Chonk Upon a Time: A History of Ugly Sneakers

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If there is one footwear force of nature that is as strong as it is unknowable, it’s the ugly sneaker. From Seinfeld-esque dad shoes to lug-soled trail runners, from throwback skate styles to the downright terrifying, bulbous footwear has pushed the boundaries of good taste in a myriad of forms. And today, fashion’s obsession with sneaker maximalism has swiftly gone from a wonderfully weird emerging trend to a powerful luxury sales driver to what seems like a new (and chunky) normal.

Yet long before it blazed its path down Parisian runways, the plus-sized stomper spent decades throwing kickflips in Middle American parking lots. Despite these humble beginnings, the story of the ugly sneaker is hardly a linear path. While most sneakerheads will cite the garish skateboarding styles of the mid ’90s and early ’00s as the true ancestors of the current chunky sneaker phenomenon, throughout the 1990s, club kid styles and functional shoes for unfashionable dads certainly played their part in influencing some of the most hardcore-looking designs by the world’s leading luxury brands today.

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Recognized as the OG chunky skate shoe, the Etnies Natas 1 took direct inspiration from Ellesse’s basketball sneaker, The Assist. This ’80s model was worn by its namesake West Coast skater and Etnies pro rider Natas Kaupas during the 1989 film Streets on Fire as well as on the cover of Transworld skate magazine.

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Much like Etnies, Airwalk looked to the basketball sneaker for inspiration with the Prototype, a repurposed take on the Air Jordan and Nike Dunk silhouettes of the time. The design, which was famously worn by Mike Vallely in his part in Public Domain, featured elongated sidewalls and plenty of plastic and rubber adornments to create an extra bulky shape.

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While the United States was arguably the birthplace of the chunky sneaker phenomenon, it didn’t take long for other regions to adopt their own interpretations throughout the ’90s. Japanese label Northwave answered the call with the Espresso, a cult sneaker inspired by snowboard boots from the ’80s. The shoe has been a favorite on the streets of Harajuku for years and was even featured in Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Sneaker Tokyo Vol. 2.

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When it comes to comically chunky sneakers, Buffalo’s non-conformist platforms can’t go unmentioned. Taking their cues from the platform silhouettes found in club kid uniforms, their cultural legacy spans from Spice Girls in the ’90s through to present day it-girls like Gigi Hadid and Billie Eilish.

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The éS footwear archive boasts a number of bold sneaker designs including the Eric Koston 1 and Eclipse, but it’s the Scheme that has become the blueprint for skate shoes worn on and off the board. High-fashion designs such as the Louis Vuitton Zig Zag and Lanvin Curb owe a huge debt to this style.

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Listed as one of Jenkem’s seven “most terrifying skate shoes,” this Globe model is a classic example of skate shoes that pushed the boundaries of gaudiness at the turn of the century. Chet Thomas once said he would skate until he couldn’t walk, which must explain why the shoe is stacked with so many protective elements.

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While Osiris did not invent the ugly skate shoe, the California-based brand perfected it. D3 designer Brian Reid’s 2001 iteration of the shoe for skater Dave Mayhew is the epitome of the Limp Bizkit generation and could be found on the feet of food court drug dealers and buried beneath JNCO jeans throughout the early aughts.

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Beyond the realm of skateboarding, the ’00s marked the entrance of the chunky shoe into the mainstream, with the emergence of upsized training sneakers aimed at the no-frills older consumer. According to legend, Nike carried out its research on the Monarch at theme parks where they interviewed American males on desired features of comfort. No wonder we now know this category as the “dad shoe.”

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Regarded as the forefather of the ugly fashion sneaker, the “Dunk” was debuted to the world at Owens’s “Dustulator” runway show in 2006. Forerunner to the Geobasket, the Dunk was intended to be a “monster truck for your feet.” Rumor has it that he didn’t even like sneakers, but they now have come to be one of his most highly sold items.⁣

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Since 1994, DC has contributed some of the chunkiest designs to the ugly skate shoe canon. The list is almost too long to pick just one, and everyone has their favorites (Dime recently remixed the DC Legacy in 2017). But the Versaflex tops the list as the brand’s most unapologetically bulbous design.

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While the chunky shoe lay dormant in the decidedly more minimal era of the late 2000s and early 2010s, Raf Simons’s re-imagination of adidas’ 1990s Ozweego brought the silhouette back with a vengeance. The shoe is regarded as one of the most influential sneakers of the era, one that helped inspire an onslaught of maximalist styles. In August 2017, stylist Taylor Okata cited it specifically as a progenitor of the chunky shoe revival in an interview with Highsnobiety. “For me, [chunky sneakers] started with the adidas by Raf Simons Ozweego 1 in 2013,” he said. “I knew it would become a larger trend when I saw the evolution of the collaboration. Soles got chunkier, details were more graphic, and color combinations got brighter.”

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Demna Gvasalia’s Spring/Summer runway show for Balenciaga’s menswear collection changed the course of sneaker history when the designer sent Parisian fathers and kids down the runway in his clunky turbo trainers. The success of the shoe, which famously came with its sizing written on the toe, saw rip-offs from just about every other prominent fashion house as well as mass market retailers and beyond.

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Kanye West is never shy in deviating from the norm when it comes to sneaker design, and his adidas Yeezy Boost 700 Wave Runner is a testament to this. While the sneaker initially caused confusion for Yeezy heads, it was largely responsible for bringing the dad shoe trend mainstream and spawning the return of dad styles like the Nike Air Monarch, the Fila Disruptor, and the Gucci Apollo.

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Inspired by ’90s skate and rave culture, A$AP Rocky and Under Armour teamed up with the footwear designer and former pro skater Dave Mayhew to bring Rocky’s design to life, resurrecting the iconic D3 from mosh pits and creating a shoe coveted by celebrities and teenagers alike.

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Just when you thought the ugly shoe trend couldn’t get any uglier, Maison Margiela released a shockingly melted take on their Fusion silhouette that looked as if it were falling apart at the seams. The outlandish style, priced at a cool $1,655, featured crude finishes such as a chipped and scuffed outsole, large smears of glue on the midsole and upper, and even a duct-tape detail on the lateral side.

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While Eytys became known for its signature chunky Angel sneaker, the Swedish label took platform sneakers to a whole new level with its Halo style. The release’s otherworldly proportions undoubtedly paid homage to the aforementioned Buffalo boots of the ’90s.

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Miuccia Prada has been sending bulky footwear down the runway for years, but none of her designs have been more boisterous than the Cloudbust. In a big year for chunky luxury kicks, which saw the likes of Givenchy’s Jaws and Gucci’s Flashtreks, none quite achieved the effect of looking like the uniform for a Lego-themed rave like the Cloudbust did.

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First unveiled at Paris Men’s Fashion Week this January, Lanvin’s Curb is proof that the chunky sneaker has come full circle. The shoe channels a very obvious ’00s-inspired design, described by Highsnobiety editors as a “high-end reinterpretation of mid-’00s skate shoes, more specifically the Osiris D3.” Although the trend may be at its peak, Lanvin’s Curb is a gleaming example of how the ugly sneaker phenomenon remains as divisive as ever.