The Ultimate Guide To Sneakers

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The Ultimate Guide To Sneakers

Words by Mr Ayrton Reeves

20 September 2020

Worn by everyone from presidents to students, there’s no style of footwear quite as egalitarian as the sneaker. A quick glance down to ground level will confirm that sneakers have become the omnipresent shoes from the sports field to the city streets.

Today, it’s pretty hard to imagine a world when sneakers didn’t exist. But rewind just a generation or two, and the idea of a soft, supportive shoe for active pursuits was indeed a foreign notion. It wasn’t until Mr Charles Goodyear (of Goodyear welt fame) struck on the formula for vulcanised rubber that the way was paved for the future of sneakers.

Following this, India-rubber plimsolls – the pre-cursor to the modern sneaker – strode onto the scene around the 1890s. Compared to noisy, hard-soled Oxfords and Derbies, these softer shoes enabled the wearer to move around in relative silence, coining the term “sneaker” for all subsequent sporty, rubber-soled footwear.

No longer confined to the gym or weekend wardrobes, modern sneakers have morphed into objects of desire in their own right, causing otherwise sensible, grown men to camp overnight on shop thresholds like flocks of sneaker-obsessed magpies to get their limited-edition fix.

“With over 100 years of evolution, we’re now spoilt for choice,” says Mr Sam Pearce, creative design manager at New Balance. “Sneakers have become an expression of ourselves and our interests – almost an object d’art.” In fact, there are few boundaries for sneakers anymore: they’re seen everywhere from treadmills to red carpets in a myriad of guises, which can make it all the more difficult to decide which pair to spend your hard-earned dollar on next. Hopefully, our comprehensive guide will make getting your kicks that little bit easier.

01. The tennis sneaker

Although the name suggests they were designed for the court, the rubber-soled tennis shoes were originally found in the kit bags of 19th-century British Navy seamen, who wore the shoes to prevent keeling over on slippery, see-sawing decks. The British aristocracy – no strangers to maritime exploits themselves – began to wear the shoes during tennis games due to their excellent traction, and the name stuck.

With their sleek, elegant profile and ability to pair with casual and dressy looks, tennis shoes have become the bread and butter of the modern sneaker offering. And while every brand worth its salt has its own take on the ageless design, adidas’ Stan Smiths, which first appeared with that name in 1971, are the blueprint for the genre.

In many ways, the popularity of this hallmark design paved the way for brands such as Common Projects and Golden Goose, who have reinterpreted the style for 21st-century tastes, garnering a loyal following in the process. Whether you opt for box-fresh white or classic black, the inherently fuss-free slickness of tennis shoes make them work seamlessly with whatever else you’ve got on, whether it’s polos and chino shorts in summer or woollen trousers and chunky knitwear on cooler days.

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02. The basketball sneaker

In 1917, a certain Mr Marquis Mills Converse debuted a groundbreaking sports shoe in order to capture a piece of the burgeoning sportswear market. While it achieved some success, things really started to take off in 1921, thanks to a fortuitous hire in the shape of Mr Charles “Chuck” Taylor, a professional basketball player. Using his own experience from the court, he made several design tweaks to the original Converse All Star design, adding a high topline and an ankle patch to offer enhanced defence from injuries during play. They became an immediate success among athletes and were soon adopted by collegiate jocks and rockabilly types – even Mr Elvis Presley wore them when he wasn’t rocking blue suede shoes. Later, subculture groups and artists of the 1980s and 1990s furthered the cause, cementing the rock ‘n’ roll status of high-tops.

While there aren’t many hard-and-fast rules when it comes to styling them, taking your cue from the late Mr Kurt Cobain – a man who was seldom seen without a pair – isn’t a bad place to start. A witty slogan tee, fuzzy alpaca cardigan and well-seasoned jeans will help you nail the Nirvana frontman’s sense of 1990s nonchalance.

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03. The slip-on sneaker

Any shoe that slides on without the faff of laces or buckles is the ultimate lazy man’s dream. Remember your Velcro-fastening school Kickers? Weren’t they a joy, until you completely forgot how to tie a shoelace properly? Loss of basic life skills aside, there’s something satisfying about stepping straight into your shoes and out the door. After all, life’s too short to waste precious seconds tying your laces.

It’s fair to say that without the patronage of urban skaters, slip-on sneakers would probably never have achieved their level of popularity. The robust, grippy soles of these low-maintenance shoes meant they were hardy enough to handle even the toughest skate circuits, and there was the added benefit of good old health and safety – no risk of snapping your neck on the half-pipe due to entangled laces.

Today, brands as varied as AMIRI, Bottega Veneta and TOM FORD have offered up their own singular versions of the slip-on; but special mention must be given to Vans – one of biggest names in skate attire – for bringing the style to the fore. Its classic canvas slip-on, which now comes in countless variations, was first introduced in 1977, and anyone who has donned a pair will know their worth when it comes to comfort. Slip them on with a cashmere hoodie, your favourite selvedge blues and an oversized checked coat for a low-key look.

