Lists like this are never easy. Sneakers are a strangely emotive subject and, when it comes down to it, you’re never going to please everyone. But that’s not the aim here: this isn’t about consensus, it’s about celebrating serious wins for vegan-friendly footwear – about giving much-deserved props to the brands (and the teams installed at those brands) working hard to create something, in one way or another, more considered. It’s also about acknowledging that, sometimes, even what feels like progress can just be a happy accident – something that we should learn to appreciate on its own terms.
This list isn’t all applause: it’s also, I hope, an acknowledgement of the things that we – as consumers – and brands can and should be doing better. It’s also an acknowledgement that, in terms of pushing for forward movement in the footwear world, there’s more to moving the needle than just the finished product.
Still, more than anything, this is a list of five vegan-friendly sneakers which – in their own way – have each earned their place on a fairly small list. It might not look like your list, but I like to think you’ll find a way to agree with what it says about where we are and where we’re going. Enjoy.
NORDA 002 / SATISFY x HOKA CLIFTON
Okay – let the fun begin. First things first, let’s kick it off with a tie.
The norda 001 really set the initial tone for the brand and, in the long anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed 001, the 002 was an overall upgrade. This sneaker has distinct style elements (not an easy task), and it performs at an elite level. When put to the test, the 002 grips the trail like few others, and it’s so thoughtfully designed that it feels like the perfect extension of your running gait without any unnecessary embellishment – a refreshing approach. Every bit of its construction serves its purpose well, and by avoiding a desire to be overly stylish, it delivers on a calm confidence. This brand isn’t going anywhere – get on board while you can.
SATISFY x HOKA CLIFTON
First and foremost, have I bought into hype/trend that HOKA is actually cool? Not really. I think people dissed HOKA for a long time, and then when they saw enough people embrace them via the “normcore” wave, they sheepishly hopped onboard. To me, that’s not the way “cool” really works. Do I think the HOKA Clifton outperforms many of my other favorite running sneakers, however? Also not really, if I’m being honest.
But – this sneaker made my top five because of something I think is so important to the success and perception of whether a sneaker is really great: the launch campaign.
The HIGHS and LOWS rollout did what few other sneaker campaigns do these days – it made we want to buy the sneakers. It made me genuinely curious as to whether these are a must-have product. Vegans rarely see this type of creative consideration, and if vegan friendly product isn’t positioned as “cool” to the general public, we’ll never break through and compete for a bigger market share. But – regardless of whatever else I might think – this sneaker did that; it succeeded on so many marketing levels that I hope more brands take note on how important great designs and marketing can be.
Anyone who follows me personally knows I’m a fan of what McDowell’s has been doing. Originally, they made a name for themselves by creating their own vegan-friendly bootlegs of some of the best silhouettes of all time. In 2022, they beat Nike to the punch on the Mac Attack reissue and the reward for making eerily flawless vegan replicas was exactly what you’d expect – a cease and desist order from the Swoosh.
There’s a usual pattern that follows events like this – a chain of events that most bootleggers are familiar with wherein a brand pretty much disappears or goes on to make a really wack sneaker when they try to do their own thing. That, however, is not how this story goes.
Instead, McDowell’s came right back with its first design for their own sneaker – and it was excellent. The McDowell’s Pro Trainer maybe have been a quiet release on the mainstream sneaker front (although it showed up on @hartcopy, which tells you something!), but the brand ultimately outdid many expectations and the usual comment section naysayers.
In my opinion, this version of the McDowell’s Pro Trainer is the follow-up to the Tom Sachs Mars Yards we all deserved: a vegan-friendly, available-at-a-fair-price, all-purpose sneaker.
In 2022, many of us were somewhat disappointed with the official sequel to the Mars Yard when Sachs dropped the General Purpose Shoe, a non-vegan Killshot derivative. But, in that aftermath of that let-down, 2023 brought us the Pro Trainer – a sneaker that actually does evokes the beta version of Mars Yard 2.5, but which finds a way to freshen up the essence of that silhouette via amazing quality. And, most importantly, they’re animal free.
The McDowell’s Pro Trainer lands on my Top 5 because it punched far above its weight. It proved that an indie/upstart brand could make a fresh silhouette – something many big brands are struggling to do, even with considerably greater resources. I also think McDowell’s deserves some points for taking a cue from one of the best vegan-friendly releases of all time, the SPACE HIPPIE, utilizing a single package system – a shipping box that handily reverses, doubling as a display box – for the benefit of those still worried about vanity while the planet melts. : )
NIKE KOBE 6 PROTRO REVERSE GRINCH
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that many of the best vegan-friendly sneakers of all time are often “accidentally vegan.” So, with the return of “Kobe Day” in 2023, I was reminded that some of the greatness in the overall canon of vegan sneakers still lies in the archives, waiting to make its return.
