I went to Japan last May, on my own, to – yes, I know – find myself. What I discovered was an appreciation of silence – and of socks. You have to remove your shoes on entering Japanese households, as well as the ryokans, or traditional inns, that I stayed at across the country – from Tokyo to Kyoto via the mountains of Hakone. My Saint Laurent Cuban heels were invariably lodged on an entrance shelf, and I was given a kimono, obi belt, slippers that looked like man-mules and some peculiar silk socks with a separate big toe, like mittens for feet. Shuffling to and fro on the tatami matting, it didn’t take me long to embrace this new dress code. The socks were a particular revelation; not only did this silken foot finery feel fantastic, it looked it too – and spared my Japanese hosts the spectacle of my 47-year-old, post half-marathon feet (during my trip, my toenail count ranged from eight-and-a-half to seven).
That Japan is a centre of sock excellence is a fact not lost on Mats Klingberg, founder of menswear shop Trunk Clothiers, who has travelled widely in the country and has become something of a sock connoisseur. “As Japanese people take their shoes off when they come home or go to a traditional restaurant, socks need to look good,” says the always immaculate Klingberg. “Plus, the traditional Geta indoor shoe leaves your foot exposed, so if it’s cold you need to wear socks.” Klingberg always stocks Japanese socks, such as the Loose Pile (£17) from Ro To To. These have cable-knit leg shafts made from dralon yarn, known for its high water/perspiration absorption. Rugged but with a lovely handle, they come in army green, navy and a dark red that looks great with blue jeans and trainers. Trunk also stocks Anonymous Ism’s chunky, patterned wool jacquard socks (£28), a little like a Fair Isle knit, which are perfect with rich corduroy.
Klingberg also tipped me off about Tabio, a Japanese chain of luxury sock specialists, with shops in the UK. It carries multiple lengths, hues and textures; I’ve become a devotee of its silk Banner socks (£26), made with a special machine that works with both silk and cotton so that the sock has a panel of cotton pile protecting the sole, while the rest is gorgeous, faintly shimmering silk. Tabio’s ultra-luxe cashmere socks (£75) are made from responsibly harvested fibres from a single goat per sock. Toe and heel details are designed for improved fit and they come in a charming paulownia wood box.
Brunello Cucinelli may not be Japanese, but he is a master of cashmere and applies the same level of discernment to socks as to knitwear. An understated 100 per cent cashmere chiné ribbed-knit style (£310) comes in burnt orange, while a Donegal-effect ribbed-knit cashmere (£240) looks great in midnight blue with grey and turquoise flecks and grey contrast trim.
I’ve also long admired the Bresciani brand, particularly its Egyptian cotton socks (£16) with repeat patterns, such as fine puppytooth or polka dots. Bresciani’s new herringbone styles (£30) include those in French linen with a beautiful mottle mélange. The light shades are wonderful for high summer with light suiting. And the brand has really gone for it on the print front this season, with vibrant carnation, daisy, geranium and dahlia patterns (£35).
Pantherella also has some great patterned socks, including fine jacquard diamonds in muted greens or browns (£16.50). The Adderley socks, with furnishing fabric-like decorative patterns in charcoal, gold or burgundy (£14.50), make a strong statement, while its graphic-patterned, chunky, cashmere sock (£45) is reminiscent of Icelandic sweaters. Prada’s long print socks (£140) are even more graphic, evoking early computer games from the 1980s, with go-faster stripe trims, interlocking panels and chevrons.
But how long should a man’s socks be? Mid-calf is the norm, but socks reaching to just below the knee are the suave gentleman’s choice. The No 10 style (£28) from Falke, in fine vertical-ribbed fil d’Ecosse, is 18in from heel to top. Other options include twisted merino wool/silk (£38) for increased durability, and super-indulgent oatmeal cashmere (£85) taken from high-altitude goats in the Himalayas.
Lastly, to shake things up, look to Paul Smith. His annual sock subscription (£160) sees a lively new pair arrive each month in styles and patterns ranging from signature Smithy multi-stripes to oversize polka dots to a repeat sunglasses motif. But it’s his quieter styles that best manifest his inimitable aesthetic; no wonder he’s big in Japan.