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04. The running sneaker

Although most of today’s “fashion” sneakers are completely unsuitable for your morning 5k, there are others that have been fine-tuned to provide the support you need to help avoid any strained tendons. While adidas founder Mr Adolf “Adi” Dassler is often cited as the forefather of the modern running shoe, subsequent sportswear behemoths including Nike and New Balance pioneered their own technological innovations. In the 1970s, Nike, cofounded by athletics coach Mr Bill Bowerman and businessman Mr Phil Knight, introduced its waffle sneaker. This lightweight running shoe in crisp white leather featured a revolutionary cushioned sole – the texture of which is believed to have been inspired by Mr Bowerman’s breakfast waffle iron.

Further down the line, New Balance continued to push the envelope, developing the first running sneakers made with laser-scanning technology to achieve a perfect, individual fit. Despite all this precision engineering for track and treadmill, running shoes are now fair game for adding a sporty flourish to most outfits.

“For me, the 990 series is the perfect balance of lifestyle visual and performance comfort, merging traditional and technical materials with a colour palette that goes with everything”, says New Balance’s Mr Pearce. Whether you wear them for their intended purpose or team your neon runners with slim-fit chinos and an oversized striped shirt, you’ll stay cool and comfortable on your feet no matter how long the day’s march turns out to be.

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05. The designer sneaker

While subculture groups and the rise of athleisure have done much to popularise the sneaker, the fashion powerhouses of Europe launched the cult of sneakers into the stratosphere. Combining distinctive details and the crème de la crème of materials, these are definitely more status symbol than practical sports shoe, with some pairs seldom leaving the collector’s shelf, through genuine fear of scuffing them.

Cult designs including Valentino’s camo sneakers and Christian Louboutin’s spiked styles have led onto the current obsession with “dad” trainers – a trend that doesn’t look like it’s going to be kicked to the curb anytime soon, thanks to Balenciaga’s chunky Triple S, the sneaker du jour for the past few years. Then, of course, there are the buzzy collabs (think Mr Kanye West’s adidas Yeezy and Mr Virgil Abloh’s Off-White x Nike styles), giving limited-edition drops Holy Grail status.

But beyond the hype, there are also more quietly elegant designers such as Berluti, Ermenegildo Zegna and John Lobb, who focus on classic styling and build quality footwear to go the distance. Brunello Cucinelli – another such brand – has acknowledged the unstoppable march of the sneaker and interpreted how it is made and worn in this considered way.

“In the last decade, sneakers have undergone a stylistic evolution,” says Mr Alessio Piastrelli of Brunello Cucinelli’s men’s style team. “Years ago, they were only considered a downtime shoe, but now it’s totally acceptable to wear them to social events with a suit. The emergence of new shapes in the 1990s helped drive this, as they were easier to style in a more sartorial way.” And the brand’s clean-cut, streamlined designs made from supremely soft Italian hides work with anything from shorts and chinos to an impeccably cut mohair suit, paying dividends for their initial outlay. “We’d actually advocate wearing sneakers with something more elegant, like a softly structured blazer, so your level of formality remains well-balanced,” adds Mr Piastrelli.

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The details

Eyelets

Put simply, the circular holes through which a sneaker’s laces are fastened.

Upper

The main body of the shoe, which forms its general shape.

Midsole

This central part of the sole, which often houses supportive cushioning in the form of a chunky rubber wedge or patented shock-absorbing materials.

Outsole

The bottom of the sole, which usually features some sort of grip texture.

Toe box

The forward section of the shoe which surrounds the toes. This section is sometimes perforated for enhanced breathability. There should be enough space to comfortably accommodate your feet without bunching your toes.

Collar

The rounded, padded section at the top of the sneaker where your foot enters the shoe.

Topline

Above the collar, where the sneaker finishes. Depending if this is at ankle length or higher, the sneaker is classified as a “high-top” or “low-top”.

Tongue

This protruding panel of fabric sits beneath the laces and eyelets, and prevents discomfort caused by friction when walking.

The materials

Leather and suede

Its excellent temperature regulation, breathability and suppleness has made leather a key ingredient in apparel for millennia – and it’s these very qualities that make the fabric ideal for footwear. Spain and Italy have often been touted as the best sources of leather on account of the durability and butter-soft texture of the hides. The earliest sneakers were made from leather and it remains one of the most popular materials today, with smooth leathers, fuzzy nubucks and suedes and grained leathers often combined for maximum textural effect.

Performance fibres

While natural fibres are something we would actively promote here at MR PORTER, we also know there are times when you require more technical clout, especially for athletic pursuits or if you’re conscious of trashing your prized suede sneakers when the weather’s taken a turn. From airy lightweight meshes to patented innovations such as Nike’s famed Flyknit upper, adidas’s Boost soles or New Balance’s Fresh Foam cushioning, today’s enhanced technical materials are designed to keep you cool and collected – and injury free.

Eco materials

There’s no getting around the fact that clothing manufacturing comes with a heavy carbon footprint. But what’s a boy to do if he needs a new pair of kicks? A glut of big names in the field – many of which we carry here at MR PORTER – have been making strides to reform their production methods for the better. Whether it’s Nike or adidas using fibres made from recycled ocean plastics, or luxury brands opting for naturally treated hides and vegan leather, sneaker brands are looking to play their part in the eco-awareness race.

Other relatively young brands, such as Veja, have chosen to build their label on sustainability from the ground up. Founded in 2005, the French label has already achieved an impressively loyal following for its sneakers made in an entirely transparent and ethical supply chain; they don’t sacrifice on style, either.

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