I recently took a pal to one of my favourite shops, GJ Cleverley, to advise him on buying some “proper” shoes for his 50th birthday. The calm atmosphere and service at its shop in the Royal Arcade, Mayfair, and the fact that patrons ring for entry (whereupon someone descends a narrow spiral staircase from the bespoke workshop), may seem from a different era, but Cleverley’s refined, thoroughbred shoes are absolutely up to the minute. From its ready-to-wear styles, my friend plucked the chunky, rounded-toe Archie Derby shoe (£495) with Dainite soles – a high-quality, non-marking compound rubber manufactured in Market Harborough since 1894. They looked natty on, even with his narrow-leg suit.
Not long ago, such rubber soles might have seemed incongruous teamed with tailoring, but the shoe vista is changing. Now, manmade soles are acceptable with smarter outfits. Aside from their obvious advantages in inclement weather, they’re more robust and often lighter than their leather siblings. And not all constructions are the strapping affairs my friend chose. Witness Cleverley’s svelte Henry brogues (£495) in Scotch-grain calf with a Dainite rubber sole; Bally’s slender handmade brogue (£650) from the Scribe line, with its Goodyear rubber sole construction, and its exceptionally light Ayer penny loafer (£650); and Crockett & Jones’s classic Malton Oxford (£380) in black or dark brown burnished box calf with a single, almost invisible layer of Dainite (called “blind” construction).
Conversely, French shoemaker JM Weston’s non-leather offering makes no attempt to hide its make-up. The moulded sole on the grey, deep-blue or brick-coloured Medallion Oxford (£355) and suede Derby (£355) is pale in tone so it stands out. This theme is also picked up by Italian Alberto Guardiani and is most resplendent in a correspondent-style brogue (£335) with three rubberised panels in different colours that contrast with the moulded sole. This sole also works well on a Derby brogue in printed (£210) or green (£255) calfskin; a spats-like double-strap printed-calfskin ankle boot (£328); and a black Chelsea boot (£380) with textured panels.
Continental Europeans have perhaps traditionally been more readily accepting of non-leather soles, but in Italy they were still seen as taboo for business until advocates such as Diego Della Valle at Tod’s championed bringing rubber into the boardroom. Tod’s shoes have light, strong yet flexible rubber soles with a pebble-grip pattern, an echo of the brand’s Gommino soles. A staple is the narrow, burnished-leather Derby style (£350) with rows of decorative punching (particularly striking in dark blue), while the new Leo (£310) is a quasi penny loafer with a stylised gun-metal ingot and spazzolato – shiny-finish – leather. The more classic, antiqued-finish penny-loafer moccasins (£360) and lace-up version (£375) have a hybrid sole, with rubber inlays on the heel and “footstep”.
Other brands instrumental in raising the non-leather bar include Grenson, Church’s and Mr Hare. At Grenson, the new G:One Albert (£390) could be described as a brogue on steroids – a solid, substantial shoe with an upper that’s a mix of Horween Russia grain calf and Italian suede, and a Goodyear welted-rubber Commando (hiking-boot style) sole. Black on black and chestnut/rust are both strong looks, but the black with smoky-blue suede is really special. They’re smart enough for formalwear, but would also look great with narrow dark jeans and turn-ups.
Church’s Newbridge and Newfield models (both £310) have handmade Goodyear welt-rubber sole construction, and are Derbys with clout – the latter differentiating itself with lace detailing. I also like the Nunton (£325), a classic Chelsea boot in shiny brown or black calfskin contemporised with a robust rubber sole. A similar attitude can be found at Hermès: the macho Lawrence (£680) is a traditional leather Oxford with a pronounced moulded bumper of a sole.
Marc Hare has a history of using Dainite soles and the brand’s Bernard Derby (£449) – which I think of as a distinguished Dr Martens boot – leads the charge. Now the Bacon monkstrap (£449) joins the collection with the same sole. It’s super‑cool; I’ve not seen knockabout monks – with hints of brothel creeper – like this before. That said, Robert Clergerie’s Baran double monk (£430) in green, grained calfskin with rubber soles by Vibram has also caught my eye. This iteration is representative of the sturdy-with-attitude direction in which new creative director Roland Mouret is taking the brand. Fans range from Leonard Cohen to Hedi Slimane.