There isn't a creative endeavor in this world that's immune to the tendencies for controversy. Art, music, and fashion—all creative expressions are inherently prone to becoming offensive or crossing a line. Sneakers aren't any different.
Sometimes, it's because the shoes are designed to make a statement that not everyone agrees with. But most times, it's just an arbitrary matter—a simple choice of color or a name that happens to be disagreeable to a group of people. But regardless of the reason, controversial sneakers show that the culture is capable of extending outside the realm of collectors and creators and into public consciousness—just sometimes, for the wrong reasons.
Here are just a few times that a pair of shoes rubbed some people the wrong way and caused a stir.
1) Air Jordan 1 "Banned"
The most well-known sneaker controversy is perhaps the one surrounding the first-ever Air Jordan. The legend goes that Michael Jordan wore his first signature shoes to an NBA game in 1984. They were then banned for violating the NBA's uniformity regulations in 1985, whereupon MJ decided to defy that ban by continuing to wear them and pay $5,000 (about P231,000) for every game that he did.
This act of rebellion and non-conformity would then be used to successfully advertise Air Jordans. Although this story has been challenged several times by credible authorities in sneaker culture, nothing can take away from the impact that the alleged ban and defiance had on the way we consume sneakers today.
2) Nike SB Dunk Low "Black & Tan"
Nike SB likes to pay tribute to alcohol. They've done Dunks inspired by Tecate, Heineken, Miller High Life, and Guinness. One such tribute to dark lager wasn't received quite as well, though. The Dunk SB "Black and Tan" seemed like a pretty solid colorway on paper, but when Nike decided to call it that, the British were up in arms, as the term also refers to a paramilitary group that committed cruel war crimes throughout the Irish War of Independence. The term "Black and Tan" is still a pejorative term in the UK, so Nike was forced to apologize for the name and never call the colorway such again.
3) Puma Speedcat Low "UAE"
Back in 2011, Puma decided to celebrate the United Arab Emirates' 40th anniversary by releasing two colorways of the Speedcat Low in the colors of the country's flag. It seemed harmless enough: red, green, white, and black Pumas are pretty dope when done right. But the shoes were eventually pulled off of the shelves after receiving backlash from Emirati nationals, who believed that it was disrespectful to place their flag's colors on something worn on the feet. The lesson: Try to consult with whomever you're trying to pay tribute to, especially if you're dealing with a different culture.
4) Nike Air Bakin
By all accounts, the Air Bakin is a pretty solid shoe from 1997. It was part of Nike's effort to create sneakers for outdoor basketball, and it managed to do so in style. But despite that, controversy came a-knocking due to the fiery "Air" insignia on the heel, which apparently resembled the Arabic spelling of Allah. Needless to say, Muslim groups did not take kindly to it. Thankfully, Nike still reissued the Air Bakin, but with a traditional "Nike Air" insignia instead.
5) Nike SB Dunk Low Pro "Pigeon"
When you consider everything that happened after Jeff Staple released the Dunk SB "Pigeon" back in 2005, "Hot shoe sparks ruckus" is putting it lightly. Staple, who owns the boutique Reed Space, recalls seeing baseball bats, knives, and machetes being brandished on the day of the release of the Pigeon Dunks, which were inspired by New York City. When word started getting around about how coveted they were, more people started lining up to score a pair while thugs gathered in the vicinity, waiting to mug some off of unlucky customers. The riot was picked up by the local news, word began to spread, and soon the Pigeon release came to signify the power of hype and a good sneaker release.
6) Jeremy Scott x adidas Originals Roundhouse Mid
It doesn't take much to explain why this shoe became controversial. Fashion designer Jeremy Scott has always been one for loud, outlandish statement sneakers, but this one crossed a line. It may not have been intentional, but the shackles on the shoe tend to reference slavery, which is not an easy topic to discuss in terms of fashion and shoes—plain and simple. Perhaps the only really baffling part of this is why it took so long for Jeremy Scott to be called out on his designs.
7) Umbro Zyklon
We wouldn't blame you if you were surprised to find out that people actually got worked up over an Umbro sneaker. But to be clear, it's because they picked what is perhaps the most unfortunate sneaker name in the history of sneaker names: the Zyklon, which is also the name of a lethal gas used by the Nazis to execute Jews. They might have thought it was an edgy way to pronounce cyclone (which, to be fair, is also how the gas got its name), so they could have never expected the backlash that followed.
8) adizero Primeknit
These days, knit sneakers are everywhere. Despite proving that the technology works and is actually a great way to design shoes, you can't help but feel that the novelty has dissipated. But back in 2012, when the tech was still fresh and everyone was abuzz about Flyknit and Primeknit, the battle was heated to prove who did it first. Nike filed for an injunction against adidas, on the grounds that Primeknit tech is a rip-off of Flyknit tech.
The ruling however, was that the injunction could not be sustained—so adidas was allowed to continue producing Primeknit shoes. What that reveals about who did it first is unclear, but perhaps we should be thankful for adidas' win, because it brought us the knitted Ultra Boosts and NMDs we love today.
9) Air Jordan 12 Rising Sun
On the surface, they're just a pair of crispy white Air Jordans. But this colorway was originally released with an insole that referenced the flag of imperial Japan, which, for good reason, didn't bode well with retailers in China and Korea. Jordan Brand had to recall the model before shipping it off to the offended countries with new insoles (which, to be honest, made the original insoles that much more collectible).
10) Air Jordan 5 "Fire Red"
One of the greatest and most controversial issues that continues to plague sneaker culture today is that of violence. Most especially in America, people are still beat and shot for their expensive or covetable sneakers—riots and altercations are still widespread. But the issue is hardly new. Back in 1990, it first came to the fore when Sports Illustrated dropped a cover featuring Air Jordan 5s being stolen at gunpoint. It came with a corresponding 4,000-word story, aptly entitled "Senseless," about the killings, beatings, and riots surrounding sneakers and sports memorabilia.
In it, writer Rick Telander tells the story of Michael Eugene Thomas—a 15-year-old who was strangled and robbed of his Jordans in 1989. Telander brought the story to Michael Jordan himself, who, in the article, began to contemplate the effects of his fame and his signature shoe. It was a wake-up call that brought attention to the negative effects of hyped-up sneakers and the kind of rabid consumerism that they inspire.