Men's Fashion

Having a ball

The sports shoe is where the male of the species can best express their joie de vivre, says Mark C O’Flaherty.

March 24 2011
Mark C O’Flaherty

The rise and rise of the luxury sports shoe – an item designed without a single moment’s physical exertion in mind – continues to be one of the most seductive aspects of modern men’s fashion. From the rarefied Parisian houses of Hermès and Louis Vuitton to the rock’n’roll edge of Rick Owens and Comme des Garçons and the expert tailoring of Zegna, the glam sneaker is an integral part of every international collection, and an ever more desirable part of the sophisticated male wardrobe. You might have all the smart black shoes you could ever need, but you’ve always got room for a new pair of trainers.

Sitting in his south London studio, surrounded by sketches and mood-boards for his autumn/winter 2011 show, Todd Lynn – famed for his work with U2 and his edgy leather and fur-infused garments – is looking at pictures, e-mailed from Christian Louboutin, of the men’s leather lace-up trainer boot (or indeed “high top”) that will accompany his new collection on the catwalk. It’s black, with a sturdy, prominent tongue and a chunky buckle on the rear.

This will be Lynn’s third menswear collaboration with Louboutin. “It’s a back-and-forth conversation,” says Lynn of the design process. “I start by showing them drawings of the clothes, the fabrics, colours and concept finishing. We’ve been trying to encapsulate the idea of a boot, something that’s less trainer-like and something that lives in the realm of casual life as well as dressing up.”

Sitting on Lynn’s desk is a Louboutin-emblazoned box with a pair of dark-grey Spacer boots (£745) from the current spring collection. Cut high on the calf, they are remarkable for their straps and buckles, suggesting sci-fi paramilitary, and for the sumptuous nature of the suede and construction. “They’re very luxe,” says Lynn, turning the boot over to reveal the iconic red-flashed, Louboutin-logoed sole. “If you’re going to work with a shoe brand, who else is there? Christian is the best.”

The collaborations with Lynn sell exclusively at Christian Louboutin’s London stores but there is also an expanding range of Louboutin men’s trainers, from a simple, immaculate, black seven-hole-high ankle boot – the Louis (£445) – to a black suede trainer with silver mirror-ball-style embellishment (£1,795) that sell in selected Louboutin stores worldwide, as well as online in the US.

Sitting in his Paris office on a weekday afternoon, Louboutin wears his own-brand black trainers (£635), adorned with silver spikes reminiscent of punk leather jackets from the 1970s or Prince’s trench coat circa Purple Rain in the 1980s. “These are actually inspired by the spikes underneath a runner’s shoe, but I’ve put them on top,” he says. For spring/summer 2011, there is also a colourful check (£395), “inspired by the jerseys that the rugby player Gareth Thomas used to wear when he was in Toulouse”.

Design flourishes aside, Louboutin’s shoes have, as you’d expect, a flawless integrity of their construction. “You might not notice the quality of what we do initially,” he says, “but it’s in the details. For instance, when we cut the dyed leather, we colour the exposed horizontal seam to match. The sports brands wouldn’t do that.”

For many men, it’s the reassurance of quality that sees them turn to their favourite designers for off-duty footwear, rather than the high-street sports stores. “It’s a huge growth market,” says Neil Steptoe, head of men’s buying at Kurt Geiger and responsible for the stock in the Liberty men’s shoe department, which, alongside the likes of Barneys New York, the new Sneaker Space at Dover Street Market in London and Oki-Ni online, sources the best new lines.

“The customer wants the casual feel of a trainer but from a luxury brand. Lanvin, Dior Homme, Margiela and McQueen stand out for design and materials. Dries Van Noten’s sneakers fit with a sophisticated look perfectly. Zegna and Ferragamo also have elegant offerings. And high tops have seen a resurgence, with Lanvin really pushing the look.”

Lanvin’s range, which includes a mid-high, gold-sheen sneaker with a python body and python-covered Velcro ankle tab (£805), is big on textile and colour. “Texture is extremely important: when it’s interesting, it makes you want to touch it, so it becomes intimate,” says Lanvin’s head of menswear design Lucas Ossendrijver. “And the sneaker is an easy accessory to make your wardrobe less formal and more personal.” Lanvin even has silver cuff links (£165) in the shape of its high-top trainers for spring.

The high-top, basketball-style boot has been reworked repeatedly in high fashion circles over the past few years. This season, Louis Vuitton has the crisp white Tao Sneaker Boot (£475) in white calf-leather suede. Rick Owens first produced his graphic, cartoonish boots in 2004 and for this spring’s Anthem collection there’s a chunky, military-style, all-black version (£600): simple, muscular and very wearable.

