Much like the changing of the seasons, each passing month and year brings with it a technical rebirth and creative infusion in the realm of footwear. Over the years, shoe enthusiasts have been greeted around every turn with a slew of upgrades that not only look good, but have tried-and-true functionality that is rooted in countless hours of testing to ensure that the final product is nothing short of spectacular.

With the recent introduction of Cole Haan’s ZeroGrand brogue into the marketplace – a hybrid, stylish, and multipurpose choice of footwear that reconsiders mass, make and motion – we decided to look back on what put the “soul” in soles over the course of the last 100-plus years.

Converse Chuck Taylor

In 1908, the Converse Rubber Corporation opened for business in Malden, Massachusetts – producing galoshes and other work-related rubber shoes on a seasonal basis. The company eventually decided it was more efficient to keep their work force employed year round, and began making athletic shoes. By 1917, what we now know as the Converse All-Star was born – combining at the time a radical combination of rubber soles and a canvas upper. The high-top for basketball was born, and we haven’t looked back since.

Vibram Carrarmato

Italian rubber maker Vibram – aptly named by combining the first and last name of its founder Vitale Bramani – forever changed the shoe industry by inventing and presenting the first vulcanized rubber sole. An avid climber, his desire to create a better source of traction stemmed from a tragic accident in 1935 when several members of the Italian Alpine Club died in the Italian Alps – something Vitale heavily attributed to their choice of footwear. With the financial backing of Leopoldo Pirelli, Vitale created the Carrarmato which aimed to recreate the ingenuity and tread found in automobile tires. In 1955, the first successful ascent to the summit of K2 was made by an Italian expedition wearing Vibram rubber on their soles.

Nike Waffle

Looking to duplicate a track shoe’s spike traction but in rubber, legendary Oregon Ducks running coach Bill Bowerman turned to his wife’s waffle iron for a source of inspiration. The result was 1972’s “Moon Shoe” which Bowerman and future Nike chairman Phil Knight used to penetrate the running world with. When worn on the nimble feet of Oregon track star, Steve Prefontaine, the pairing was a match made in heaven.

Nike Air

In 1979, Nike introduced “air cushioning technology” that was embedded in small pouches of air for comfort within the midsoles of its running shoes. With each step, the unit compressed and then recovered to the original shape and volume, ready for the next impact. Nike produced the Nike Air Tailwind soon after months of research and development in a top-secret facility in Exeter, New Hampshire. In 1987, designer Tinker Hatfield pushed the envelope with Air technology and urged Nike to make the Air unit visible – culminating in the historic Air Max 1.

Nike Shox

Nike engineers began developing Shox technology in 1984 as an alternative to the increasingly popular Nike Air cushioning. Targeting runners with a neutral stride – one that neither over, nor underpronates, or rolls inward significantly after heelstrike – by the testing period of 1997-98, Nike had developed solid plates that sandwiched a set of highly resilient foam columns.

ASICS Gel

In the wake of the jogging boom of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, ASICS wanted to create footwear that helped the body’s own natural shock absorbers reduce the pain and blunt force trauma that can happen during every step of a run. In 1986, GEL was born. Aimed at both the novice and highly-trained runner, GEL was joined by other advancements by ASICS like FluidFit and FluidRide which made life that much better for those who liked to hit the road using nothing but two feet.

Reebok Energy Return System

Reebok debuted ERS, or Energy Return System, in 1987 to compete with Nike Air for the right to call themselves “kings of cushioning.” Figuring prominently in the Pump Line and products like The Pump, Pump Twilight Zone, and Pump Omni Zone basketball shoes, Paul Litchfield, Vice President of Advanced Concepts at Reebok said, “The intent originally was to create a platform of these independent tubes that, when you stepped on them, kind of squished together and as they squished together they kind of pressurized themselves because they were adjacent. Imagine these tubes all lined up underneath your foot with a certain spacing in between them, then when you stepped on them and as they squashed down, they pressed against each other and created their own spring effect. So, that’s where it started.”

adidas Torsion

Boasting a higher energy return than any other foam cushioning material in the running industry, 1988’s Torsion features a hermoplastic arch support designed to allow the forefoot and rearfoot to move independently and adapt to running surfaces without straining the foot through excess motion.

Reebok Hexalite

First introduced in 1990, the Reebok Hexalite presented shock-dissipating cushioning for athletics spanning tennis, running, and basketball and relied heavily on the honeycomb pattern which absorbed 23% as much energy as EVA or polyurethane compounds before it was created.

Reebok Instapump

Twenty years after its original release, the Instapump Fury OG is as sleek and modern as ever thanks to its iconic Pump technology and an architectural construction you won’t soon forget. Featuring Hexalite cushioning for comfort and performance and high abrasion rubber outsole for added durability, both the design and innovation ensured that consumers felt they were sporting the “wave of the future.”

