Traditionally, when a man wore a brogue, a cap-toe or an Oxford, it signified that he meant business. You put on your suit, laced up your shoes and confidently strode out into the world. Loafers were for the weekends, espadrilles for strolling in St Tropez, maybe a slip-on canvas shoe if you were on a boat. A lack of laces meant you were loosening your tie, so to speak.
But times have changed and there are no longer hard and fast rules. As the workplace becomes more relaxed and the suit and tie feel like an endangered combination, the lace-up shoe is also on the back foot. We are in a less formal era and the shoe for this era is the slip-on.
“It’s certainly true to say that casual slip-ons have become a lot more popular over the past three to five years,” says George Glasgow Jr, CEO of the venerated English shoemaker George Cleverley. “While we are famous for our dress shoes and Oxford brogues, we have a lot of customers coming to us now for loafers with a more casual approach.”
Steven Taffel, owner of Leffot, the cult high-end shoe store in Manhattan’s West Village, says, “As slip-ons can be worn in a casual or more formal way, it makes them very practical, especially for travel.” Taffel considers the John Lobb Lopez (£850) and the Alden tassel ($700) in shell cordovan classics of the genre.
As more men feel empowered to dress with flair, the slip-on is going to become an increasingly powerful weapon in their sartorial arsenal. Says David Morris, shoe buyer at Mr Porter, “Their laid‑back nature and aesthetic allow for a man to be comfortable as well as on trend.” The Gucci Horsebit loafer in black leather (£505) remains a perennial favourite, while brown (£455) or blue suede (£455) options with striped webbing are sportier and make you look as though you stepped straight out of a Slim Aarons photograph.
Other brands channelling that same sense of dolce vita cool are Loro Piana with its lightweight suede Seaside Walk espadrilles (£440) – ranging from blue to tan to red – and Ralph Lauren whose tasselled suede Chessington loafers (£285) also have an espadrille sole. Those looking for a slightly more streetwise style will love Louis Vuitton’s Wildfire loafer (£1,230) in braided calfskin with its punky, brothel-creeper style sole, while a burgundy suede Giorgio Armani slip-on has a decorative fringe and rugged sole (£490).
This spring, Morris also expects Berluti’s dark brown leather slip-on with contrasting white sole (£860) to be a big seller, as well as Mr Porter’s upcoming Riviera Collection of less formal shoes from the most exalted names in English shoemaking: Edward Green, John Lobb and George Cleverley. Edward Green is showcasing a suede Portland tassel loafer (£405), while Cleverley has a round-toe suede slip-on with a white micro-rubber sole and white stitching (£495). “This is a summer shoe designed to be worn with shorts, jeans – and sockless,” says Cleverley’s Glasgow.
Ah, the trend for going sockless in loafers – it’s not to everyone’s taste, but there’s no question it’s on the rise, even at work. Sid Mashburn, who has his own label, recognises “the continuing casualisation of men’s wardrobes in professional settings”, including his own. But, he says, even if his young staff are in loafers, they still make a nod to formality. “We might go sockless, but we wear a tie.”
There is, continues Mashburn, a fine art to choosing a slip-on. Proportions are the key: for example, not all tassels are created equal. “The flop, shape and size has to be right,” he says, giving as an example a tassel loafer ($495) that a small family-run company in southern Italy makes for his company. “It’s classic enough for a long run in your wardrobe.”
The unstructured loafer is well-represented by Italians. The slip-on has a certain insouciance, as if you had just pulled up to a café in Rome on your Vespa, breezed into the bar and ordered a Campari without breaking stride. Tod’s, which helped popularise the driving shoe with its rubber-pebble-sole Gommino (£335) range, is still a standard for men who want to suggest they have a fleet of Alfa Romeos outside their villa in Tuscany. Last year, the company introduced My Gommino, which allows men to customise their shoes (from £310, two to three months for delivery) by selecting the colour of the leather, lining, stitching and pebbles.
For the ultimate in buttersoft loafers, look to Ferragamo’s unstructured Fabrizio loafers (£385) with contrast stitching; they are so supple you’ll be tempted to wear them as slippers.
But it’s not all about informality. Velvet loafers are a way to bring dynamism to black tie or any suit you want to dress up. They also have a certain glam-rock decadence. Take Alexander McQueen’s black velvet slip-ons (£745) emblazoned with an embroidered sunflower – they’re louche enough to be worn by rock royalty but elegant enough for an audience with the Pope. Patent leather tends to draw attention, so a streamlined option strikes a nice balance. The elegant Dior Homme loafer (£650) is both sleek and classic and will galvanise a tuxedo from your favourite Savile Row tailor.
This versatility is key to the appeal. Belgian Shoes, in Manhattan, specialises in soft, unstructured shoes decorated with bows and has a cult following with downtown designers and uptown financiers alike. Its brown calfskin Mr Casuals ($440) would bring a touch of easy-going elegance to jeans, while the black linen pair ($440) would add personality to a suit.
New companies are getting in on the act as well. Founders is a fledgling New York-based online firm, whose signature shoe is the suede Bowtie loafer ($324). It has a reassuring, slightly formal silhouette, but the tie gives it playfulness. “The beauty of the loafer is its versatility,” says Michael Strout, the company’s CEO. “Dark suedes, particularly, wear just as well with grey flannel trousers as they do with 501s.”
He believes, as Italians do, that you can wear suede all year round. As to the question of when to wear socks in loafers, he takes the view of a younger generation: “It’s really only when one absolutely must – the office, church and in snow.” But, he adds, “only deep snow.”