Although this release was anticipated for a long time, in my opinion it met the moment and turned out to be one of the best of the whole year. It also did a good job of connecting with the classic sneakerhead community, helping to rekindle the energy around Kobe’s sneaker legacy after a period of uncertainty in which Nike stumbled to honor 8/24.
I’m not quick to add a re-release to a top five list, but there really was no way this sneaker – a grail for some – didn’t deserve a spot. And, although in recent years Nike has really overdone it with the retros, this one felt like it came back at exactly the right time.
It’s hard to ignore a classic like this – many of the best all-time vegan silhouettes land in this category of, great sneaker, great relevance, and accidentally (thankfully) vegan-friendly. Since the vegan community gets very few W’s, I’m really happy this one made its way back in 2023.
Undoubtedly, 2023 was a big year for New Balance within the zeitgeist and in terms of cultural relevance. But, of all of the collabs that NB launched, this joint effort with GANNI was the only one to acknowledge our ongoing impact on the planet.
As the sneaker community continued to pile onto the NB bandwagon, I knew I’d be sitting on the sidelines. Don’t get me wrong, NB has long possessed many sleeper silhouettes that hit in an understated way: in fact, I owe my early awareness of NB’s best catalog to a bunch of creative kids in Providence in the early 2010s and the NY hardcore music scene in the late 90s/early 2000s. Real sneaker (and hip hop) heads always knew what the brand had, so watching people trend-hop because Soho finally caught on felt a bit stale to me. Beyond that, New Balance always had very little to offer the vegan community and there’s seemingly little push to change.
The majority of what the brand is currently doing relies on so much animal product, constantly celebrating their use of suedes and leathers as “premium”. Few of the collabs really push beyond that formula, but this reborn 1906 finally met some valuable criteria: marking a significant shift, the GANNI release used 100% recycled polyester saddle, 100% recycled polyester vamp lining, 100% recycled polyester collar lining, 100% recycled polyester insert top cloth, and 100% recycled polyester laces.
IMHO it’s time for NB to evolve and, in this case, GANNI pushed their boundaries, setting a good example that separated this shoe from other redundant offerings that people salivated (and animals suffered) over. Props to GANNI for being willing to use this moment to do something different at New Balance.
NIKE ISPA LINK AXIS
Man… you can’t tell the ISPA team shit.
They are doing the most interesting work in sneakers (if you care about the evolution of the sneaker industry and whether it ever truly considers its environmental impact), and you can’t really touch their innovation and creativity with a ten-foot poll. It makes sense, then, that an ISPA sneaker would find itself at the #1 spot.
The ISPA LINK offering does something I’ve long lobbied for – ease of disassembly. For those who are unaware, disassembly is essential to the future of sneakers if there’s any hope of recyclability hitting a level of scale that even touches the sides. The LINK AXIS is not only courageous from a design standpoint, it’s also a new silhouette that gets high marks for its choice of materials.
The shoe itself is constructed from a Flyknit upper made of 100% recycled polyester, TPU cages that are made of 20% recycled materials, midsoles that are made of 100% recycled Nike airbag scraps, and EVA sock-liners that are crafted with 10% recycled materials. Pair this with the adhesive-free ability to be taken apart and you’re really only left with one question: “Who else is close on this?”
It’s not all praise, though. This sneaker does suffer from a lack of proper, Nike-caliber marketing. It has no Nike athlete/ambassador endorsement, and the brand is seemingly putting zero resources into celebrating this incredible achievement and other work of its kind. Sneaker writers/editors – present company aside – are also regularly found sitting on the sidelines rather than celebrating the innovation. What a shame.
This sneaker says a lot about what’s possible, what standards designers should be working towards, and – sadly – how brands and the community at large are not properly supporting or celebrating achievements of this magnitude.
Nobody ever loves my Top 5 list and that’s cool – the picks do not align with other “BEST OF” lists. I just hope the ISPA team stays motivated to keep “grinding,” because they really are doing the most exciting work. (By the way, does anyone know when we’ll see a SPACE HIPPIE follow-up?!)
Air Max 1
Okay, one more for fun.
This sneaker was supposed to be a hit. (It wasn’t.) Really a bit of a fumble in my opinion. But, if you’re vegan and you want to own one of the greatest silhouettes of all time, this refresh of the original ’86 Air Max 1, then you ought to be all over this one.
I honestly don’t care if the sneaker wasn’t a bonafide hit within the scene – getting a doubleheader of the original Red and the Obsidian Air Max 01 was magical. No bots, no jacked up prices – a timeless pair of Nikes that hit in the summer and fall, at a party or on the job.
Nike could’ve done better on these, the silhouette ended up feeling a little subpar. The storytelling also never really hit a stride. How do you have so much great history, and an existing launch platform (Air Max Day), and have this release fall flat? As Nike continues to “Reimagine” Jordan’s, it feels like this pair could’ve been elevated to that same status.
All told, we’ve definitely seen better Air Max rollouts than this one, but if you got your hands on these, you were most likely feeling like you got away with a big win.