The Only 10 Sneakers You Need to Build a Genuinely Great Collection

Drew Hammell
·8 min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

From Esquire

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Over the past 25 years, sneaker collecting has transformed from a niche hobby to a worldwide phenomenon. Growing up, most kids had two or three pairs of sneakers. Today, kids and adults alike fill their closets with them. It’s a trend that transcends generations and backgrounds. People who could have cared less about Air Jordans five years ago are now stockpiling them because it’s fun—and more than a little bit addictive. Once you have one pair, you need another. And another. (And another.) The problem is, we don’t all have spare closets—and bedrooms, and guest bedrooms—to fill with every single colorway of every Jordan ever. Nor, it goes without saying, do we all have the income to do it. Luckily, as it turns out, you don’t actually need every colorway of the Jordan IV.

The key to sneaker collecting is focusing on what you truly love, finding some sort of balance between everyday kicks and ones you'll bust out on special occasions, and then passing on everything else. And sure, that's easier said than done. There are thousands of new releases each year, making it relatively easy to spot, if not to cop, something that'll pique your interest on a near-weekly basis. But if you stick to a few handy general guidelines, you’ll be able to temper your worst inclinations the next time you want to pick up those Off-White x Air Rubber Dunks you'll never, ever wear.

There are 10 basic categories I tend to rely on to keep my buying habits in check. I haven’t narrowed my collection down to 10 sneakers just yet, though I’ve definitely thinned the herd significantly over the past 6 months (it sits at around 75 at the moment, but it was at over 200 at one point). My main rule now is that if I acquire a new pair, another one’s gotta go.

So whether you’re 14 and just starting out or you’re 40 and need to trim down the collection, here are the 10 sneaker categories I recommend referencing to build a solid collection that'll always keep you looking fresh and, most importantly, stand the test of time.

Photo credit: Courtesy - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Courtesy - Hearst Owned

There were plenty of popular sneakers before the Air Jordan 1 dropped in 1985 for a mere $65, but none that changed the game quite like these. Michael Jordan made them famous because of who he was on and off the basketball court, and, naturally, we all wanted to wear whatever Mike was wearing. Incredibly, 35 years later, the Air Jordan 1 is still wildly popular—in part because of the legend surrounding it, bust mostly because it looks great with just about everything. And Air Jordan 1s are the most versatile Jordan sneakers of the whole lot—you can rock them with jeans, chinos, cargos, shorts, jorts, joggers, a suit, or, hell, any other pant option you can think of. I prefer the OG colorways, but they don’t come cheap. And FYI: If you're considering copping a pair, go for the highs, not the mids.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The pandemic effectively shut down gyms around the world this year, forcing tons of people to go back to the basics. Stepping outside for a run became a lifeline for anyone looking to get their steps in the old fashioned way. Running has plenty of benefits—it's great exercise and allows you to really explore your neighborhood, all while competing with friends via various apps. Plus, it's gloriously free, and the only thing you really need to do it is a solid pair of running shoes. There are plenty of great options out there—from HOKA, Brooks, New Balance, and more— but I'm partial to Nike, and have recently enjoyed running in the brand's groundbreaking AlphaFly Next% model. Cushioning has come a long way over the years, and I love the extra push you get from the carbon fiber plates.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The great thing about OG tech runners is that most of them have stood the test of time in terms of aesthetics, and to this day will still pair well with any of your favorite pants. As far as performance goes, however, most OG tech runner models are completely obsolete and sometimes flat-out dangerous to run longer distances in. These are models that broke the mold in terms of the technology running sneakers offered the athletes of their time, and the initial designs have since become bona fide classics. My favorites include...well, basically any Air Max model you can get your hands on.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

If you're looking for a runner that's slightly less bold, but has been highly-regarded for decades, it's nice to have an OG OG running shoe in your repertoire. Something that isn't as attention-grabbing as an Air Max 97. Something slightly more understated. Enter the New Balance 993, Asics GEL-Lyte 3, and Nike Tailwinds of the world. The OG OG runner should basically pair well with your entire wardrobe—from your workout shorts to your not-so skinny jeans, to what used to be your go-to office chinos.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

If you're not in the mood to wear your OG OG running shoe, there are many other options that are just as classic, like the Stan Smith or the Samba. These iconic silhouettes go with everything, and they're socially acceptable at basically any occasion. Designer sneakers don't really do it for me, but one option for those with bigger budgets is the Golden Goose Superstar. The Italian brand takes inspiration from a lot of the sneaker silhouettes mentioned here, and then renders them in the type of luxe materials—intentionally scuffed up beforehand, of course—typically reserved for the fanciest of hard bottoms.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Simply put, there is no substitute for the Chuck Taylor—it's an absolute essential in any person's rotation. You can't go with the standard low-top version in white and black, or the Chuck 70, a slightly retro take on the original silhouette. Whichever way you go, just know that Chucks typically run big, so make sure to go a half size down at least. Or slip an orthotic in there. (And maybe buy some thicker socks.)

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Sneaker technology continues to improve by leaps and bounds every year, so if you're still hooping in a retro Jordan or even a shoe that's four or five years old, it's probably time to upgrade. Luckily, there's a ton of options out there—from the new Air Jordan 35 to the New Balance OMN1S. Because if you still ball once in a while, you’ll need a shoe that will ensure you don't snap your achilles mid-game (and trust me, I've come very close).

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

One of the primary reasons sneaker collecting has become an obsession for grown men who should know better is the fact that Nike (and others) have retro’d so many classics over the years. So if you can, by all means go after the sneakers you always wanted as a kid but could never afford. But beware: This can lead down a dangerous path. Once you track down one grail, you have to grab another. What I'd recommend is writing down a list of your absolute must-have styles, and then start by going after your favorites first. For a kid that grew up in the '90s, that usually means a shoe like the Air Jordan XI or the Foamposite Royal. For '80s kids, it’s the Air Jordan 3 or 4. For '00s kids, it’s a LeBron. And so on.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

It's nice to have at least one hypebeast-y sneaker in the rotation. Just one, though—not 50. Examples include every Nike model designed by Virgil Abloh, the Tom Sachs Mars Yard, or anything Kanye's been photographed wearing. In other words, a sneaker you genuinely appreciate and want to break out once in a while to show off. And since you'll only have one, it's OK to pay over retail for them. You can try the SNKRS route for a particularly hot release, but, let's face it, your odds of actually scoring are slim to none. If there's really a shoe you've always loved, pay the extra money on a site like StockX or GOAT. Because sometimes it's fun to get everyone's attention with a little flex.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

It goes without saying that this year, we've all taken to enjoying the great outdoors just a bit more than usual. Whether you're hiking upstate or going for a run off the beaten path, it's always good to have a solid trail runner or sneaker boot in the rotation. The great thing about trail runners is that they're also usually water resistant and versatile enough to wear in the city on rainy or snowy days, which means there really has never been a better time to invest in a version of the style. Now we just need Nike and Adidas to bring back more of those sweet, sweet trail-ready silhouettes from the '90s. Sneakerheads, unite!

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