“I always hated athletic shoes for being too conformist,” says Owens. “But in LA I liked how gangs used them to anchor oversized T-shirts and shorts in an almost minimalist, kabuki way. And I needed something more stylised myself – I go to the gym every day and I don’t like changing clothes. I’ve worn nothing else since I introduced them into my collection. I think the basketball shoe is the contemporary corsage – a confection as fanciful as a woman’s hat in the 1940s, or a man’s pocket handkerchief, camouflaged to appear functional.”

Maison Martin Margiela has included a sports shoe in its 22 footwear collection since 1999, and introduced the now perennial high top (£364) in 2006. Like all its clothes, there is virtually no branding on the boot; it is distinguished by prominent laces, lashed and bound across the top of the tongue. Margiela also produces several retro-classic trainers; replicas of a “found” military exercise shoe from Austria in the 1970s. A version with rough painterly marks on it (£320) is the epitome of the Margiela artisanal style, while the unpainted one (£236) is simple and chic.

For the man unaccustomed to wearing sports shoes for anything other than jogging or squash, it’s those simple and chic lines that are most appealing. Just as wearing Abercrombie & Fitch logoed items over the age of 25 is risible, so a garish shoe is difficult to carry off if you favour a smart, minimalist, monochrome wardrobe.

Instead, head to Hermès, for its single-tone Tie Break shoe (£485), with the brand’s “H” discreetly incorporated into the leather trim, or to Etro, which also uses its first initial as the main design element for its tan and olive reworking of the classic, prosaic, flat-soled sneaker (£270), as well as a more ornate paisley-print version (from £270). Similarly simple is Comme des Garçons’ collaboration with Converse (£90), with eye and heart emblem, and Calvin Klein Collection’s new-season, soft-grey hybrid of smart casual shoe and running shoe, with a clear injected rear sole (£200).

The shoe/trainer crossover has been developing for several seasons. Much of Prada’s output blurs the boundary and Ermenegildo Zegna’s Hamptons Line laced sneaker (£295), coloured navy or brown, in a sophisticated grained calf leather, has an upper front half that’s very close to formal footwear.

This season’s Y-3 range includes an actual shoe (£290) and a desert boot (£310), incorporating sporty cues from the rest of the range – a narrow, bright orange stripe in the heel, and black perforated leather panels. Y-3 has, under the design auspices of creative director Yohji Yamamoto, been a runaway success – the distinctive three stripes are a common, yet irreverently reworked, visual denominator, and its all-black football-style Field Classics (from £170), introduced in the first Y-3 collection in 2001, has become a modern classic.

The style is sporty but still has the austere, intellectual Yamamoto design pedigree. “I’ve felt for a long time that there should be ‘sportswear’ for my kind of people,” says Yamamoto. “I’ve done this job for 28 years; now I feel like I’ve done everything. With Y-3 I said to myself, ‘Yohji, you must have fun.’”

One of the most influential casual footwear brands in the luxury market today is undoubtedly Common Projects, which has also been edging into the “real shoe” market. The brand launched in 2004 with two uniquely stark styles – the Achilles Low and basketball-style Achilles Mid (from about £260), each in white, black or grey. Both were boldly utilitarian, marked unobtrusively with the size and colour code in discreet modernist lettering on the side.

“We wanted to create shoes for the summer for ourselves,” says co-founder and designer Prathan Peter Poopat. “We weren’t into labels, so Dior Homme wasn’t for us, but we still admired quality.” The result is versatile footwear – a black pair could pass muster where there’s a “no trainers” dress code and you could, at a pinch, take them to the hotel gym if you packed in a rush. The handmade-in-Italy quality is also among the best on the market.

For this spring, Common Projects collaborated with the New York designer Maria Cornejo, fêted for her stark, elegant and architectural designs under the moniker of Zero + Maria Cornejo. For her nascent menswear line in 2010, Common Projects produced clean-lined, graphic, two-tone, laceless slip-ons ($380). They are serious and sophisticated, but fiercely modern – hence perfectly in tune with Cornejo’s design philosophy and her target customer.

“I like to think that a lawyer or an architect can wear these shoes with his suit to the office,” says Cornejo. “They’re supposed to be a part of the everyday wardrobe.” They’d certainly be a functional addition to any collection of trainers. And there are men, of course, who have amassed quite a collection.

One of the reasons many men can count 20 or 30 pairs of trainers in their wardrobe while having just five or six pairs of shoes is that the sports shoe has more scope for difference and design joie de vivre. It’s absolutely fine to own a pair of jaunty red trainers, even if they’ll only make infrequent forays out of their box; but a pair of wild, bright red shoes? Not so much.

As Louboutin says, “A lot of men, myself included, buy trainers by instinct. They just can’t resist them and they don’t have to be in any way ‘useful’. I’m trying to inspire the same feeling with my men’s trainers that women have when they try on my skyscraper high heels. They should be thrilling.”

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