Men’s trainers can be good, bad or decidedly ugly. Our undercover expert sidesteps the silly ones and hunts down some modern classics ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009
Trainers are everywhere, the products of a bloated, billion-dollar industry. There are several problems with them, starting with their name—how much training do we do in them? They are often too samey: at times, as you enter a shop and gaze at a great wall of shoes, the only mark of distinction is the logo. The third problem is price: can an unappetising concoction of plastic and nylon really be worth £100? And the fourth is that trainers are so multi-purpose, we have lost sight of what they’re for.
We need to separate them from sports shoes, with their air pumps, super-cushioned soles and space-age lacing systems. Puffed-up and super-sized, these are not just shoes: they are a parody of masculinity. They may have a role if, say, you are taking up jogging again after a ten-year break. But you wouldn’t want to put them back on afterwards.
There is one kind of trainer that skips past the pitfalls: the classic trainer—the kind we wore before trainers got silly. It’s still out there if you know where to look. It is probably made of fine leather. It is more likely to be the colour of chocolate than of sweets. It believes that neon is for signs. It is a shoe, not a walking advert. You could play a game of five-a-side in a pair of these trainers, if pressed, but they’re smart, too. Put them together with a pair of slim-fit indigo jeans, a well-fitting jacket and a crisp shirt, and they’ll stroll through most occasions.
Tracking them down isn’t hard—the big brands are all too ubiquitous. The trick is to ignore most of what you see and seek out retrospective ranges. Adidas’s Originals line is a cornucopia of classic shoes from the back catalogue. Models such as the Stan Smith, Forest Hills, Universal and Stockholm are made mainly of leather or coloured suede and have a timeless shape that will work with most casual trousers, especially dark jeans or cords. But be wary of the much-hyped, money-spinning alliances between large sportswear labels and fashion designers, such as Puma and Alexander McQueen. The Adidas/Porsche Design range has its moments, but generally such collaborations are a more ponderous, overstated and pricey version of the real thing—like Marie Antoinette dressing up as a shepherdess.
A high price is no guarantee of a better shoe. Many designer fashion labels have spin-off sportswear lines, shoving out tracksuits and trainers plastered with logos. Or with nothing at all: while researching this article, I found a pair of plain black Comme des Garçons pumps at Dover Street Market in London that were almost indistinguishable from the ones you wore for gym as a six-year-old. The price: £155. Prada does do a few cleanly crafted black-leather trainers—but even then it is apt to add a garish red logo running up the tongues, which ruins the effect.
At the other end of the market, beware the temptation to save money by buying imitation trainers. They may broadly resemble that pair of Adidas you saw last week, but the four stripes, cardboard sole and smell of substandard glue will soon trumpet the folly of your purchase. Plus, if you wear them to go out with your children, or anyone else’s, they may never speak to you again.
Another danger lies in the casual shoe/trainer hybrid. Often constructed in pre-distressed leather and covered in all sorts of unsightly details, with Velcro fastenings at odd angles, it tends to be worn by men with mullet haircuts, purposely bashed-about jeans and nasty suit jackets. Instead explore svelter ranges by the Majorcan cobblers Camper, the Italian high-end sportswear specialist C.P. Company, or even the English shoemakers Clarks, who are not as stuffy as they once were. If it’s low-tech simplicity you’re after, Converse’s Chuck Taylor and Jack Purcell basketball boots still look super-fresh, while Superga’s cotton Cotu plimsoll has been complementing the Italian man’s fitted shorts every summer since 1925. You could also try some of the classy European styles produced by the Swedish brand Tretorn, or France’s Spring Court—as worn by John Lennon on the cover of “Abbey Road”.
Then there’s ethics to consider. Here the industry hasn’t covered itself in glory. Most brands use giant factories in South-East Asia and South America, and their record in labour relations has been poor. In 2005, 33 Adidas employees in Indonesia were sacked for taking part in a legal strike over pay—theirs was as little as 60 cents an hour. It took a two-year campaign by Oxfam to get them a severance deal. Nike was a target of anti-poverty campaigners for years, and did respond: in 2005 it published a dossier of abuses at its factories in Asia, and joined the Fair Labour Association. So the big brands are better than they were.
It’s easier for small to be beautiful. The French trainer brand Veja makes strikingly retro sports shoes in organic cotton and wild rubber. The rubber is sourced from a small co-operative of Brazilian families who use the Greenpeace-backed Tecbor method of curing rubber, as opposed to the traditional, unhealthy and eco-unfriendly method of smoking it. Even so—despite the nice sound of “wild” rubber—the Forest Stewardship Council will only certify rubber products produced from what it calls “responsibly cultivated plantations”, which implies a certain amount of environmental risk in tapping from wild trees.
Trainer shops, like record stores, can be intimidating. Try specialist men’s boutiques such as Oi Polloi in Manchester or Transalpino in Liverpool, where assistants will take you through their choices without making you feel like an unwanted guest. Both shops have good websites if you can’t make it in the flesh. In London the Lanvin menswear store on Savile Row is a pleasure to visit, while around the corner, in Brook Street, the ultra-friendly boutique Browns has just opened a dedicated shoe store; in Paris Bon Marché in St Germain is well stocked. On British high streets Size has the widest selection of classic styles.
Two final things to bear in mind. Many a look has been wrecked by huge bow laces flapping off the feet of an otherwise well-dressed man; either cut the laces shorter or tie them behind the tongue. And the sleeker the trainer, the narrower the trouser. Smart footwear is easily swamped by baggy denim. Let your jeans rest on your trainers, and let the world see your shoe.
C.P. Company (above, right) This innovative label often uses industrial materials for its products, but its latest trainer is very traditional—and classy. The leather (white and yellow, green or navy) is supple, the design simple and the sole just the right width. Timeless. £175
Lanvin (above, left) Lanvin’s suede and patent-leather trainer, available in black or beige, is a thing of beauty. Bereft of fussy details or logos, this is a subtle, superbly constructed sports shoe, albeit one more at home on the Left Bank than with the left wing. £310
Tretorn T-56 These off-white canvas high-tops from the Swedish brand Tretorn knowingly contrast a modern shape with the traditional tennis-shoe tropes of white laces and bright green detailing. The result is summer encapsulated in a sneaker. £65
A sleek, suede leisure shoe, originally from 1978, that works well with dark jeans. Like much of the Adidas Originals range, what it lacks in technological innovation it makes up for in style. Troublesome long laces, though. £54.99
APC/Nike All Court The French men’s fashion house APC teamed up with Nike to produce this all-white version of their classic All Court tennis shoe. Made in canvas, it’s best saved for fine days—and still works well on the tennis court, too. €90
Superga Cotu Classic The sleek shape and canvas upper—in a choice of 66 colours—make this a natural for summer. It looks good with longer shorts or rolled-up canvas trousers. €49
Picture Credit: Diver Aguilar
(This is the second in new series, where undercover experts give impartial advice on how and where to find the best buys. The first was on how to buy a sofa.)