TONY KING CAN recall an irksome time, some in the past, when he would constantly swap his Designer Shoes to get a much more comfortable pair of Converse All-Stars during the entire workday, according to whether he was leading a significant meeting or overseeing a fairly laid-back photo shoot. “I was always changing,” he was quoted saying.
That stopped around 2008, when Mr. King, 43, bought his first pair of Common Projects leather sneakers. Suddenly, the CEO and inventive director of New York-based digital agency King & Partners, whose clients include 3.1 Phillip Lim, could go out in just one set of footwear ideal for pitching new business or going out for Peronis. Bonus: They encased his feet so painlessly he could walk anywhere.
“It was actually a socially and professionally acceptable sneaker seems a lot more like a shoe but is comfortable just like a sneaker,” he explained. Quite simply: A size-10 Holy Grail. Though he still pulls out his Church’s for “very smart meetings,” he mostly lives in sneakers and owns around 20 pairs of Common Projects, in various styles, materials, colors and states of wear.
Mr. King is hardly alone in finding that high-end, designer sneakers can constitute a crucial area of the modern menswear wardrobe. While Masters of the Universe still dutifully pair their Super 100s suits with proper leather lace-ups, other men in offices as formal routinely pad around in upscale rubber-soled shoes. My own once-beloved wingtips are getting dusty, forsaken for a pair of Adidas Stan Smiths made together with Belgian designer Raf Simons.
Luxury sneakers now dominate men’s footwear sales for e-commerce site Mr Porter and department store Barneys New York. Inside a telling move, the second recently combined the formal and casual shoe departments at its Ny and Beverly Hills locations. (“Did we really need to separate the John Lobb guy and also the Louboutin guy?” asked Tom Kalenderian, the store’s executive v . p . of men’s, discussing consumers of traditional dress shoes and people seeking designer Christian Louboutin’s studded sneaks.)
How did we obtain here from there? A confluence of factors are at play. First, dress codes have become increasingly relaxed over the past decade-remember when sneakers weren’t allowed in night clubs?-enabling more creativity and freedom. Second, as designer-sneaker sales have ticked up along with the shoes’ 24/7 relevance has somewhat justified the purchase price, more designers have begun taking note of the current market.
Though luxury brands are already making sneakers because the advent of Gucci’s tennis shoes in 1984, Mr Porter buying-and-sales director Toby Bateman credits both Common Projects, which launched in The Big Apple in 2004, and French label Lanvin with legitimizing the category. Lanvin’s slim-soled tennis-style sneaker with a patent leather toecap, introduced in 2006, moved the needle inside the luxury world, he explained: “Everyone embraced it because it was wearable. It didn’t appear like that you were wearing running sneakers with your suit or smart trousers. That led to many other people entering the arena.”
That features folks you’d assume would sniff in the very thought of Brand Shoes. Tom Ford-who launched his menswear label with stores staffed by butlers and uniformed maids-now makes several varieties of sneakers, including $790 to $1,090. This spring, venerable footwear brand Berluti also launched sneakers, all priced over $1,000, some in suede and others within its signature burnished patina leather.
Italian maker of your ne plus ultra in cashmere, Loro Piana, has low-key velvety suede jogging shoes for $925. “If I went back five years in time and said to the guys at Loro Piana, ‘I predict in five years, you’ll use a suede athletic shoes,’ they might have laughed me out of the showroom,” said Mr Porter’s Mr. Bateman.
Now there’s a sneaker for each man-regardless of his aesthetic. “You don’t have to be wearing a pair of drop-crotch sweatpants being wearing [designer] sneakers,” said Barneys’ Mr. Kalenderian. “You can use them using a gorgeous suit and check like a million bucks.”
Some, more controversially, even pair all of them with a tuxedo. Bally design director Pablo Coppola, who said he not any longer wears dress shoes in any way, donned sneakers for this particular year’s Costume Institute Gala with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arguably Manhattan’s most prominent social event. When in formal clothes, he explained, “wearing sneakers is really a strategy for dressing 08dexspky down slightly.” Michael Schulson, Philadelphia-based chef and owner of restaurants Sampan and Graffiti Bar, also advocates sneakers using a tux. “I have got a black-tie event next week and I’ll probably wear a couple of Lanvin’s or Cipher’s Parallax [style],” he was quoted saying. However, he added, “certain people can pull it well, others can’t. It’s not for everybody.”
To return to those galling prices, some men will invariably reason that it’s ridiculous to pay for, say, $545, for Saint Laurent’s SL/01 Court Classic sneakers, which look a reasonable amount like Adidas’s classic Stan Smiths that cost around $75. But the majority designer sneakers are made with Italian leather comparable to that used for dress shoes, hide that will look more refined and last longer in comparison to the leather of mass-market versions. Even though they may take cues from more affordable styles by Nike or Adidas, their upgraded air presents them entree where cheaper sneakers wouldn’t dare tread.
Athletic brand “sneakers look so ragged after a number of weeks,” said King & Partners’ Mr. King. Designer versions feel nicer for prolonged, he added. “And they create me look much more decked out, like I put more effort in than [just lacing on] some Converse.”
Will the designer sneaker trend soon exhaust your steam? Perhaps. But when there’s just one factor cementing its area in menswear, it’s comfort. “No matter what happens with fashion,” said David Sills, men’s creative director at Hirshleifer’s department shop in Manhasset, N.Y., “when a man wears sneakers and gets that amount of comfort and style, it’s hard to get him back in shoes.”
Mr. Sills has put his money where his mouth is, recently unveiling a region in the store made from Carrera marble, steel and glass that’s focused on sneakers – “a temple towards the category,” he said. Along with the retailer himself has swapped his stiff-soled Aldens for a pair of Yeezy Boosts, the Designer Shoes from the high-end collaboration between Adidas and Kanye West. “You can use them everywhere,” he was quoted saying. “Every restaurant, every event.”