Highsnobiety

The Highsnobiety Crowns are an annual awards series celebrating the very best in streetwear and street culture over the past 12 months. See the full list of this year’s winners here.

The most talked-about shoe of 2018 is perhaps best defined by what it is not.

It wasn’t an ironic chunky fashion sneaker like the Balenciaga Triple S, which set the tone for bulbous designs to become mainstream, building on the foundation laid by Raf Simons and adidas’ new-generation Ozweego. Most major fashion brands have doubled down on chunky footwear, with shoes such as the Dior B22, Gucci Rhyton, and YEEZY 700 making the trend feel all too predictable and desperate.

It wasn’t a dad shoe like the New Balance 990 or the Nike Monarch (or even Skechers), which have been adopted and celebrated by the fashion crowd. Regardless of what people wear, the term “dad shoe” was irritatingly ubiquitous in 2018, lazily thrown around without warrant by people who didn’t and don’t really understand sneaker culture.

It wasn’t a collaboration with a celebrity or musician, like those from the neverending list of non-athlete sneaker partnerships. These have ranged from creative collaborations in a truer sense, like Tyler, the Creator’s with Converse, to brand ambassador campaigns such as Ariana Grande’s for Reebok. Too often, these headline-grabbing collabs reduced sneakers to artist merch.

Nike’s React Element 87 cut through the noise and refocused our attention, putting innovation back at the heart of sneaker development.

The model made a huge impact thanks to its slim, technical silhouette based on pure research and development. No matter how many original designs a brand can churn out, all will without exception take decades to accrue the same value — sentimental or otherwise — as something as steeped in history as an Air Force 1, Stan Smith, or Chuck Taylor.

But with absolutely zero nostalgia to fall back on save for elements inspired by the old-school Internationalist, the React Element 87’s design looked to the future yet was never so conceptual or avant-garde that it became unrelatable or even unwearable. While adidas’ Futurecraft program with Carbon also deserves a nod for its breakthrough 4D soles, the accompanying price point made those shoes less accessible than Nike’s kick.

Named after francium, the 87th and one of the most explosive elements in the periodic table, the React Element 87 touched upon two of the year’s overarching sneaker trends.

Describing it as a deconstructed hiking shoe wouldn’t be far off the mark. On the upper, the lace stay is merely pinned in place, as if by a seamstress, while zigzag contrast stitching on the heel rounds out an almost unfinished look. The React sole unit, meanwhile, was Nike’s flagship innovation of 2018, featuring pressure-mapped cutouts that make the shoe instantly recognizable.

While ticking boxes both innovation-wise and in terms of aesthetics, the translucent upper made the React Element 87 a street style hit when it dropped in Europe during Paris Fashion Week in June. The shoe’s built-in customizability via the option to showcase your socks meant that, with the right sock combo, you could flex the 87 with almost any outfit.

The result was that people got more creative with their on-foot looks than Nike probably ever expected. You could argue that it had been done before, not least when Virgil Abloh dropped his Converse Chuck Taylor in May, but perhaps this was the first time it came off as something more than a gimmick.

Despite the tech, the React Element 87 is still fairly straightforward. None of the individual details distract or detract from the overall design. It’s a sneaker that elicits an almost emotional response, making it difficult to pinpoint the shoe’s exact allure.

The initial buzz started in March when four collaborative versions made their debut on the UNDERCOVER runway — on the feet of Sadie Sink, no less, aka Max from Stranger Things. These popping colorways created a near-instant social media firestorm, with industry insiders and sneakerheads eagerly circulating the first images.

The first in-line colorways to land were the sail and anthracite versions, which hit shelves in Europe a few weeks before dropping in the US, leaving American sneakerheads on tenterhooks, stacking demand for the shoe even higher.

Adding to the shoe’s relevance, in late November the React Element 87 served as the foundation for the first design in a new Nike chapter, ISPA, which stands for Improvise, Scavenge, Protect, and Adapt. The special product line is spearheaded by the function-led Nike React LW WR Mid ISPA, which according to Nike is intended for urban dwellers who commute “three to five miles a day.” Nike also dropped the similar but less flashy React Element 55.

With its street-level relevance and undeniable technical appeal, not to mention the fact the shoe didn’t pander to the current era’s most tired sneaker trends, the React Element 87 is well deserving of this year’s Highsnobiety Crowns Sneaker of the Year award. Thanks to the strong foundation laid in 2018, expectations are now high for how the game-changing React Element 87 will continue into 2019.

Vancouver-born, Berlin-based writer, photographer and editor with a steady hand on the keyboard.

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