Real Talk: Retro Sneakers Are Uncomfortable AF (But We Still Love Wearing Them)
The adage ‘beauty over pain’ is most acutely experienced wearing retro sneakers. High heel-wearers may say otherwise, but this is Sneaker Freaker, not Stiletto Freaker. Anyway, masochism comes standard with a pair of Air Max reissues, flat-soled Chucks and brick Jordans, among other models. They may look super sick on-foot, but let’s be real: they’re uncomfortable AF! Despite all the biomechanical damage chipping away at sneakerheads’ soles, looks are really all that matter.
Numbers Don’t Lie
A little while ago, SF posted an imperative on social media: ‘Name a sneaker you wish you could wear but is too uncomfortable.’
The results from the audience were damning. Nike maintained their dominance in all categories – probably not one they’d like to, in this case – by taking out 13 of the top 15 most uncomfortable shoes. Per the hypothesis of this Real Talk, the top five models were the Air Jordan 1, Air Jordan 4, Blazer, Air Max 97 and Dunks (regular and SB versions were tallied together). Objectively, it’s no secret that these designs aren’t plush puppies, especially considering the fact most of them are around 30-plus years old and the Blazer clocks in at over 50. It’d be naive to think an objectively obsolete performance design doesn’t hold up today in the comfort stakes, especially when the new pairs aren’t quite one-to-one remakes of the original.
Improving Retro Comfort
Brands are aware that their greatest hits from the vault are such because of their looks and not their comfort. In an attempt to modernise the underfoot feel while maintaining the old-school look, many big players slapped contemporary cushioning tech onto their yesteryear models, resulting in some truly bastardised spawn. BOOST soles couldn’t not feature beneath EQT uppers in a truly dark (albeit somewhat comfy) period for adidas in the late-2010s. Concurrently, Nike ran through at least half a dozen upper and sole material options in a bid to make Air Max tolerable to wear. Jordan Brand and Nike SB just added a bunch of padding to the Air Jordan 4 to somehow make it suitable for skating.
Other brands have tried to be more subtle: Converse put Nike Lunar inside the Chuck 2 and recreated the Chuck 70 with spongier insoles; Vans did the same by defining Anaheim Factory, Vault and Skate tiers, each with different types of insole foams and comfort (or more accurately, discomfort-reducing) tech. While credit is due for these brands, plus many more, attempting to make their favourites less hard on feet, the modified product simply becomes a pastiche of the genuine article.
Paradoxically, discomfort then becomes a defining and even loveable feature of a shoe. Referring to SF’s audience poll, the sixth most-uncomfortable sneaker was the Nike Air Trainer 3, a sneaker notorious for shredding pinky toe skin. Despite this rather painful predicament, editions including the ‘Medicine Ball’ and ‘Viotech’ have gone down in history as old-school sneakerhead essentials. And its toe-tearing forefoot strap placement seems to have been reprised for subsequent reissues in steadfast adherence to retro spec – even if there are some other manufacturing areas to address. The same can be said for the Air Jordan 4 reissues, which have been all the rage in the past couple of years among some circles. The fervour for the shoe is well deserved – it’s one of the greatest designs of all time – but its later releases feature the same slender, phalange-jamming forefoot. And that’s coming from personal experience, too.
Beauty Over Pain
Potential long-term physical injury aside, it’s fair to say the main reason retro sneakers have remained so popular for so long is because of how they look and not how they feel. Some designs have become essential components of social movements. Chuck Taylors are still being spotted in the mosh pit, and many have overcome the grimacing break-in period for Dr Martens to wear at adjacent shows. Vans may tenderise soles, but few shoes offer that superior board feel. The Air Jordan 1 is simultaneously one of the most well-known, popular and uncomfortable sneakers of all time.
Okay, here’s the disclaimer. Of course, not every retro sneaker design is uncomfortable. It almost doesn’t need to be said. There are some formidably comfy models out there from the last century. However, take a look again at the aforementioned designs that are considered least physically pleasing to wear – they’re some of the most popular casual shoes of all time. Just know that there are better picks out there, but they might not look as cool. Simply grin and bear the pain in those retros.
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