arch Top 20 Kicks of 2021

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It’s been a while since I have attempted to do a top kicks of the year list. I’m saying kicks, because this list will be a combination of sneakers and boots. I took a break from it because I was so deeply involved in resale and writing books in 2019, and in 2020 I was trying to make up financially for 4 months of quarantine. I’ve been checking out the top sneakers lists on other sites, and they leave a lot to be desired. My lists are built on the following aspects from 2017 and 2018 M.A.P.P.S. and F.I.N.S. I will look at other sites, but my goal is to refrain from placing Air Jordan Retro products on the list because simply taking a model that gained prominence in the 80s and 90s and adding new materials, isn’t daring or innovative. The story may be compelling, but a Retro 1 is over 35 years old. This doesn’t mean everything here will avoid a retro vibe, but any sneaker site can say the Jordan 1 is dope.

I’m attempting to focus on sneakers made this year that weren’t created for another generation. There are one or two exceptions to this rule. If a shoe was created in the past, but it was never released in a bevy of colors already, that shoe can make the list. Shoes can be inspired by classic design, but putting an Air Force 1 or adidas Forum, feels a bit too easy. A sneaker like the Saucony Food Fight was a great release and sold through quickly, it has already been made and updated in a variety of styles. The Saucony Shadow or 6000 won’t be making an appearance (although a few years ago it was my number one release), and it will also stop the ASICS Gel Lyte from showing up here (so don’t look for a Ronnie Fieg on this list because they reissued a classic). This list will be unlike any other sneaker site but that’s to be expected, my personal sneaker go-to kicks are from Clarks, Converse, COMUNITYmade and Karhu (yep, a few of those make an appearance). I really like a lot of the work from brands that may not be as familiar. I hope you discover a few kicks you haven’t seen before and check out the brands on the list.

Why These Shoes Were Chosen

blankNOTE: When you see this logo, the shoe was made to be more sustainable than traditional releases. This doesn’t mean that it’s perfect for the environment, but it does show that a brand is being more thoughtful.

M.A.P.P.S.

Materials – Premium materials are important to me… very important.

Aesthetics – the way the shoe looks, colorway, cut… some of the shoes that could have made the list didn’t because I’m officially calling empty toebox/forefoot designs LAZY.

Price – Premium materials = a high price, but sometimes a company keeps it premium and cost effective and this will rank them higher.

Packaging – When a company follows through and delivers you a pair of shoes and the packaging is dope along with the shoe itself, it’s a win-win.

Storytelling – What was the creation process and why was the shoe developed? What’s the shoe’s story?

F.I.N.S

Functionality – While this doesn’t rate as high on my list as it should, I few of the shoes here were designed for use and in creating the shoe for use the design stood out.

Interesting Design Elements – Last year materials were really influential. That remains true this year, but I know one of these shoes the everyday person, and even sneaker culture may not have ever heard about before. The shoe has to make you double take.

Narrative – There aren’t many retro models on the list. The models that are retro have a dope narrative around them. As a matter of fact all of the shoes have a great story attached. Storytelling in footwear is becoming a lost art as brands are relying heavily on Instagram and imagery primarily to sell kicks. That’s not a good thing when an image is the only thing to drive interest.

Sales –  I sold over 6,000 pair this year (That’s as a one man buying, packing and shipping department). A couple of these shoes are here because they caught fire and stood out as something completely different from what is assumed to be a hyped model.

#20 Sia Vultr Kickflips Cork

Somewhere in America began as a brand copying more popular brands. It transitioned to a limited drop brand delivering a higher quality sneaker via some of the most compelling marketing on Instagram. The company works off of the tried and true model of supply and demand, but that doesn’t guarantee success. As one of two Black-owned companies on this list, SIA is a model for small business and should be studied for how they’ve been able to accomplish what Kickstarter does for countless brands starting up. The drops are ‘word of mouth’ and they only last a limited time. Go to the website now and there aren’t any products available. When they are gone, they are gone. I usually avoid listing shoes that aren’t attainable, but there are a few on this list. I placed them here because they don’t look like anything else, or they use materials other brands are utilizing, but there isn’t any risk for bigger brands to venture outside of the box with materials. For a smaller brand, taking risks with an almost all cork upper, is a bold move. While I don’t think anyone would skate this, the Vultr Kickflip doesn’t look like anything else dropped this year.