Nike Lunarlon

Marathon runners typically take around 40,000 steps from start to finish. The challenge for Nike designers Kevin Hoffer and Eric Avar in 2008 was to find a shoe that could withstand such a pounding. Thus began the search for the right material, an ultra-lightweight foam that was both pillowy-soft and rubber-ball bouncy. After failing with countless materials, there came a breakthrough. Found way in the back of the Nike Advanced Material Interest Group’s closet, the team unearthed a space-age foam. In science terms, it was the fusion of lightweight Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) with the bouncy ball-like spring of Nitrile Rubber (NBR).

New Balance ABZORB

A blend of Dupont Engage Isoprene rubber and proprietary foam materials utilized in the midsoles of New Balance models, 2008’s ABZORB works by dispersing the forces out from the point of impact and reducing the shock that is transferred through the shoe and up into the leg and body. Aimed at both the serious and novice runner, ABZORB has the lightweight and comfort characteristics of EVA, but ultimately outperforms it.

Brooks’ BioMoGo

One of the major problems with sneaker production is that most midsoles are made from ethylene vinyl acetate – one of the least biodegradable shoe components – which can take up to 1000 years to disappear in a landfill. Debuting in 2009, Brook’s running shoes boasted a BioMoGo compound that encouraged anaerobic microbes to break down the Brooks-made midsole once the shoe is discarded. The result was a product that could lessen its tangible footprint on the environment 50 times faster than ethylene vinyl acetate.

Reebok ZigTech

Dubbed an “energy drink for your feet,” 2010’s ZigTech bottom unit features an innovative, lightweight foam that is engineered into a dramatic, geometric, zig-zag shape. This unique zig-shaped sole absorbs the impact of heel strike and sends a wave of energy along the length of the shoe to help propel the athlete forward with each step. “Traditional energy return is focused only on the vertical impact of the heel strike,” said Reebok’s Head of Advanced Innovation, Bill McInnis. “In contrast, ZigTech is designed to transfer energy horizontally along the zigs so the athlete gets that energy back in the forefoot.”

Nike SB Dunk soles for skaters

Featuring heel-lining pods for advanced fit to avoid slippage, internal forefront construction, a reengineered outsole, injected phylon midsole and sockliner cushioning, the Nike SB in 2011 was aimed at various skate enthusiasts who loved the look of the iconic Dunk.

Össur’s Flex-Run prosthetic blade – / The Flex-Run for Nike

When Nike and Össur collaborated on a breakthrough running sole for world record holder Sarah Reinertsen in 2012, it was unlike anything the public had seen before due in large part to the fact that they were working with prosthetics. The Nike Sole featured an integrated layered sole including an outsole, midsole and thermal plastic urethane called Aeroply, made of recycled Nike Air Bag units, serving as moderator between Nike Sole and the Össur Flex-Run’s carbon fiber blade. Nine nylon plastic tabs served as fingers that wrapped snugly around the Flex-Run carbon fiber blade for secure lock down and easy on-off. Additionally, a stretch rubber leash with tactile grip tab for easy placement over medallion fastener provides additional security.

Nike Herringbone Traction

While the Nike Zoom Kobe VII famously employed the herringbone pattern on the bottom of the shoes to provide increased traction – and a move championed by those who pined for it since the Zoom Kobe IV – it was specifically placed on the medial side of the outsole, providing extreme grip on the area basketball players needed it the most.

adidas Boost

With Boost, adidas brought a technique from automobile manufacturing to the world of sneakers where individual pea-size foam capsules were heat-steamed together into the sole and whose aim was to provide runners the greatest energy return of any product created prior to 2013. While EVA foam is used in nearly 95 percent of all running shoes, those at the Three Stripe worked with chemical manufacturer BASF to create a thermoplastic polyurethane foam that outperformed EVA.

Puma’s Mobium

When they entered the realm of “adaptive running” in 2013, Puma’s aim with the Mobium was for it to adapt to the wearer’s foot as he/she movies – expanding and contracting as the foot naturally does in stride. Inspired by the human body’s tendons, the Mobium moved longitudinally, laterally, and vertically – with the forefoot construction meant to mimic a cat’s paw with tech dubbed “expansion pods.”

ZeroGrand

No strangers to the artful and seamless blending of innovation and class, Cole Haan’s ZeroGrand Brogue reconsiders mass, make and motion – making it a choice of footwear diverse enough for putting your feet up in the boardroom or running to catch the train in them. At the heart of ZeroGrand is Grand.OS, an operating system of crafted innovation that delivers luxurious cushioning, flexibility and a remarkable reduction in weight. Recognizing that “the future is weightless,” and that muscle fatigue is the result of bulky shoes, at just 290 grams, the ZeroGrand rivals footwear normally reserved for long distance runners.

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

What To Read Next