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Over the last few months, we’ve seen many reissues of sneaker icons, including the Air Jordan 1 Retro High in “Neutral Grey,” Air Jordan 6 “Carmine,” Nick ACG Air Mowabb “Rattan Birch” and the Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 “Beluga.” To the delight of fervid collectors, many were restored to their original designs.
And, as we’re sure you’re aware, there have been collaborations aplenty. “The most compelling collaborations throughout 2021 weren’t just driven by thoughtful design, but they also came packaged with compelling stories,” said Peter Verry, senior news and features editor, athletic and outdoor, at FN. “Joe Freshgoods, A Ma Maniére and several others this year provided a blueprint of what’s expected from collaborations in the future.”
Now that 2021 has come to a close, it’s time for us to spotlight the best sneakers of the year. Keep reading to discover if your favorite has made the cut, and shop a pair below — in case you haven’t already.
Social Status x Nike Dunk “Free Lunch”
Dunks have held court for a second year running, but this time around, the attention has been focused on collaborations. Our favorite? Why, it has to be the Social Status x Nike Dunk Free Lunch “Free Lunch” pack.
Designed by Social Status founder James Whitner, the pack — consisting of two Dunks in “Strawberry Milk’‘ and “Chocolate Milk” colorways — aims to raise awareness about a government assistance program that provides underprivileged children with a free lunch.
Salehe Bembury x New Balance 2002R “Water Be the Guide”
ICYMI, Salehe Bembury is the sneaker community’s newfound deity, and it’s the New York-born designer’s collaboration with New Balance that’s really got everybody talking.
This year, Bembury worked alongside the American sportswear brand to release two novel sneakers: the 2002R “Water Be the Guide” and New Balance 574 “Yurt”. The former captured the world’s attention with its vibrant palette of nature-inspired colors, exaggerated materials and subtle yet eye-catching branding.
Air Jordan 11 “Cool Grey”
One of the most anticipated reissues of 2021 was the Air Jordan 11 “Cool Grey.” Initially released in 2001 — just six years after His Airness first wore the silhouette on court — and then again in 2010, the sneaker was re-released in 2021 for a third time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the colorway.
Subtle tweaks to the latest AJ11 “Cool Grey” include a new icy blue sole, slightly darker nubuck upper and a larger patent leather mudguard.
A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 1 “Airness”
As we all know, the Air Jordan 1 is a ubiquitous sneaker silhouette within modish subcultures. And one of the most sought after iterations of the kick celebrates the Black roots of the Jordan Brand.
Created in collaboration with another one of James Whitner’s brands, A Ma Maniére, the uber-luxurious A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 1 is characterized by its use of aged-effect suede and leather, burgundy accents and a quilted sockliner. Combined, these details celebrate the power of the Black community and Micheal Jordan’s legacy.
“The A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 3 may have earned the FNAA Collaboration of the Year honor, but arguments could be made that the company’s Social Status x Nike ’Free Lunch’ Dunks or the A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 1 were equally deserving of the award,” said Verry.
Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 550 “White/Navy/Red” and “Natural Green”
The Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance collaboration is partially responsible for New Balance’s startling 2020 resurgence; thus, it’s no surprise that the two labels continued to collaborate throughout 2021.
This year saw the drop of two new colorways of Leon Dore’s vintage take on the New Balance 550 sneaker. The navy and red colorway is youthful and current, while the natural green iteration is timeless and versatile.
Kith for Nike Air Force 1 “Hawaii” and “Paris”
Called the Kith for Nike Air Force 1 “Hawaii” and “Paris,” Fieg and co. updated the wardrobe staple with an embossed leather Kith pattern, velour sock lining, special addition tongue tab and colored accents to transport sneakerheads to the respective locations.
Billie Eilish x Air Jordan 1 KO and Air Jordan 15
Billie Eilish is an unstoppable force who’s seemingly good at everything — for instance, the internationally renowned singer recently turned her hand to designing desirable sneakers. Par for the course, the shoes sent her fervid fans wild.
As part of the Billie Eilish x Air Jordan collaboration, two sneakers were released: A neon green Jordan 1 Retro AJKO and a beige iteration of the Jordan 15 Retro — each of which is designed with sustainable materials and encapsulates a different side of the multifaceted creative.
Aleali May x Air Jordan 1 Zoom Comfort and Air Jordan 14
Back in 2017, Aleali May became the second woman to ever collaborate with Jordan brand. And to this day, her impact remains, as sneaker collectors and discerning dressers can’t get enough of her idiosyncratic takes on popular models.
In 2021, two new sneakers dropped as part of the collaboration: the Air Jordan 1 Zoom Comfort, inspired by May’s high school drill team, and the jade-colored Air Jordan 14, which pays homage to her Filipino heritage.
Bad Bunny x Adidas Forum Low
Adidas is always on the ball when it comes to collaborations, and the best sneaker the Three Stripes dropped over the last twelve months is the brainchild of Puerto Rico sensation Bad Bunny.
The rapper took the classic Adidas Forum Low silhouette and updated it with unique utilitarian details, including a buckle fastening, toggle tab, double tongue and Bad Bunny iconography. We expect the Bad Bunny x Adidas Forum Low to be the gift that keeps on giving for years to come; in other words, we can almost guarantee that new colorways are on the way.
