The 7 Most Controversial Sneakers of All Time: From Ridiculous to Riotous

There’s no denying that sneakers have become a massive part of pop culture, but they haven’t always been accepted with open arms. Many sneaker designs have stirred up controversy for using offensive imagery—and in some cases, even for the lack of design.

So what are the most controversial sneakers of all time? We’ve compiled a list of eight pairs that have sparked outrage by drawing attention to their crazy designs. From ridiculous to riotous, here are our picks for the top 7 most controversial sneakers ever released!

Nike Air Jordan 1 “Banned” (1985)

In 1985, Michael Jordan rocked the basketball world by sporting a new pair of sneakers – the Air Jordans. Little did anyone know, they would become a cultural phenomenon. As a result of violating the NBA’s uniform policy, Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan 1 was famously “banned.”

The Air Jordan 1’s “banned” status only added to its allure. For each game MJ wore them, he was fined $5,000, but Nike happily paid up for the added publicity. This partnership with Nike proved to be a game-changer for both parties, making MJ one of the most iconic brand ambassadors of all time. Even today, the Air Jordan brand is still one of Nike’s most popular and lucrative collaborations.

 A red and black high-top sneaker with the iconic "Air Jordan" logo on the ankle, worn by Michael Jordan and famously banned by the NBA in 1985.

Nike Air Bakin (1997)

The Nike Air Bakin, a shoe that has been on the market since the late 1990s and remains popular among some segments of society, came under fire from members of Muslim communities. The reason? On the backside of the shoes was a logo that looked like Arabic script, which seemed very similar to ‘Allah’ (God in Islam).

At first, Nike denied that it had purposely designed its logo to resemble Arabic script and tried to fix the problem by including extra patches in shoes to hide the logo. But even with these efforts at damage control, serious problems remained.

However, the controversy surrounding the Nike Air Bakin was so intense that it eventually forced Nike to stop selling them and remove countless sneakers from shops.

 A retro basketball shoe with a chunky black and silver design, featuring the Nike logo on the tongue and the side.
The back of the shoe features a black heel with a large Nike logo and a red stripe running down the center. The ankle collar is padded and black, with a white Nike Air logo on the back. The midsole is white with black and red accents, and the outsole is black with a red Nike logo.

Nike SB “Heineken” Dunk (2003)

The Nike SB “Heineken” Dunk was initially scheduled for release in 2003. Still, the colorway—with its green hue and red star by the heel that strongly resembles Heineken’s trademark—was dropped from production due to legal concerns. It has a bottle design similar to Heineken beer, leading some people to call it “Heineken,” even though this name is not official.

The problem was that Heineken had not approved the design, and they did not approve it for a reason we don’t know. Before the release of the SB Dunk, the dominant beer-brewing company sent Nike a cease-and-desist letter that caused Nike to remove the shoe from store shelves. But this helped make it even more popular among sneakerheads. The unofficial Heineken colorway soon became one of history’s most sought-after Dunk releases.

A green and red low-top sneaker with the Heineken beer logo on the heel and a white Nike swoosh on the side.

Air Methanol 10 (2006)

The Menthol 10, designed by graphic designer Ari Saal Forman from LA, hit the market in 2006. It was controversial for taking on two giants—Nike and Big Tobacco—with its simple design consisting of green and white silhouettes.

The shoes have the same outline as Air Force 1s but with colors inspired by Newport Tobacco Company branding. Plus, they also sport an almost identical logo to Nike’s swoosh! ARI’s customized lettering was printed on the soles of the shoes. The boxes, made to look like cigarette packs from Newport cigarettes, may have been Forman’s most impressive feat in designing these sneakers.

After Ari’s shoes hit the market, only 252 pairs were sold. But Nike sent him a cease-and-desist letter soon after—and not long after that, tobacco giant Newport Tobacco filed legal action against him for trademark infringement. After years of litigation, Forman had no choice but to stop selling the controversial sneakers altogether.

 A sleek and sporty grey and white shoe with black accents, designed for skateboarding and featuring Nike Air technology.

Adidas x Jeremy Scott “Shackled” (2012)

In 2012, Adidas released a line of sneakers designed in collaboration with Los Angeles-based designer Jeremy Scott, which many found offensive and racist.

The controversy surrounding these particular shackles isn’t just about the fact that they look like shackles. The word “shackle” has all kinds of connotations: slavery, racism, oppression, etc.; anything you can think of that’s not good.

Jeremy Scott, the designer of Adidas’ “Shackles” sneakers, said that a line of monster toys inspired its creation, which he played with as a child. However, once Adidas executives reviewed it and realized how controversial the imagery might be for their brand (given its association with slavery), they decided against releasing it.

A white high-top sneaker with orange and yellow accents, featuring a controversial design with orange plastic shackles attached to the ankle.

Adidas Yeezy Foam RNNR (2020)

The Yeezy Foamposite RNNR shoe looks like aliens designed it. It’s not a shoe, but it’s not a slipper, either. These sneakers have been criticized for looking weird and being uncomfortable to wear. Some people also say they’re ugly, but others argue they’re cool because they differ from traditional sneakers.

As time has passed, though, more and more people have become interested in foam RNNR. It has been launched in various colors, and resale values are only rising. The criticism over the silhouette will persist, but Kanye West (and his many supporters) have persevered with it anyway.

A slip-on shoe with a futuristic design, featuring a knitted upper and a unique sole made from foam.

Nike x Lil Nas X “Satan Shoes” (2021)

Lil Nas X has a lot of fans and a lot of haters. But the rapper’s most controversial sneaker collaboration was with cult label MSCHF, which made 666 customized Air Max 97 sneakers.

The limited-edition sneakers sold out within minutes of launch, but only some were impressed with the design. The tongue bore a small pentagram, and the sole contained an image from a biblical text and one drop of blood.

Nike did not authorize and has had no hand in the creation or marketing of the shoe—that’s why they forced MSCHF to buy back each pair that was sold.

A black and red low-top sneaker with satanic symbols and references on the sole, created in collaboration with musician Lil Nas X and containing a drop of human blood.

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alt text for the back side of nike air bakin
Alt text for the back side of Nike Air Bakin: The back of the shoe features a black heel with a large Nike logo and a red stripe running down the center. The ankle collar is padded and black, with a white Nike Air logo on the back. The midsole is white with black and red accents, and the outsole is black with a red Nike logo.

Bottom Line

In conclusion, the sneaker industry has been a hotbed of controversy for years. We’ve seen banned sneakers, sneaker releases that caused riots, and designers whose work offended the public.

However, whether people love or hate them, there’s no denying that these shoes have left their mark on history—and will continue to do so for years to come!

Check out the latest collaboration between Billie Eilish and Nike! Get a first look at the new Air Force 1 Low ‘White’ in official images now.

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