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2021’s Biggest Sneaker Surprises

2021's Biggest Sneaker Surprises

2021 has been stuffed with sneaker releases, chock-a-block with colabs and certainly not lacking in newsworthy moments. In any year, there are always going to be sneakers that tap into the zeitgeist and become truly memorable, as opposed to releases that are totally forgotten about in no time at all. However, what makes the world of sneakers truly enthralling are the surprises – styles that surf an unexpected wave of success and others that are abnormally averse to catching a current – no matter how favourable the market conditions may seem. After garnering your opinions, we've rounded up five shoes that fall into each of those categories and mapped out why they landed where they did. Strap in, because this one’s bound to cause a debate.


New Balance 550

Anyone who told you that they were aware of the New Balance 550’s existence 18 months ago is probably lying. It’s a straightforward basketball shoe from 1989 that’s living a second life as one of NB’s most successful lifestyle silhouettes on the market today. You can’t even chalk its success up to the brand’s widely-discussed ‘resurgence’ of the last two years either, as it’s not a running or running-inspired sneaker in the vein of its contemporaries. Aimé Leon Dore and AURALEE gave the 550 wings with compelling collaborative iterations – the former is easily the ‘shoe of the year’ in NYC, at least among the SoHo set – and New Balance didn’t drop the ball afterwards, continuing the model’s run with some killer in-line colourways. From zero to hero in a year and some change? That’s quite an accomplishment.

New Balance 2002R 'Protection Pack'

The rise of the ‘Protection Pack’ isn’t quite the same as that of the above-mentioned 550, and not just because Aimé Leon Dore wasn’t involved in its rollout. The New Balance 2002R was already fairly popular by the time the ‘Protection Pack’ came along in August thanks to A-list colabs with the likes of Salehe Bembury and BAPE, but it’s safe to say that nobody thought it would be the year-defining success it turned out to be. Its ‘Rain Cloud’, ‘Phantom’ and ‘Sea Salt’ styles were all GRs, but still had hungry consumers waiting in block-long lines (where permitted) to try and get their hands on a pair. Now, the ‘Rain Cloud’ resells for more than double its retail price. From a brand standpoint, the ‘Protection Pack’ was one of New Balance’s spiciest drops of the year – deconstructed detailing and ripped overlays on an in-line release shows how much their design mindset has changed and evolved!

'South Park' x adidas Campus 80s 'Towelie'

Let’s face it: most weed-themed kicks are kinda mid at this point. Wink-and-a-nudge references to marijuana on sneakers have largely shifted from cheeky to corny over the past decade and often fail to spark so much as a gram of interest, but the South Park x adidas Campus 80s ‘Towelie’ is the rare smoke-infused style that lights up South Park stans and sneaker collectors alike. Its hazy purple terry upper takes the Towelie inspiration quite literally, and there are plenty of potent accoutrements as well like special hangtags and tissue paper. The real MVP of the design is the glowing eyes on its tongue, which become bloodshot under bright, direct light. This one stoney detail is what took ‘Towelie’ from fan service to social media sensation (it was a hit on TikTok!) and earned it its place on this list.

Nike ISPA Drifter 'Indigo'

Nike's ISPA Drifter ‘Indigo’ was a delightful surprise on two fronts. Not only was it a tact brand acknowledgement of the recent hand-dying trend sneaker trend (think of all the custom Stussy x Nike Air Force 1s we saw at the top of the year), it was a moment in the spotlight for a largely unheralded ISPA sneaker. Until the ‘Indigo’ came along, the ISPA Drifter was a run-of-the-mill release that was largely overshadowed by more popular silhouettes like the Road Warrior and mostly known for a strange gator-equipped release. However, thanks to some truly stunning imagery and a Japan-exclusive drop, both catnip for any sneaker lover, the ‘Indigo’ will go down as one of 2021’s biggest cult classics. Who saw that coming?!

Vans Slip-On

Obviously, the Vans Slip-On wasn’t introduced to the market in 2021. First released all the way back in 1977 as the Style 98, it’s become an icon of skate footwear over its four decades-plus of existence. Nevertheless, its place on this list is firmly established, and it’s not even because of the shoe doing anything particularly special – it’s because of Squid Game. Gi-Hun, Sang-Woo, Sae-Byeok, Il-Nam and the hundreds of other ‘contestants’ in the show’s twisted, deadly childhood games all wore white slip-on sneakers that, while not ‘True White’ Vans Slip-Ons, sure looked an awful lot like them. This led to a stunning surge in attention for the Slip-On, as after the show premiered, Slip-On sales ballooned by 7800 per cent! It was another ‘Damn Daniel’ moment for the humble canvas low-top, and an unintentional legacy cementer to boot, making it more than deserving of inclusion here.