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#19 Veja V-10 Suede MultiColor Natural Babe

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Veja is a brand rooted in a better method of make, but they aren’t really considered popular until they create a collab of some sort. While there aren’t any Air Force 1s on this list, you can see the clear inspiration of 80s court shoes in the design. Why did I add a retro styled shoe similar to the AF1 instead of hyped AF1? Because this outsole: Amazonian rubber (31%), rice waste (22%) and recycled rubber (12%), and the upper combine to be both beautiful and better for the environment. While there are Nike Air Force 1s with Grind material, they are “up to” 20% recycled. This shoe has been designed from end to end with thoughtfulness. It’s just a fresh color too.

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#18 Filling Pieces Curb Era

This pair is sold out, but it’s not in resale anywhere. You won’t be able to pick it up anywhere and I regret that I didn’t pull the trigger, but in a year where the Nike Dunk has become a resale staple hitting numbers as high as 600 per pair for synthetic leather sneakers, The Curb Era is an alternative that is just plain dope. When placed side by side, the Dunk looks like what it is, an inexpensive heritage model from Nike that has been given a hyped status because of who is wearing it, not because of how it’s made. Possibly the only classic court style that could stand up is the NB 550, but then again, the materials there can’t compete either. FP has created a line named 683 that discusses how they are moving all of their styles to a more eco-conscious method of make, so the Curb Era is here for that reason as an acknowledgement of that decision.

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#17 Ecco Chunky (Multicolor/Toffee) – Women’s

The ECCO Chunky is a highly unlikely sneaker to make a top 20 shoes list. The brand isn’t as prominent as most sneaker brands, but for a company that manufacturers their own shoes, they are by default a lot more sustainable than other brands. When you add the development of their Dri-Tan innovation which uses less water for tanning leather, their eco-friendly approach to making kicks is an added bonus which could see the company, with the correct steps, become a serious player in the U.S. market with releases like the Chunky. The shoe has a Yeezy aesthetic with much better materials.

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#16 New Balance BB9000 Black emerald with atomic yellow

When this shoe was introduced, it got hardly any hype, which was surprising. I guess the collabs with Aime and Salehe on the 550 kind of pushed this lifestyle model to the side. I had an extremely difficult time not putting this shoe in the top 10. What New Balance did was to create a new silhouette in basketball lifestyle. It was a bold move since hoops sneakers aren’t selling very well in the U.S.(there is an exception here and it’s in the top 10) and to be honest their signature Kawhi basketball shoe is a dud if it’s a GR. This shoe though… should be the collab model for New Balance and it should be redesigned as a true hoops model. Basketball kicks are fairly boring now. They all tend to be made with mesh, or knit, with overlays for strength. There isn’t any old school design being carried over to capture some of the OG elements which inspired interest in kicks. New Balance has a model that should be taken and redesigned by a number of designers. This shoe feels like the future and like a classic at the same damn time.

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#15 Erem Xerocole™ Expedition Boot

blankThe boot is made for hiking. Nothing special about that right? It’s also made to be resoled. Biocircular is the name Erem created to explain the creation of their shoes. It’s literally a boot you can wear forever. This makes it very difficult for the company to scale, but it also means this is a brand attempting to limit the number of shoes produced. I’m sure in the future Erem will begin to add more SKUs, but if they don’t, if everyone owned a pair of Erem they’ve contributed to diminishing the need for annual releases focused on new instead of thoughtful design. This is a shoe built for functionality. Erem could be higher on this list, but although the shoe is beautiful, it’s not a groundbreaking design. It is a carbon neutral company and in a future where winters will be more like falls, and summers will be more like hell, we all should be lacing up more responsibly.

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#14 Brandblack Milspec White

While I do have a tendency to lean to functionality and sustainability in design, sometimes I just place a sneaker on a list because it’s dope. Brandblack is a brand that functions like a farm. They produce products that inspire other brands. The two man team helps to give Vibram a testing ground for their outsoles and the outcome is that other brands seem to benefit more than Brandblack. I own four pair. One I can’t wear because it’s too small and I need to sell or donate it, but the rest are straight up fashion staples I wear to flex and make people take a second look. In the intro I listed my go-to sneakers. I forgot to say Brandblack. This Milspec feels like a sneaker that Virgil (RIP) wanted to make, but didn’t get around to. It doesn’t look like anything else and with a Vibram Wraptech outsole, it probably doesn’t perform like anything else. The joint is also water resistant. If you think I’m lying about the Milspec, go find a picture of the Nike Blazer Jumbo and then come back and look at the Milspec.

