Towards the end of the 19th century, Tailor & Cutter, the journal of British tailoring, sent a reporter to Charing Cross Road to analyse the clothes of passers-by. The results were revealing: 150 frock coats, 320 morning coats and 530 lounge suits – more suits than the other types of formal attire combined. This came to mind one Saturday morning as, nursing an almond-milk macchiato, I gazed out of my local artisan coffee shop’s windows to study men’s feet. The 25-year-old bespoke stagskin ankle boots that I was wearing, handmade by Eric Cook, were in an invisible minority. Instead, the hegemony of sneaker, training shoe or trainer, or whatever you want to call it, was complete.
I remember the last time I viewed a pair of sports shoes with unalloyed affection: they were tobacco suede with tarsal strips and a ribbed sole. Ted Heath had just ceded No 10 back to Harold Wilson; Carl Douglas topped the charts with Kung Fu Fighting – and I was nine years old.
In the four-and-a-half decades that have ensued I have come to cast a more circumspect eye on footwear with pretensions to athleticism. I am sure that at school I had a pair of Dunlop Green Flash. In my teens I recall wearing cobalt‑blue hi-top baseball boots with leopard-print drainpipe jeans. In my 20s there was a pair of orange Converse All Stars. In 2010 I purchased a pair of leather lace-ups with rubber soles from Tod’s, excusing myself on the grounds that they looked like West Side Story-era basketball shoes. And that is my life in sneakers.
For the past 30-odd years I have instead concerned myself with footwear of a more formal kind. During the late 1980s I had the fortune to meet Eric Cook and through him was inculcated into the mysteries of bespoke shoes. I became obsessed. I visited Berluti when it was still a single shop run by an eccentric woman called Olga, and Bernard Arnault was just a customer. I marvelled at the delicacy of footwear made by George Cleverley for the exquisitely clad Baron de Redé. I lost count of the hours spent loitering at Gaziano & Girling. I was bewitched... and then, one day, I woke up and felt I should take up some exercise.
Since the age of 14, I have adhered to the Wildean maxim that a gentleman never takes exercise, but sooner or later I had to admit I was not really a gentleman. So one day, about a year ago, I took a stroll through my local park to the above-mentioned coffee shop, then returned home, my ears filled with birdsong, the summer sun warming my face. Over time the stroll became a saunter, the saunter a brisk walk and then, to my astonishment, I found myself breaking into a jog.
Concerned, I went to my GP. He prescribed running shoes. And so I found myself at Profeet on Fulham Road walking on a treadmill, a gimlet-eyed sales assistant scrutinising my gait. That day I became a MAMIS (middle-aged man in sneakers), and soon found that everyone else in the apparel business was fascinated with this form of footwear. Even fashion’s favourite philosopher, Brunello Cucinelli, regards them as entirely compatible with the great values of humanity.
The gateway appears to be the “Stan Smith” style. Ludwig Reiter, for instance, has a pair of trainers (from €279) first made for the Austrian Army in the 1970s that I can wear in a knowing “retro” way; and Swedish company CQP has built a business on variations of what in the ’60s and ’70s would have been a tennis shoe (from €250). While perfect in their own right, they are the nursery slopes on which I must learn before progressing to the sneakers of Parisian bottier de luxe Berluti. There is a baroque lavishness I find appealing in the Berluti Fast Track Torino Alligator sneaker (£6,650). But the other day when I spoke with the brand’s CEO Antoine Arnault he suggested I look at the Shadow Knit Sneaker (£720), a fearsomely contemporary piece of footwear.
The traditionalist in me struggles with the idea that the maker who once shod the Duke of Windsor should be making this kind of footwear, but then I had an epiphany. Were he around today the “Dook” might love the Shadows and have found a way of wearing them with a morning coat or tweed suit that would have delighted adventurous students of male elegance. Likewise, when I saw Givenchy was selling training shoes I felt defensive of a designer who was one of the most dashing men in the past 100 years; but now I entertain the thought that, padding around his country estate, Château de Jonchet, in his old age, Hubert de Givenchy would not have objected to the comfort offered by a pair of neoprene-leather-suede-mesh sneakers (£595).
I find I am prey to rash gestures, such as the time, wearing a double-breasted chalk-stripe suit, I tried a pair of Louis Vuitton sneakers (from £870) with a neoprene sock and a technical sole. I have since confided my concerns about being a MAMIS to Alessandro Sartori of Ermenegildo Zegna. He is a thoughtful fellow with classic European cultural values and yet an appreciation of the modern world that has enabled him to create what is quite possibly my favourite sneaker, the Claudio (£680).
If I had to categorise it, I would rank it alongside the crepe-soled brothel creepers popularised by Teddy Boys. It is an almost entirely new type of shoe. But please do not accept my word. A friend clad in a pair of Claudios was invited to a members-only club in Mayfair where sneakers are prohibited, yet when confronted with his footwear, the door staff were unable to rule decisively on whether they constituted a pair of sneakers and allowed him to come in. It is with this precedent in mind that I look forward to devising a black-tie Claudio for the Christmas party season.