Nike ACG Air Mowabb

There’s a strong case to be made that the Mowabb is one of the best (if not the singular best) Nike ACG sneakers ever. We can’t deny that its return in 2021 to celebrate its 30th anniversary was exciting news – OG ‘Twine’, ‘Trail End Brown’, ‘Gravity Purple’ and ‘Rattan Birch’ colourways all coming back and some exciting new styles like ‘Limestone’ and ‘Off Noir’? Sign us up, right? Sadly, the retros themselves weren’t 1:1, the changes made proved divisive among old head purists and the general quality of each shoe’s construction left something to be desired. Outside of granola-chomping ACG fans, the general public largely ignored the release as most Mowabbs are sitting on shelves at retailers. At least scooping a pair for cheap at a Nike outlet in the coming months is a tantalising proposition!

NOCTA x Nike Hot Step Air Terra

Getting a signature Nike silhouette is a rare honour. It’s even rarer for someone who’s an entertainer, not an athlete. In fact, Drake became the first artist since Kanye West to receive a true signature model from the Swoosh when his NOCTA x Nike Hot Step Air Terra was revealed. In today’s sneaker market, a shoe getting a co-sign like Drake’s is the best marketing a brand could ask for. However, even with Drizzy’s support, the Hot Step played hotfoot and exited stage left almost as quickly as it arrived – but only after drawing unflattering comparisons to budget footwear from a plethora of other brands. The inspiration didn’t really make a whole lot of sense either. Though the Hot Step clearly has roots in UK roadman and Air Max culture, Drake isn’t British. He might have jinxed himself when he rapped ‘I’m movin’ way too humble, Weezy handed it off, I still got no fumbles’ on ‘What’s Next’, because the Hot Step was definitely a fumble. Maybe Drake and Nike should just move on to the next project – most of the NOCTA apparel is quite good, after all.

Supreme x Nike Air Max 96

Nike are no stranger to using Supreme colabs as a marketing tool for an under-the-radar silhouette. Look at all the extra attention the Air Max 98 received after its Supreme colab in 2016, attention that translated onto in-line drops like the ‘Gundam’ and ‘Tour Yellow’. However, the tried-and-true trick didn’t really work on the Air Max 96. Rolling out after the ‘Goldenrod’ and ‘Comet Red’ made their way to market, the Supreme x Nike Air Max 96 was largely met with indifference by Air Max fans, likely due to the quizzical inclusion of see-through panels on its upper. Though the 96 is a cult favourite Air Max (and is the centrepiece of one of SF founder Woody’s 10 favourite ads in SOLED OUT) its impact this year was scant at best, and its three collaborative iterations were largely forgettable – something we’re not used to saying about anything Supreme works on!

adidas Forum

adidas had high hopes and big plans for the Forum at the end of 2020, and for good reason. Its first couple of drops, including colabs with sivasdescalzo, Footpatrol and Sneaker Politics were well-received in 2020 and it seemed ripe for a comeback in 2021. To compare it to another brand, it seemed as if adidas wanted the Forum to serve the same role in the adidas Originals lineup that the Dunk does in the Nike Sportswear roster. Although the model received some huge colabs with Bad Bunny and Prada in 2021, it’s still awaiting its ‘firework moment’ – one that takes it from collaborative centrepiece to in-line staple, where even its GR releases sell out with haste – and that simply hasn’t happened yet.

Bodega x New Balance 990v3

It’s no secret that we love Bodega. They’ve been in the game for 15 years, have some truly classic colabs under their belt, and boast a ‘hidden in plain sight’ store aesthetic that provides a unique shopping experience. However, their New Balance 990v3 – made to celebrate a decade and a half in business – was a prime example of sneaker bots ruining a drop, albeit not in their usual fashion. Bodega went to great lengths to ensure every customer would get a fair shot at the 990v3 by listing them on an unguessable URL and making potential purchasers both answer a question and fill out a captcha. However, these extended steps, combined with a Shopify payment system hiccup caused many would-be buyers to run into errors, assume the shoe was sold out and simply give up. In fact, the shoe took more than 45 minutes to sell out, aeons in modern sneaker drop time. ‘If a shoe like this doesn’t sell out in less than 15 minutes, it’s considered a failure’, Bodega co-founder Jay Gordon told the New York Times in an interview about sneaker bots. ‘It’s really disappointing because we did all this to give ordinary customers a shot’. A really great release from an epic team being scuttled by the threat of deceptive tech sucks, and this is a shoe that should have gotten a lot more shine than it did.

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