Men's Fashion

One stylish step for man

Subtle good looks are in the details this season as designers add discreet, distinctive and thoroughly contemporary nuances to classic Oxfords and loafers. Tom Stubbs reports.

June 14 2011
Tom Stubbs

“The more efficient a force is, the more silent and the more subtle it is.” So said Mahatma Gandhi, and while he only ever wore sandals, his wisdom can be applied this season to the gentleman’s shoe collection. Ostentation has never looked less palatable in men’s style than over the past few years – and footwear is now one of the main outlets for discreet but demonstrable style, with shoe enthusiasts making statements in a stealth-style fashion. For today’s most interesting and fashionable shoes are all about nuance.

The Italians are doing it with shine and colour. At Prada the finest shoes of the season are a simple interpretation of the penny loafer (£395). Stretched and streamlined, they’re made from high-shine, or Spazzalato, leather, a gloss level down from full patent. They can function in the day and with denim, as well as at dressy occasions. The chocolate or cordovan colours are super chic, but in navy blue they are brilliantly idiosyncratic. All are stunning yet not overly showy. Undercover colour play is also in operation at Ferragamo. Its inky blue-black dress shoes (£329) are trimmed at the seams, tongue and heel with artful touches of grosgrain. They appear conservative, but are in fact witty and again blur day/night boundaries.

Marc Hare describes his eponymous brand of footwear as “black shoes”, as in “of the night”. In its fourth season, Mr Hare has claimed a distinct stance. Collections called Hot Steppers and this season’s Ain’t No App For That!! comprise styles named after inspirational figures, from authors and musicians to fictional characters. “It’s all about my heroes,” says Hare. “You read a book and go on a journey through it. You buy a pair of shoes and go on a journey through life wearing them.” Millers (£405) are a handsome, slim Oxford style with an elongated patent cap. Genets (£430) are dainty loafers that sport a “bouquet” of six vachetta tassels, set at an outward angle for added verve. Indeed, Mr Hare shoes have attitude: classic gent’s shoes with a considered edge.

Londoner Hare’s immersion in subculture has shaped his styles, and creativity is channelled through a meld of English and Italian production. While designing the forms, Hare works closely with a traditional last maker in Northampton. He then instructs a factory in Empoli, near Florence, also used by Gucci and Ferragamo. So far, his shoes have had an Italian feel – elegant and with thinner soles than typical British fare. His Onyx dress shoe (£435) has an impudent swell to its angular toe, and features pyramid-shape raised details. The last it comes from is called The Joplin, inspired by Jay Joplin, owner of London’s White Cube galleries, and in particular Joplin’s Mason’s Yard space, the first freestanding new-build in St James’s for 30 years. “To build a thoroughly modern Cubist building, I thought, was quite brilliant,” says Hare, “so I wanted to do the same thing with a shoe. I set out to make a style that looked like it could have originated in Jermyn Street, but more traditional shoemakers would never have felt free to adapt their shapes this way.” Onyx is indicative of Mr Hare’s mix; challenging convention but remaining utterly wearable.

The best designers are merging different elements while demonstrating flair tempered with taste. This month sees Jimmy Choo’s first proper foray into menswear (after a brief dalliance in 2002). Founder and chief creative officer Tamara Mellon states that she’s designing shoes that would appeal equally to artists and investment bankers. “The aesthetic is a modern British look fused with luxurious and lightweight Italian craftsmanship: Mod with a hint of 1960s Mayfair playboy.” The evening slippers may be outlandish attention-grabbers in Bengal Tiger pony skin or Porno Paisley print, but classic styles such as the Draycott Oxford lace-ups in black Spazzalato (£495) or burnished oxblood calf (£695), hit the nuanced trend neatly with its “framed” toecap seam – two edges are cut raw and stitched over a leather base forming a framed gap that articulates the toecap. There are a number of distressed shoes in the collection too. The Mayfair Derby style (from £395) and Monk boot interpretations (from £495) come in oil/grime-tarnished suede as well as conventional leather. The shoes are worth investigating by those who favour manly style with subtle eccentric expressions.

