sneakers more. Think about it: They got themselves a pair of Dunks. Maybe they had to go onto a sneaker blog to get them. Maybe they had to download the SNKRS app. Maybe they had to develop a relationship with an employee at a local store. Something. And once they have one pair of Dunks, maybe they consider getting another pair—or something else a little bit cooler. Maybe they kept reading sneaker blogs or checking in at the sneaker store where they bought them.

I realize that’s not everyone who bought Pandas. But we can’t denounce everyone who bought a simplistic shoe. We all had to start somewhere. I guarantee there are people that are going to read this who owned a Team Jordan, Fusion Jordan, or Air Max 270 at some point, none of which are great shoes. But I’m not here to call you a fake sneakerhead or whatever. 

The popularity, or rather the simplicity, of the Panda Dunk, however, has led to this general malaise in the sneaker industry. Every shoe looks the same. There are so many colors of Dunks and Jordan 1s on the market and in the resale shops. These are essentially the same shoes, same colorblocking, same consumer in some regards. What that has done, though, is cause people to branch out of just Nike and Jordan. Weird shoes are cool right now. New Balance, Saucony, ASICS, Salomon, Hoka, On—people want to go out on a limb, get something different for once. An Action Bronson 990 or a Jae Tips Saucony or Arthur Kar Salomon or HAL Studios ASICS. Or even general releases of all the same shoes. Now do I think Pandas are single-handedly responsible for this? Not entirely. But I do think they’ve played a role.

All in all, the Panda is one of the most popular sneakers on the market, has gotten a ton of new people into shoes, and has been able to shift the tastes of people who haven’t even bought them. That’s a big impact, regardless of who likes them. Do we have to love the Panda? No. But it’s also something we don’t need to see go extinct either.