Most Controversial Sneakers Ever

The Top 9 Most Controversial Sneakers 

Not all sneakers become famous for good reasons. For every sneaker that’s been glamorized and thrust into the limelight for good, there are just as many sneakers that are popular because of the controversy that surrounds them. 

Maybe it’s the story behind the shoe or the design of the shoe itself…there are a lot of reasons a sneaker can be considered controversial. Today I want to run through a list of the most controversial sneakers ever, including how they drummed up so much controversy and infamy. 

Ari Menthol 10

The Ari Menthol 10 from 2006 is considered the most forbidden sneaker of all time. This legendary bootleg sneaker is famous for taking on two giants, Nike, and Big Tobacco. Designer Ari Saal Forman was fed up with the companies taking too much and giving too little, so he designed the Ari Menthol 10s as a sort of social experiment.

The design of the shoe itself uses both the colors and logos from the Newport Tobacco company. Being that the Newport logo looks almost like an upside-down Nike swoosh, this served as the perfect starting point for the sneaker. The silhouette of the sneaker is reminiscent of the Nike Air Force 1.  

The shoes were sold in a box modeled after the Newport cigarette carton. Only 252 pairs were made and sold in New York in June of 2007. Shortly after its release, Nike sent Ari a cease and desist letter, and then Newport got involved. After a lengthy legal battle, the Ari Menthol 10 was banned. 

Easy to see why this is one of the most controversial sneakers ever, right?

Nike Air Bakin (1997)

The Nike Air Bakin was a basketball shoe introduced by Nike in the late 1990’s. The shoe itself made its hardwood debut on the feet of NBA star Penny Hardaway. 

Right away, the sneaker started to receive backlash from the Muslim community: the logo on the back of the sneaker looked very similar to the Arabic text for ‘Allah.’ Nike attempted to rectify and fix the issue by shipping the shoes with patches to cover up the design, but the damage was already done. 

Instead, Nike was forced to pull thousands upon thousands of pairs of the Nike Air Bakin off of shelves. Since its initial launch and subsequent canceling in 1997, the Air Bakin has been brought back, without the infamous logo.

Nike SB ‘Heineken’ Dunk (2003)

Oh, to relive the glory days of the Nike SB Dunk. This ever-popular model received some significant backlash when Nike created what’s known as the Heineken Dunk. Sneakerheads fell in love with the design. The only problem? Heineken wasn’t on board at all. 

Instead of releasing alongside the rest of the Nike SB line, a cease and desist from Heneiken forced Nike to pull production, leaving sneakerheads wanting for more. This rare pair is now one of the more coveted Nike SB Dunks. 

Anytime a shoe this big ends in a cease and desist, it’s easy to call it one of the most controversial sneakers ever.

Air Jordan 1 ‘Banned’ (1985)

If there’s one story you already know, it will be this one. The Air Jordan 1 ‘Banned’ is exactly what it sounds like. Back in the golden era of the NBA, players were only allowed to wear shoes of a particular color. The black and red Air Jordan 1s did not quite fit with the NBA’s uniform restrictions, so for every game that MJ wore them, he was fined 5k. 

Of course, Nike footed the bill for him, and the ‘Banned’ Air Jordan 1 was born. Sometimes any publicity is good, such was the case for Nike with the Air Jordan 1 ‘Banned’. 

Adidas x Jeremy Scott 'Shackled'

All you need to do is look at the picture of the Adidas x Jeremy Scott 'Shackled’ shoe, and it’s easy to see why this shoe was/is one of the most controversial sneakers ever. . According to Scott, the shoe shackles were inspired by a children’s toy…but this message was lost on everyone. 

Adidas and Scott were accused of trying to glamorize and celebrate slavery, and thus the shoe was quickly taken off of shelves. Interestingly, I believe the shoe still made its way to retail without the shackle portion. I wore a shoe in high school that looked eerily similar to this pair after I found them at an Adidas Outlet store…I wonder! I had no idea the story behind it then. 

Air Force 1 Experimental ‘Postal Ghost’ (2021)

This one is weird, and while it’s considered one of the most controversial sneakers ever, it also has a happy ending! When Nike first announced the upcoming launch of the Air Force 1 Experimental ‘Postal Ghost,’ people immediately noticed the similarities to the iconic USPS Priority Mail box. In both colors and branding, the shoe seemed to be a copy-and-paste job from USPS. 

As such, USPS vowed to protect their IP and initially was greatly opposed to the sneaker. As it were, USPS decided to go back on their initial reactions to the shoes and instead ended up endorsing them. The shoes were officially released and are no longer held in controversy, but the story behind them serves as a reminder of how quickly a decision can turn your sneakers into one of the most controversial sneakers of all time. 

Nike x Lil Nas X ‘Satan Shoes’ (2021)

Back in early 2021, Nike sued Brooklyn-based MSCHF and rapper Lil Nas X for creating what was dubbed the ‘Satan Shoes.’ The two teamed up to put their spin on the Nike Air Max 97, including a demonic red and black theme. The air bubble of the Air Max 97 was filled with a red liquid, which according to MSCHF, also contained real human blood. 

Because Nike neither authorized nor had anything to do with the shoe's creation, alteration, marketing, or sale, Nike forced MSCHF to buy back each of the 666 pairs they sold. 

MSCHF also produced and sold a "Jesus" shoe in 2019 that the company said contained holy water from the Jordan River. 

Adidas YEEZY Foam RNNR

The adidas YEEZY Foam Runner doesn’t have the same controversial backstory that the other sneakers on this list have…it was the look of this shoe that had people talking about it.

The design of the YEEZY Foam Runner is extremely polarizing, and it took a while for people to warm up to them. But when they did, they took the shoe and ran with it. Now you’re lucky to get a pair of Foam Runners for anything close to retail. 

Each new colorway instantly sells out. While there isn’t some big story to go along with it, it’s the design of the YEEZY Foam Runner that plants it on this list of the most controversial sneakers ever. 

Nike Alphafly (2020) 

Nike’s fastest shoe ever wasn’t out for long before it was surrounded by controversy. The Nike Alphafly was worn by marathoner Eliud Kipchoge as he became the first man to run a sub-2-hour marathon back in October of 2019. Scientists claimed that the Nike Alphafly gave Kipchoge an unfair advantage. Some called it “technological doping.”

The Alphafly was one of Nike’s most innovative running shoes, featuring three carbon fiber plates and a midsole stack height well above 40 mm. However, just three months later, the World Athletics banned the shoe, stating that no running shoe can have more than one carbon fiber plate and that all midsoles must be under 40 mm. 

What do you think? Is Kipchoge’s marathon record legitimate? 

What are your thoughts?

That rounds out the list of the most controversial sneakers ever. Was there any shoe that you would have liked to see on here? Despite each of these sneakers being shrouded in controversy, I believe that the stories and designs behind them make them more valuable, not just controversial. 

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