Oxfords – the style defined by two parallel pieces of eyeleted leather that meet a perpendicular seam – are having something of a moment, and designers are achieving their strongest results with this toecap style. Hermès, for example, has utilised concealed stitching for its matte-finished Dean Oxfords (£550), which have a patina developed in Paris: peaty, mottled tones deep in the leather, darker towards the toe. Louis Vuitton’s Oxford comes in three different materials for the cap, the vamp (middle) and the quarter (rear), such as shined calf, creased Taiga house leather, and patent (from £535). Vuitton addresses other classic shoes with similar creative vigour, adding antique-looking adornments such as punched fleur de lys and dainty buckle straps to dignified lace-ups (from £605).

The best French shoemaking has a languid elegance to it. JM Weston’s shapes typify this, their lines swooping to rounded points. Peaked shapes in the seamed construction are like calligraphic flourishes in leather, such as on the Aston Oxfords (£555), and the Monk shoes (£565) and Buckle Derbys (£529) in the Flore line. The house burgundy is a pinky/purple hue, and although other colours can be made to order, this is the most pleasing. Now joining the noble line-up is a range called Claridge, featuring an Oxford (£545) with a slightly snubbed snout compared to other Westons – perhaps its rendering of the London look.

The old-school Brits themselves are gently subverting tradition. GJ Cleverley is a bespoke institution. George Glasgow worked with Cleverley for 20 years and took over the business when he died. Traditions are upheld but adapted. The house shape has a slightly rounded chisel, or “suspiciously square”, toe, and is surprisingly graceful. This was the only shape Cleverley would make, but flexibility has now arrived. “Ten or 15 years ago we were only making classic English shoes,” explains Glasgow. “That was our order book. Now men are demanding more: different styles, different materials. Cleverley only reluctantly made the odd loafer, but it’s a changing world. Now the book is split 50:50 between smart and casual: more slip-ons, more exotic materials. We also get many requests for combination shoes. Take the Spectator, the old Duke of Windsor shoe in black and white. Now people want it in brown calf and brown alligator, or maybe black alligator. The British are more subdued compared to US or Japanese customers, but across the board men are experimenting, particularly in mixing colour.”

The full bespoke experience costs from £2,500, with a four- to six-month turnaround. “The two things you’ve got to spend your money on in life,” continues Glasgow, “are your bed and your shoes, as if you’re not in one, you’re in the other.”

Not to be outdone on an exoticism or a choice level, Gucci’s made-to-order service (from £1,470) offers customers, in a turnaround time of four to six months, all manner of materials, including ostrich claw and betis calf in myriad colours. Where some of its ready-to-wear lines have embraced Gucci motifs such as equestrian webbing, snaffle bits and bamboo, this range is more mature.

Equally, Berluti, the eminent French bespoke shoemaker that has also found much success in ready to wear, has addressed its order options. Its talent for creating unique patinas and colours is now applied to RTW shoes upon request. This “customisation” service offers customers a host of options. It also costs less than full bespoke (30 per cent more than RTW) and orders arrive in around six weeks, as opposed to six months. It’s proving popular. The distinct, slim, pointed Andy design (from £890), a collaboration by Andy Warhol and Olga Berluti, has entered the echelon of all-time stylish loafers. Now a new realm of colour and fabric options are available. Meanwhile, a Triptych of versions of the noble Pierre toecap Oxford was recently presented to demonstrate the subtle expressions achievable within this classic format, using chocolate Venezia leather and suede in combination (£940). “With the Pierre Triptych,” explains Berluti, “I wanted to offer gentlemen a shoe for every time of the day: one pair that could be worn on all occasions, another elegant pair in bi-material, and a third more formal pair.” Are men experimenting more? “The dandy of today is flexible, with a playful attitude to the world, fashion and different eras. The purity and simplicity of the Pierre line would suit a modern-day dandy looking for simple, timeless elegance. The shoes will be brought to life when he wears them.”

Whether your ethos leans to dandy or to Gandhi, in the domain of shoes at least, the spirit of self-expression and freedom is alive and kicking – even if it does tiptoe under the radar on occasion.

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