The Sneaker Innovations and Tech that Rocked 2021

2021's Biggest Sneaker Innovations and Tech

The world of sneakers is one of constant innovation, full of shifting paradigms and fresh ideas. 2021 was not lacking for impactful initiatives – Nike, adidas, New Balance and others pushed the envelope, making strides in sustainability, accessibility, durability and more, while even beginning to take real steps into the digital world. Below are the sneaker innovations and tech that rocked the world in 2021.

Stan Smith Mushroom Leather
Nike Air Max 95 Pineapple Leather
New Balance 998 MADE Responsibly
Zellerfeld 3D-Printed Clog

Earth First

In 2021, a sneaker is judged on more than its looks or its performance – it's often judged on its environmental impact. The glut of greenhouse gasses produced by apparel and footwear manufacturing has historically been harsh on the planet, so brands are trying to innovate with materials and construction processes that are both easy on the Earth and easy to wear.

adidas have made sustainability a key component of their business practice, and 2021 saw them do everything from crafting mushroom leather Stan Smiths to making James Harden's signature shoes out of eco-friendly Futurenatural material. It's one thing to release some sustainable sneakers, and another entirely to use renewable materials on one of your biggest athletes' signature shoes!

Nike continued the rollout of its zero-carbon/zero-waste 'Move to Zero' initiative with lifestyle sneakers made of PIÑATEX pineapple leather, and also created the fascinating Next Nature collection, which boasted some crisp Dunk Lows and a running shoe made of 'microorganism-harvested air carbon'. Sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, doesn't it? Other highlights included New Balance's MADE Responsibly 998s –which used leftover materials to make sure no scrap of suede or lick of leather went to waste – and the 3D-printed, fully circular shoes created by Heron Preston and Zellerfeld

Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next% 2
adidas Adizero Adios Pro
Hoka Carbon Fibre Running Shoes
Brooks Running Shoes
Under Armour HOVR Machina 2

Running Towards the Future

There's no single sect of footwear design that craves innovation more than running design does. New running shoes are all about being a split second faster, a gram lighter, an iota more durable than the past year's releases, and runners had the chance to lace up some pretty cool sh*t in 2021!

Carbon fibre plates, the performance-boosting, responsiveness-enhancing, occasionally banned tech that promises to make you speedier than ever, continued to grow with models like the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT% 2, the adidas Adizero Adios Pro 2, silhouettes from HOKA ONE ONE and more.

Outside of carbon fibre plates, other advancements include Brooks' new DNA Loft V3 foam, which is directly injected with nitrogen for enhanced support and flexibility and Under Armour's new HOVR Machina 2, which couples with an app to give runners real-time performance feedback – helping them improve their stride and get the most out of their run. Now's a better time than ever to pound the pavement!

Nike GO Flyease
Nike GO Flyease
Nike GO Flyease

Look Ma, No Hands!

'If you have a body, you are an athlete,' Nike co-founder and legendary track and field coach Bill Bowerman famously quipped. That saying has gone on to become one of Nike's guiding principles, and it's more than just lip service to the Swoosh, as they've made great strides to expand their accessible footwear options.

In 2021, they hit the nail on the head with the GO FlyEase, the first true hands-free shoe. It's a simple-yet-brilliant design with a 'bi-stable hinge' that allows it to be secure when it's fully open and closed. This hinge is combined with a 'tensioner' (essentially a resistance band) that uses the simple act of kicking off a shoe as an essential piece of fit, form and function.

The GO Flyease was so cool, in fact, that it sold out instantly and now regularly resells for $100 or more over its $120 MSRP. Though resellers making a buck off of shoes designed for people with accessibility issues is more than a little bit stomach-churning, it shows that the technology is exciting and visually appealing – a mix of form and function!

Air Jordan 1 GORE-TEX
,adidas UltraBOOST GORE-TEX
Reebok Instapump Fury GORE-TEX
Mastermind x Converse Japan GORE-TEX

GORE Greatness

A waterproof GORE-TEX lining has long been a staple of high-end hiking boots and top-shelf shell jackets, but never before have we seen it on so many sneakers! With techwear and gorpcore serving as two of 2021's biggest fashion trends – plus enhanced attention on technical brands like Salomon – it seems only right that this was the year that GORE-TEX started showing up on everything from Air Jordan 1s to UltraBOOSTs.

What's interesting about the popularity of GORE-TEX-equipped takes on lifestyle footwear from this year is that it was both subtle and overt. Some of the models in the gallery above (like the mastermind JAPAN x Converse Jack Purcell collection) give no indication that they feature the tech. Others, like the Air Jordan 1 Element GORE-TEX wear it proudly on their side like a badge of honour. Branding is everything these days, and sneaker lovers both subtle and overt have started to expect the TEX, seeing it as a literal and figurative mark of quality.

Nike x Roblox
Air Jordan 11 'Cool Grey' x Fortnite
,adidas x Bored Ape Yacht Club
adidas x Bored Ape Yacht Club

Digital Domination

Though we can't tell you if Mark Zuckerberg wears Air Jordan 1 Mids (though he probably does), we can tell you that footwear brands view the metaverse as the next frontier. Nike and adidas have taken a keen interest in the digital world, investing in it early and freely – the former via partnerships with Roblox and Fortnite plus the acquisition of RTFKT Studios and virtual product trademark applications, the latter via NFT partnerships with metaverse mavens like Bored Ape Yacht Club – making us think that we may be witnessing the next great sneaker arms race.

Through NFTs, virtual experiences and other metaverse features are exciting avenues for innovation, what's truly interesting is that the metaverse may well change the core ways consumers interact with products. Who's to say Nike won't leak a new Comme des Garçons colab in Fortnite, or adidas won't tap Bored Ape Yacht Club to show off a collection with Pharrell? As Bob Dylan once sang, 'the times, they are a-changin'. Here's to the future!

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