Men's Fashion

Boot camp

This winter, there’s a big shift towards men’s boots that combine sharp looks with ruggedness. Jonathan Futrell toughs it out with the best of them.

December 02 2010
Jonathan Futrell

There has never been a better year for men’s boots. From those classic cobblers who pride themselves on build quality and timeless style, to audacious designer brands, men’s boots are foursquare on terra firma this winter. There are slender, fur-lined ones at Berluti; stout, high-lacing brogues from the traditional English bootmakers of Northampton; boots with a dash of military chic; and others, edgier and outdoorsy, taking their fashion cues from mountaineering and biker wear. And then there are intriguing hybrids, such as those at Louis Vuitton, combining stout, manly footbeds with elaborate fabric ankle covers.

It is also the winter that will see that most handsome of all men’s boots – the understated, wear-anywhere chukka boot – finally achieve the status it deserves high in the echelons of essential men’s footwear.

There could be several reasons for this, including the “work” ethic of recessionary chic, but one of them is definitely the weather. “Because of last year’s bad winter, we are selling a lot of what we call chukka boots – three-eyelet ankle boots,” says John Rushton, owner of the eponymous shoe emporium in London’s Wimpole Street. Rushton’s signature line in chukkas, Alfred Sargent (£195 suede/ £215 leather), are made in that spiritual home of English footwear, Northampton.

In essence the chukka is a heavier, Goodyear-welted desert boot, commonly made from calfskin or suede, lined and fitted with a Dainite rubber sole – a design dating back over 80 years, with studs as opposed to a conventional tread. (Goodyear welt, named after the man who invented the machine used in the process, uses a welt, or inner sole, creating a cavity that is filled with a porous and breathable material, such as cork.)

Combining warmth and ruggedness, chukkas remain the most elegant boots a man can wear, and can be counted upon to precipitate compliments wherever they are worn. That other estimable Northampton firm Church’s, now within the Prada stable, calls its version of the chukka the Ryder (£285), while Ralph Lauren’s 2010 version (£320) is in fact a hybrid: a lean-profile classic upper with a crêpe sole.

“Once guys know they can wear a boot and still look smart they come back again and again,” enthuses Rushton. “Chukkas are weatherproof but they don’t have big, heavy, lugger soles. These are smooth on the edge and don’t look like rubber, plus they keep out water and are non-slip.”

Almost as ubiquitous this winter is the derby, a dandyesque, Edwardian boot with upwards of six eyelets, and typically finished with full wing-tip brogue (that’s a punch-holed “W” pattern on and around the toe): think country auctioneer or horse breeder meets Dorian Gray. Their drawback is having so many eyelets to thread through. They are, however, very good looking and the perfect solution to staying warm in a business suit, with none finer than Loake’s Litchfield and Bedale models (both £185), in dark roast brown, full- and part-brogue respectively. Or there’s Grenson’s Glen (£168), inspired by 19th-century Italian infantry wear, or Fred (£195), a young departure contrasting the brogue and eight eyelets with a striking white Microlite sole. All of these are also made by skilled hands in Northamptonshire.

Into this derby mix, and very much one for the fellow who can’t be bothered with laces, comes Kurt Geiger’s elegant Libertine (£220). This is a laceless derby with a strip of elastic at the front concealed behind a leather panel, available in a choice of finishes but at its dandiest in glossy patent leather.

Speaking of dandies, Berluti’s design team is normally dedicated to creating the most beautiful, and delicate, shoes on earth. But needs must, and for this winter Berluti has discreetly lined three of its boots with merino sheepskin. They are the slender, skintight Démesure (£1,450 zipped, £1,290 laced) and the Allodi ankle boot (£1,200). The heels are unlined to prevent them from inadvertently slipping off.

The sheer effort of getting in and out of derbies goes a long way to explaining the big shift this winter towards ankle boots that are meant to be worn undone. Instead of painstakingly lacing them right to the top, the cool technique – the method that sets the dudes apart from the dads – is to lace them just up to the ankle, then wrap the remaining laces around the boot a couple of times and knot.

Others are adopting a paramilitary look. Typically, Dunhill’s stout police boot (£250), in black and brown, is best laced up, trousers tucked inside. That’s not really the sort of look you’ll want for the office, no matter how deep the snow outside is. But it is in keeping with shearling and the military-style tailored winter coats at Burberry and elsewhere.

“Our boots should be worn with jeans/trousers tucked into slightly loosened boots,” confirms a spokesperson for Kurt Geiger, where the range of winter boots treads a precarious path between fashion and practicality. Several are fleece-lined, among them the seven-eyelet Tower (£140) and the Jackson (£250), taking its cue from traditional motorcycle boots.

Ralph Lauren’s improbably named Caruters 1950s-style biker boot (£865) is Goodyear-welted, knee-high and twin-buckled, with a reinforced toe strip for gear changing on the Ducati. Gucci also delves into bikerdom with a buckled boot with side zip (£625). More wearable for regular blokes, and sure to improve with a few scuff marks, is Gucci’s plain lace-up boot, in suede or leather (£620). Just as wearable are Tod’s lace-up ankle boots in suede or leather (£270). With just a hint of baseball boot about them, they incorporate the brand’s signature Gommino soles with 133 rubber “pebbles”, designed in the 1970s by Tod’s founder Diego Della Valle.

Sharpest, though, are Louis Vuitton’s commando-soled lace-up Egon boots in black or olive green (£660). The entire uppers, back as far as the heels and up to the lower shins, are forged from a single piece of leather. At the other end of the macho spectrum, the label has contrived delicate boots that are part shoe, part sock: a hybrid brogue with knitted ankle warmers attached (Discovery, from £580).

When winter really kicked in last year, I turned to my long-serving Brasher GTX Hillmasters (£125). I recently wore them to 11,000ft in California’s High Sierras, and they’ll be a feature at Fulham FC most Saturdays during the football season. Not long ago those clumpy, Gore-Tex-lined boots, with laces the size of liquorice straws and inch-thick soles, would have been frowned upon. Not now: major league fashion houses are falling over themselves to appear rugged, and what was once the province of the anorak/real-ale brigade is today a fixture of the iPhone/mojito set.

I don’t know how many people are going to step into the rough stuff in a pair of Dunhill alligator hiking boots at a cool £5,000, or Corneliani’s buffalo and shearling-lined ones (£820). A better bet is Dunhill’s leather or oiled wool version (£370), a timeless hiking boot with Vibram soles.

In some ways the Dunhills are modern interpretations of the Fracap hiking boot, itself something of a Holy Grail among fashion people. Until recently its Scarponcini (£179), made at a tiny factory at Lecce, in Italy, was only available in Japan, where they appreciate classic European design detail. In leather or suede with fire engine-red laces, the Fracap is the boot Noddy would have worn on Everest. No model looks better with plaid trews.

If all these fail to keep you warm this winter you’ve really only one choice left: Columbia’s Bugathermo electrically heated mountain boots (£230). These contain thermal elements that are good for up to three hours of toe-tingling warmth. Should they run out of power before you get home, they can be recharged using a USB plug and a laptop – which, by any reckoning, is a major step up from an extra pair of socks.