New Balance x Bricks & Wood 57/40
New Balance is renowned for providing undiscovered talent, especially from minority groups, with a platform to launch their work into the mainstream. In 2021, the stalwart sneaker label recruited Kacey Lynch, founder and designer of LA-based brand Bricks & Wood, to create a fresh take on the New Balance 57/40 silhouette.
Inspired by Lynch’s home city of South Central Los Angeles, the New Balance x Bricks & Wood 57/40 features layers of rich green suede, a yellowed midsole, dark pink outsole and metallic silver details. Additionally, a tag located on the inner side of the tongue reads: “From South Central with Love.”
Bodega x New Balance 990v3 “Anniversary”
In 2021, Boston-based boutique Bodega celebrated its 15th anniversary by offering its own take on the staple New Balance 990v3.
Aptly dubbed the Bodega x New Balance 990v3 “Anniversary,” the silhouette has an earthy palette offset by unexpected hits of color and understated details. The result? A shoe that shook the sneakerverse.
A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 3 “Raised by Women”
Prior to the release of the A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 1, the Atlanta-based boutique teamed up with the Jumpman to create a premium Air Jordan 3 that honored Black women. Perhaps the most unique details on the A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 3 “Raised by Women” are special quotes from James Whitner’s mother located behind the heel tab of each shoe. The messages are written in her handwriting and read “All we have is each other” and “You have to be comfortable walking alone.”
Travis Scott x Fragment x Air Jordan 1 High and Low “White/Black/Royal Sail”
By combining the Travis Scott x Nike reverse Swoosh with Fragment’s signature color palette, Jordan brand created one hell of a sneaker (one that, unfortunately, comes with a hefty price tag).
Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 990v3 “Outside Clothes”
Chicago native Joseph Robinson, aka Joe Freshgoods, is a sartorial force to be reckoned with. His unwavering vision is concurrently unique and nostalgic; he captures his own memories within his designs to prompt consumers to reminisce about jocund moments in their own lives.
First released in summer ‘21, the Joe Freshgoods x New Balance 990v3 “Outside Clothes” sneaker is redolent of a childhood spent in the great outdoors. Sky blue and grass green add a playful touch to the beigey-brown sneaker, and an ice cream cone-inspired waffle-pattern tongue ties the theme together.
Air Jordan 4 Retro “White Oreo”
At some point during the last 12 months, the Air Jordan 4 re-entered the mainstream, and the entire world was clamoring for a pair. To meet the demand, Nike dropped a variety of colorways — the best being the Air Jordan 4 Retro “White Oreo.”
As you may have already presumed, the “White Oreo” sneaker takes cues from the original “Oreo” Air Jordan 4 released in 1999. Most notably, the 2021 shoe features a speckled patterned midsole and lace cages that give the shoe a cookies and cream look. Judging by the resale prices, the masses are still hungry for a pair.
Patta x Nike Air Max 1 Waves “Monarch”
Amsterdam-based streetwear and sneaker boutique Patta recently breathed new life into the original Air Max silhouette by using the shoe’s quintessential mudguard to add a wave-like pattern to the silhouette. First released in an orange hue dubbed “Monarch,” the Nike Air Max 1 x Patta Waves shoe has since dropped in “Black” and “Noise Aqua”.
The collaborative sneaker, in turn, has catalyzed a re-emergence of the world-renowned shoe; ergo, it’s time for staunch sneakerheads to get their Air Max 1s out of storage.
Supreme x Nike Dunk Low Stars “Mean Green”
Sure, every Supreme sneaker drop is catnip for hypebeasts, but the hype around the Supreme x Nike Dunk Low Stars drop — famously formed with faux croc leather — was next level. Not only did the kicks release during a time when people would consider selling their soul for a pair of highly regarded Dunks, but they also harkened back to 2003’s Supreme x Nike Dunk High release. In our humble opinion, the “Mean Green” take on the Supreme x Nike Dunk Low is the best Dunk we’ve seen in recent years.
Off-White x Air Jordan 2 Low “White/Red” and “Black/Blue”
If we could only use one word to describe the late, great Virgil Abloh, it’d be “innovative.” And one of his most pioneering designs was also one of his last.
For the the Off-White x Air Jordan 2 Low, Abloh took the severely neglected basketball silhouette and added some out-of-the-box details, including an aged-looking outsole inspired by those found on original pairs of Air Jordan 2 Lows from the Jordan archives. The silhouette also features Michael Jordan’s signature on the lateral side and comes in two colorways: an OG version of White/Red and a brand-new finish of Black/Blue.
New Balance 200R Protection Pack “Sea Salt”, “Phantom” and “Rain Cloud”
Outside of the brand’s manifold collaborations, the New Balance 200R Protection Pack — aka the “Refine Future” release — was 2021’s most exciting New Balance drop.
Each of the three Protection Pack colorways — “Sea Salt,” “Phantom” and “Rain Cloud” — is defined by its jagged hairy suede layers that give the shoe a deconstructed look that’s almost primal in appearance. Here’s hoping the brand continues to get experimental throughout 2022.
Air Jordan 1 Retro High 85 “Neutral Grey”
The most anticipated Air Jordan 1 of 2021 was, indisputably, the Air Jordan 1 Retro High 85 “Neutral Grey.” The drop marked the first time the original colorway has been released since its 1985 debut.
The Air Jordan Retro High 85 is a faithful replica of the shoe that was released 35 years prior. Compared to a conventional Retro High OG, the 85 model is sleeker, taller and crafted from superior materials such as high-quality leather and suede.