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#13 Salomon arch Sneaker Videos

On first glance you would think this shoe is a waterproof hiker ready for an adventure. It’s not. It’s a limited collab and although I tend to avoid listing shoes that will be difficult to find, I keep coming back to the look of this shoe. In the middle of these sneaker boots, if this model had a better explanation of sustainable qualities, it would be higher. I think it’s made of recycled uniforms, but that’s a bit unclear. It doesn’t get my green leaf, but it definitely gets my #personalfavorite As much as I’d like to stop buying shoes, when I see the Milspec and this shoe, it puts me in my urban hiking bag and I want to rock these on a city excursion.

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#12 adidas Terrex Free Hiker Made to be Remade

blankCircular Economy is another buzzword by brands attempting to be on trend, but adidas has an entire line of kicks that can be ground and placed into the production of other footwear. The big issue is that they also use virgin materials when they recreate the shoe, but manufacturing at a mass scale is difficult to change in a small window. I’m realistic about change and if I’m still trying to learn, a billion dollar business with a ton of moving parts is going to obviously have a more difficult process, but adidas is doing the work. I’ll complain about another issue at the bottom of this list, so keep reading. adidas’ acquisition of Terrex has allowed the company to enter the difficult outdoor segment. This sneaker is pure street though. No one is rocking this Terrex off-road, but in this series of sneaker styled boots, it’s the second most eco-friendly option and that’s a good thing.

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#11 Reebok Cottweiler Zig 3D

I’m not choosing this because I was a huge fan of the video game Galaga, I’m choosing it because building a sneaker that doesn’t look like anything on the market is difficult. Building that shoe with premium materials and a price to match is almost sneakercide for a new brand. Clearweather’s sneakers should be more highly regarded. Sizing is always an issue with the brand, but they have a great return policy and once a year they mark down some of their dopest releases to invite people who just discovered the brand to check them out. This shoe reminds me of Nike’s heyday win they rolled out cross instruction sneakers and ACG models like the Mowabb with a similar color palette, but the comparison ends there. The Contera is an eye catching pair and when compared with other shoes on this list, it stands out for both materials and design.

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#10 COMUNITYmade Traction 2.0 Brick

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This sneaker began in my top 20 but moved into the top 10. It’s made with a 85% recycled midsole. That’s an extraordinary number. The shoe is also made once you order. It’s not shipped from China or Vietnam, it’s made in Downtown Los Angeles. The shoe is handcrafted and if you decide to customize it, that can be done as well. When you consider the distance and power it takes to build sneakers in another country and then import them to the U.S., you probably don’t think about how much carbon is generated. COMUNITYmade is a #personalfavorite of mine and I own several pair which stay in the rotation. I don’t have the Traction 2.0 yet… but an all white with grey suede is definitely on my menu. It moved up for one reason major reason, functionality. While it isn’t listed as a performance option, this is the brands move towards making performance sneakers. They have a few pair being tested for skate and they’ve added a lot of Vibram outsoles. If they venture into performance and gain enough traction to decrease the price a bit, this brand will scale.

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#9 Clarks Tor Run 

blankI had to choose between this shoe, the Tor Match and The 8th Street Sandford. Although I have the Sandford, the only reason I didn’t grab the Tor Run is because the shoe simply wasn’t available in the color I wanted which is below. It’s also sold out in my size in most of the colors available. It wasn’t hyped. There wasn’t a cosign, but this joint is one of the nicest shoes to release this year. Put it next to any Air Max and it rivals the look. This shoe isn’t as sustainable as other sneakers on this list that have my green leaf, but the outsole, Forest Stewardship Council ®-certified natural rubber crepe, is the most eco-friendly outsole to ever drop from Clarks. You’ll notice a similarity between the models kicking off the top 10. They share a similar classic running aesthetic. It’s one of my favorite design elements especially when it features a premium build. This shoe would have been higher, but there is one flaw with the outsole. When you wear these a lot, the bottom gets dark and can be seen on the edges of the shoe which decreases the look a bit… but overall, the upper of this shoe is just gorgeous.

