I love shoes. In the last several months, much of my time mindlessly scrolling through the inter-webs has been spent learning about shoes. And I don’t mean sneakers. I mean traditional shoes made from leather that most young people would think of as ‘dress shoes,’ which are supposedly meant to be worn only on formal occasions.
While it is quite possible that I spend way, way too much time thinking about footwear, most men today do not give shoes nearly enough thought. People wear polyamide imitation leather and inelegant rectangular toed oxfords. This article aims to educate and persuade folks to invest in higher quality shoes.
(from least to most formal…more or less)
Remember those early years of life when we wore shoes that did not have laces? We can still wear slip-ons! Loafers come in many different shapes and styles. They can be worn with long socks, no-show socks, or no socks at all. While some could argue they are more suited to warm weather, they can indeed be worn year around. I recommend classic brown penny loafers.
Boots are hard to categorize because they have so many variations. Chukka boots are casual and adaptable: they can be worn with denim, chinos, or wool trousers. Chelsea boots are extremely elegant and can cover a similar gambit. Balmoral boots are dressy and more suited to be worn with a sport coat, if not a suit. Personally, I think most guys should acquire a pair of brown chukka boots. I wear mine more than any other pair of shoes.
These shoes are kind of an in-between in terms of formality. Most laypeople would see them as identical to formal oxford dress shoes. The primary difference is in the lacing. Derby shoes have an open-laced design in which the eyelet tabs are installed on the top of the shoe. Formal shoes have a closed-laced design in which the eyelet tabs are installed under the top section’s leather flaps. This picture illustrates the difference. Moreover, bluchers can have plain toes, toe caps, brogue patterns (the punched holes), Norwegian split toes, etc. These shoes allow the wearer to express a lot of personal style.
Until recently it was uncommon to find nice men’s shoes that have buckles. However, a lot of fashion-conscious guys have acquired double monkstrap shoes as part of the latest trend. Monkstraps, however, are not a fast-fashion fad. They are an elegant dress shoe that serve in both formal and informal occasions. Personally, I love my dark brown double monks from Carmina.
When you picture dress shoes, you probably picture oxfords. This style is classic, conservative, and versatile. It is appropriate for a job interview, wedding, funeral, and more. Most often it will either be with a toe cap or without a toe cap; though on occasion you will see a wholecut oxford.
Although a long list of factors determines the quality of a shoe, the two most important are the materials and the construction.
But before delving into those topics, you must understand the four primary parts of a shoe.
1) Uppers are the leather that covers your foot. In other words, these are essentially the main part of the shoe. All the leather on display, covering your foot from heel to toe, is the upper.
2) Insoles are the materials that your foot rests on inside the shoe. For example, many people get special orthopedic insoles to insert into their shoes.
3) Soles are the bottoms of your shoes. They can be made of leather, rubber, or some combination.
4) Heels are obviously the heel of your shoe.
The most important leather used in a pair of shoes is the leather for the uppers. This leather, after all, is essentially the shoe. Decent quality shoes should be made with full grain leather, which comes from the top layer of cow hide. It is supple and has very few blemishes. Below full grain come many other gradients of grain leather, which vary in terms of color and smoothness. After grain leathers is what shoemakers dub ‘genuine’ leather. If a shoe company gives this label to a product, then the leather is likely a loose and less consistent cut from the the hide: it likely went through much sanding and buffing before it was made into a shoe. Beneath genuine leather is imitation leather, which is usually made of polyamide. Imitation leather is fake. And I don’t just mean it’s not actually leather. I mean it does not actually function like leather either. It looks bad, does not mold naturally, and degrades rapidly. Fake leather is a ploy to sell shoes on the cheap.
In addition, the type of leather impacts the formality of a shoe. Generally, a smoother shoe is more formal and a textured shoe is more casual. Patent leather shoes that go with formal black-tie attire are wholly smooth and shiny. Suede or pebble-grain shoes that go with more casual attire are raised and textured.
First and foremost, shoe construction has one significant dichotomy: is the shoe glued or stitched? Glued shoes, like polyamide shoes, do not cut it. They fall apart after a year. You know those black dress shoes, which you bought at H&M, that started peeling at the soles in 5 months? Those are glued shoes. Decent shoes must, must be stitched in their construction.
The most prevalent method of high-quality shoe stitching is Goodyear Welt Construction. In this method, the parts of the shoes are all sewn together through a welt, which is a strip of material (hopefully leather), which serves as a foundation for the shoe. The upper, insole, and sole are all stitched around the perimeter of the shoe, with the welt. Normally, this process is done by a craftsman using a machine. These shoes are durable and fairly water resistant.
The second most prevalent method is Blake Construction. In this method, there is no welt. The upper and insole and directly stitched to the outsole. Consequently, the shoes are more flexible and lighter. This means shoes are more comfortable but also less durable.
A third method, Rapid-Blake, combines the previous two. It not only uses a layer between the parts, but also uses the stitching method of Blake Construction.
Good shoes must be stitched and will most likely be made in one of the types of construction.
Shoe care is a deep, fascinating, and scary world. Last week I spent an hour and a half just to care for 11 pairs of shoes. And I was cutting corners. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that there are in fact some people have invested in a shoe shine brush for a measly $465 dollars…
Overall, the amount of effort you should put into caring for your shoes should be proportionate to the quality of the shoes. Fifty-dollar imitation leather shoes don’t necessarily deserve any upkeep. Five hundred dollar Carmina monkstraps do. At the very least, a decent pair of leather shoes should be stored with shoe trees and occasionally shined (with condition, cream, and/or wax polish). I’m not going to go into the details of these processes, because a lot of folks with a lot more expertise than I have written a great deal on the subject.
Bruce Boyer and Alan Flusser, a pair of well-regarded menswear writers, both say that you should buy the best that you can afford. This wisdom definitely holds true for shoes. Most men, even those who care about their presentation and clothes, spend $100 or less on shoes. Those shoes are simply subpar.
Aldo, Kenneth Cole, etc. produce glued shoes of either low-quality leather or fake leather. Brands such as Johnston & Murphy, Bostonian, and Cole Haan make shoes with better leathers, but the construction is generally still poor. These shoes neither last nor look great. If you want to play the shoe game right, you have to invest in the range of at least $200. Properly-cared for and rotated real shoes should last several years, if not a decade or more.
The lowest-cost option, for shoes actually stitched and made with decent leather, is a young Italian brand called Velasca. The start-up charges about $170 for most styles; it offers free shipping too. Producing blake-rapid shoes at these prices, particularly in Italy, is incredible.
A similar American company is Jack Erwin. It charges about $200 and also offers free shipping. The firm actually has a store in TriBeCa if you want to try them on before ordering. I believe the shoes are primarily made in Spain. Construction is usually blake, but I think more goodyear models are being introduced.
Styleforum’s favorite option at this price point is Meermin Mallorca. I have really wanted to buy a pair for a while. Meermin shoes are made from solid quality leathers produced at French tanneries. The construction is said to rival shoes costing a couple hundred bucks more. It seems Meermin manages to keep the prices low because they begin the production in China, and only finish the shoes in Spain, where the cost of labor is of course much higher. Moreover, each of these three introductory price-range brands sell directly to the consumer. Eliminating the middle man has been key to good prices.
I don’t want to go into a detailed discussion of tons of brands, but I’m going to list several more just so folks have places to check out: Loding, Duggers of London, Loake, Herring, Howard Yount, and Markowski.
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