Five years ago, collaborations in the sneaker industry were rare. Virgil Abloh’s Off-White x Nike “The Ten” was yet to be released, Travis Scott was an up-and-coming rapper and the adidas Yeezy empire was still laying its foundations. Fast forward to 2021 and partnerships between designers and big sports brands have taken over the game, with everyone from Supreme, Patta and Atlanta-born brand A Ma Maniére getting in on the action, partnering with sportswear heavyweights from Nike to New Balance. With some of the year’s most in-demand sneakers coming from unlikely partnerships – like the Patta x Nike Air Max 1 and the A Ma Maniére Jordan 3 – we’re taking a closer look at the collaborations that defined the industry in 2021. 

A silhouette that saw more collaborations than any other in 2021 was the legendary Nike Dunk. This retro hoops shoe became an instant must-have thanks to bespoke iterations from the likes of Supreme Off-White, UNDERCOVER and AMBUSH. Easily one of the most popular Dunk collabs of 2021 was Virgil Abloh’s Off-White x Nike Dunk “The 50”. Also known as the “Dear Summer” collection, this release from Off-White was made up of 50 Dunk Lows, each of which was detailed with a different coloured cable. All but two of the Dunks came in a grey and ivory hue, with the final pairs arriving in black and silver, and white and silver. Landing exclusively on Nike’s SNKRS app, access to “The 50” was given as a priority to active users, making it one of the first times Nike and Abloh have rewarded loyal fans.

Also giving Peter Moore’s 1985 silhouette an upgrade in 2021 was AMBUSH’s Yoon Ahn. Following on from the black-and-white colourway that dropped in 2020, 2021 saw the release of three more AMBUSH x Nike Dunk Highs. An easy-to-style Royal Blue colourway was followed by two brighter hues – the AMBUSH Flash Lime and the Lethal Pink. Each sneaker was perfectly detailed with a 3D Swoosh inspired by the tailpipes on Japanese motorbikes, while the rest of the branding on the shoe is kept a little more pared-back. 

With over 255 Nike Dunk colourways landing in 2021, the Swoosh brand wasn’t kidding when it said, “the Dunk will be the shoe of 2021”. However, not to be outshone, Jordan Brand also had some notable collabs this year. Both the Jordan 3 and Jordan 1 received high-end makeovers from the likes of A Ma Maniere and Travis Scott.

The Air Jordan 3 was one of the most unexpected hits of 2021. The A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 3 became an instant fan favourite thanks to its plush suede and leather upper, pared-back branding and versatile neutral colourway. This sleek AJ3 hinted that there’s much more to come for this underrated Jordan next year. AMM didn’t stop at the AJ3 and came through with yet another highly sought-after Jordan: the A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 1 High. With its suede upper complemented by a faux snakeskin Swoosh and Jordan Wings motif, this premium sneaker was dubbed one of the best Jordan 1s to land in 2021, and is definitely one for the history books. 

With Jordan Brand and Nike’s Dunk successfully fulfilling the world’s demand for basketball shoes, the Swoosh brand turned its attention to the archive. Marking the beginning of a huge resurgence for the iconic Nike Air Max 1, Nike and Patta teamed up in autumn to deliver three coveted colourways of the Patta x Nike AM1. First to land was the Patta x Nike Air Max Monarch. The wavy burnt-orange mudguard pops against the breathable mesh and ultra-smooth nubuck leather upper which sits on top of the Air-unit sole, still an industry-leader for comfort and stability. The Patta x Nike Air Max Noise Aqua landed not long after. This blue iteration was just as popular, with fans across the globe scrambling to get their hands on a pair. 

Patta then turned its attention to autumn-ready hues and leather craftsmanship, releasing the Patta x Nike Air Max 1 Maroon. Dressed in leather with silver-tone detailing, this sneaker offers a more premium aesthetic, and the patiently awaited black and white Patta x Nike Air Max 1 followed suit with the same fabrication. 

Our final and perhaps most unexpected contender for collaboration for the year is the Aimé Leon Dore x New Balance 550 Green Yellow. The New York-based fashion brand has taken the retro running shoe and elevated it to luxury status, making it set to become one of 2022’s most in-demand sneakers. This particular 550 sports a vintage aesthetic in a nod to the sneaker’s roots, with smooth leather panels and rich green and yellow hues. 

As 2021 comes to a close and we look back at the greatest collaborations of the year, we can’t quite resist looking into 2022 and wondering what will come next. The industry is already gearing up for a Jordan sneaker from Boston Celtics player Jayson Tatum, a Nike Hot Step Terra from Drake’s NOCTA and a New Balance 550 from sports agent Rich Paul. With general release colourways set to become the new hard-to-get styles, will collaborative sneakers take their place as common currency in the sneaker industry? One thing’s for sure, 2022 is set to be another surprising year for sneakers.