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#8 Nike Zoom Alphafly Next Nature

blankThe most sustainable sneaker made by Nike is also the most technical running shoe they’ve developed. When Kipchoge began wearing the Next Series of trainers during Breaking2, everyone knew Nike was elevating running shoes to a new level. This year Nike runners in the Olympics wore the Alphafly for everything from distance to sprinting events while breaking records across the board. Nike, like adidas, is entering the Metaverse and will begin producing NFTs. I don’t think that is where they need to be, especially since they have been really ramping up their You must be footwear. Most of the shoes in the You must be manufacturing line up are only at about 20% of recycled material. That isn’t a lot when you speak to sustainability experts. The Next Nature rings up at 50% which is considerable for a technical wonder of a running shoe.

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#7 Under Armour HOVR Summit FT

We have two pair of these in the house. My wife and I have owned them since they first released in 2020. They arrived in a ridiculously limited drop from UA and to Friends and Family. The shoe finally got a broader release this year and most people wouldn’t expect it, but the shoe sold through in 6 different colors. There are only broken sizes remaining in a few of the less bold colors. This model is in no way a quiet and subtle option. It’s a straight up Killer Bee combination that would have had my money, but the size 13s were gone on the first day and I missed the drop. HOVR FT is one of the bounciest, cushioned rides you can find. My wife has a salmon pair and hers came with the zip-off collar which makes the shoe look like something an urban ninja would wear. It’s easily the best shoe Under Armour has ever made.

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#6 Reebok Cottweiler Zig 3D Storm Hydro

blankadidas kept Reebok under its thumb, but this didn’t prevent the company from developing some of the most sustainable sneakers in the entire industry. They made the Cotton + Corn and the Reebok Grow. The collab from Cottweiler was featured on a number of sites, because it landed in the hype category, but what was overlooked were its technical details: Floatride, natural materials, speed lacing system and a shelter shield protects the laces. Like the Ecco Chunky, the shoe gives off considerable Yeezy vibes, but it takes the chunky aesthetic up a notch with more complex materials. This shoe is on the list because I compared it closely to the Yeezy Boost 700 and when I wanted to add Yeezy to the list, the materials and concepts fell flat. As experimental as Yeezy shoes seem to be, when really compared to other brands, they are overpriced. Click through on the link and then ask yourself seriously, 240 for the 700 Boost, or 180 for the Cottweiler which is waterproof and made with more natural materials?

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#5 The North Face VECTIV Taraval Street

When The North Face announced it was getting into the running business, I said ‘huh’? When TNF said that the shoe would be an ultra-running model, it made sense. I had a chance to view the wear testing videos when they were launching the shoe. There were videos on the homepage of the site and it was one of the best looking introductions to new tech this year. Vectiv is the cushioning system which is built as a rocker meant to propel you forward. TNF also implemented a 3D TPU plate for stability. Trail running is a taxing sport. The distances are long and the terrain causes the foot to shift in every direction. While I wouldn’t expect many people to be interested in an ultra-running trail shoe, you’ll find this version a bit more people friendly with suede overlays; it’s beautifully crafted. I’ve said this once before on this list, the designer of this shoe was undoubtedly inspired by the ACG Mowabb. Nike dropped that shoe again this year and it should be on this list, but by my own rules I had to leave it off. I guess the Vectiv and Contera are both my way of paying homage to what I think was one of the best retro releases of the year. Don’t get me wrong, this shoe stands on its own, and when paired with TNF apparel, it’s fly asf.

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#4 Allbirds x adidas Futurecraft.FootSneaker Impact Sorts Out an Important, Meaningful Challenge

blankWhile I think adidas sold out their fantastic progress in sustainability by launching an NFT featuring 30,000 minted pieces, I can’t really complain about this model or the Made to be Remade Terrex on this list. I wanted to not include either model because the NFT’s equal a gas powered car driving 15,000,000 miles and the carbon dioxide is prohibitive, so why does adidas show up twice? This shoe can be recycled at the end of its life. adidas actually partnered with another sneaker brand, which is unheard of unless the brand is subdivision like the Dame and Shaqnosis, to develop a performance running shoe that has only a 2.94kg carbon footprint. While it still contains microplastics, it’s an admirable attempt and a clean sneaker made in a thoughtful manner. I still hate their thoughtless immersion into the metaverse, but no one can deny that adidas is advancing the method of make for sneakers.

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#3 Nike Air Zoom GT Cut

It’s not made sustainably. It’s not a Jordan. I have to be honest, the moment I held this shoe I said Nike designed this for Kobe. I haven’t wanted to hoop again more than when the GT Cut came into the shop. From the moment this shoe dropped it was one of the biggest shoes in resale and while many people are completely unaware that it released, when you begin looking at the technical aspects of the shoe, you understand why it ended up here. The Zoom Air Strobel which showed up first in a KD model, arrives here. It also has a Kobe like drop in React cushioning midsole. The heel is then given a bit more cushion with a Zoom Air heel unit. I’m sure someone is reading this and saying how is this the #3 sneaker in 2021? I really do feel that the model belongs to Kobe. On the lateral side are dots similar to Kobe code and the molding on the side creates lines that hint at a carbon fiber midsole. Maybe it’s my hope that Vanessa will work out an arrangement with Nike and the Kobe line will return and this model will become Ja Morant’s signature sneaker. But take a look up and down this list and you won’t find better lines on a single sneaker on this list. This shoe looks like speed. How can I put it in the top 5? This is the model where Nike recaptured the spirit of the late 00s when Nike Basketball was killing it. We were getting packs that included Kobe, KD and LeBron. Basketball shoes were still a part of sneaker culture. That time has passed, but this shoe felt like a moment and with a Gold medal, it’s a part of sports history at a time when the world is catching up with USA basketball… The GT Cut is a quiet understated moment from a brand that hasn’t really been innovative in hoops in a while. I also think it’s a last hooray as USA basketball probably won’t win gold the next go around.

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#2 Off White x Air Jordan 2 Retro Low

I know, I know, I said I wouldn’t put a retro on the list, but… Virgil. Is this a sentimental pick? Yes. Is it based on a bit of hype? Of course. Is it rooted in a shoe I love that most people really don’t like at all? Definitely. If you take a moment to look at my videos on this site, you’ll see in the background a lot of Jordans on the wall of my office. Those pictures were taken by my daughter a couple of years ago when she was 11 years old. We took my Jordans and visited different areas around the city and she would drop the kicks and take pictures. One of those shoes is my Air Jordan 2 Retro QF 2010. For years while I was working on my own brands, I couldn’t wear other sneakers. I was trying to build something. I finally broke down and bought a shoe that I’ve always admired since I saw a friend be the only person in school with them. The Air Jordan 2 looked like a luxury vehicle when it first arrived. Only the dope boys could afford them. I was an adidas head, but I always wanted the Jordan 2, hell I wanted all Jordans, but the way our family finances worked, we ate fried bologna sandwhiches… In 2010 while I was working on my basketball shoe for my brand arch, I got the QF version. I didn’t get to wear them much. When my son hit 13 years old his foot also hit size 13. I gave him all of the shoes that I had collected, but couldn’t wear. One of those was the 2010 QF. He destroyed that sneaker. Come to think of it, he destroyed some heat, lol. My daughter took a picture of that Jordan 2, and it hangs on my wall. That’s what sneaker culture is about, the stories. While no one ever really had a shot at getting the Virgil Retro 2 Low, I respected that he chose that model to put his spin on. I respect it even more now that Virgil is an ancestor. Is this kind of a copout? Not really… I didn’t make it number one, because this story doesn’t hold up against the number one shoe in 2021 for arch. Keep reading.  RIP Virgil Abloh

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# 1 Saysh One/Saysh Track Spike

One of the greatest athletes in the history of track and field, gets pregnant with her first child. Her sponsor and the brand she’s repped for years, cuts her funding because she’s pregnant. That same brand is later found to sponsor a track and field program that ended the careers of women sprinters and abused those same women. The world gives Nike a pass and celebrates every drop making Nike the biggest sportswear brand in the world. The athlete leaves Nike behind. She has to get a C-section to deliver her baby girl. She begins to train again. A Gap Brand, Athleta, steps in to sponsor and endorse this athlete who could be on the road to becoming the most decorated track and field athlete of all time, but she has to fight back as one of the oldest athletes in the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. She fights her way back and makes it to the Olympics. At 35 she wins a Bronze in the 400m individual. She then runs second leg in the 4x400m and wins gold. The amazing thing is, she accomplishes all of this as the first athlete to ever medal wearing their own shoes. Find another story like this in sneakers and challenge me on this. Allyson Felix won “11 medals which leaves her as the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history, and with more athletics medals than any other American,” and she did it in a brand she developed.

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