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The Death of the Plain Preppy Sneaker

As colorful, hypebeast-y sneakers rise in popularity, not all men’s shoes are enjoying the same surge.

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For years now, my most frivolous indulgence has been buying a blindingly white new pair of Keds Men’s Champion sneakers. I do this annually, even if the old ones are still technically functional as footwear. So it was with increasing panic that this year, I found myself clicking through the Keds site, unable to find them.

Eventually, it became all too clear that they must have been discontinued. A Keds spokesperson confirmed this via email: The Men’s Champion is gone.

Now, you have to understand that Keds Men’s Champions are perfect summer footwear. They’re durable, relatively cheap at just $45, and endlessly versatile, pairing perfectly with everything from a swimsuit to a business suit. They look good when they’re brand new and have a different (but equally good!) scruffy charm when they get a bit haggard after a few months of constant wear. Plus, they’ve never once given me a blister, even though I refuse to wear them with socks.

My beloved shoes are one of the casualties of what Keds’ parent company, Wolverine Worldwide (also owners of Sperry and Saucony, among others), called “a top-to-bottom strategic review of our brands and various business models” in its 2017 annual report. This led the company to eliminate 31 percent of its products, “with an eye towards future growth opportunities and profit potential.” Not for the first time, I had definitive proof that my tastes are not profitable.

I was bewildered, and more than a little personally offended. Surely they were wrong. How could there not be money in a magical piece of clothing that makes the wearer look like JFK on a yacht?

Keds Men’s Champion, may they rest.
Keds

It’s especially odd when you consider that we’re in the midst of a historic boom in sneaker sales. According to the market research agency NPD Group, for the full year of 2017, sneakers were one of very few growth categories in a footwear industry that’s otherwise stagnant. Men’s sneaker sales grew 10 percent by dollar amount, while women’s grew by more than 30 percent.

Meanwhile, casual shoes were down by 10 percent for men and more than 8 percent for women. (Terrifyingly, the No. 1 growth category in men’s footwear is formal sandals, words I don’t like seeing next to each other.)

But what we mean when we think about sneakers is changing, said Brian Trunzo, senior menswear editor for the trend forecasting agency WGSN. It no longer necessarily includes things like simple canvas footwear.

“There has been a movement toward what you would call hypebeast-y-type footwear,” in the men’s market, Trunzo said, speaking of the increasing popularity of a whole range of brightly colored, often intentionally ugly shoes, a unique blend of streetwear style and high fashion, whose ultimate example is Balenciaga’s $900 Triple S. These shoes, and their lower-priced cousins from brands like Fila, have moved from relatively niche popularity among sneaker fanatics (historically, primarily African and Asian American) to effectively dominating the industry across demographics.

If you want to know how complete that victory has been in the world of men’s clothing, just drop by your local J.Crew.

This embattled bastion of WASPiness, still offering knit belts and $1,000 blazers, has of course sold subdued sneakers for some time, the kind of things you could wear with dark khakis to go apple picking. This year, though, they’re pushing a comparatively hypebeast-y AirMax collaboration with Nike, all bright white mesh and pale neon highlights. The Madison Avenue location had them displayed on a mahogany table all spring, alongside cashmere polo shirts and roll-neck sweaters.

Nike Air Max for J.Crew.
Photo: J.Crew

So how did we get here? The growth of out-there sneakers starts with the athleisure movement of 2013, Trunzo explains. As it suddenly became fashionable for women to wear yoga pants outside of the gym, men took their own tentative steps to follow suit, wearing their own fancy sweatpants to work. (You may remember the combination of skinny jeans and a tracksuit called “joggers.”)

“If it’s okay to wear casual pants in the workplace, the logical extension is that it’s quite all right to wear sneakers in the workplace,” said Trunzo. And if it’s okay for men to wear sneakers to work, the need for a whole category of dressy casual shoe that you could wear to work and also on the weekend — suede brogues, loafers, et al. — has basically evaporated.

“I think that someone who would have yesterday (meaning five, six, seven, eight years ago) worn a pair of boat shoes is today more likely to use that money to buy a pair of sneakers,” he said. Plus, footwear is an area where people are willing to experiment. “There’s no shortage of crazy things people are willing to put on their feet,” he said.

As men have largely stopped wearing suits, sneakers have become a safely masculine way to express fashion authority, said Elizabeth Semmelhack, the senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum and the curator of 2015’s exhibit “The Rise of Sneaker Culture.” Men now have to grapple with a question long familiar to women, she said: “How do you make sure you show up wearing something no one else has?” Extravagant sneakers are an easy solution.

If you’re thinking you might wait out this trend, you’re going to have a lot of waiting to do. “At WGSN we are forecasting for autumn looks of ’19 and ’20 that the sort of garish, loud sneakers will be key items for the season,” said Trunzo. That’s obvious from a trip to the online home of huge brands like Nike and Adidas, both of which are continuing to release ever more baroque shoes.

But there’s something interesting underpinning this movement, as well. When Keds were first released, they were a status symbol, said Semmelhack. “Rubber was expensive. Just having two pairs of shoes was expensive.”

Over time, interest waned not just in the shoes themselves but in the entire aspirational vision of wealthy, Northeastern whiteness they conjure. Great masses of people — even rich white people — don’t want to look like JFK on a yacht anymore. They’d much rather look like Travis Scott on the red carpet. For maybe the first time, the face of success in America isn’t preppy and white, at least in the realm of footwear. But it’s a good step.

As for me, I did what all my friends told me was the obvious thing to do and bought the women’s version of my dearly departed Champions, which have not as of yet been discontinued. They were probably exactly the same, I reasoned. Right?

As I found out when I got my pair in the mail (women’s size 13), this sadly isn’t the case. The women’s version has a thinner sole than the men’s. It hurts to walk too much, and if you try to ride a bike in them, the shoe painfully mushes down and bends around the pedal. They are wider around the ankle, showing more skin than the men’s. This, of course, has broad philosophical implications — why must womenswear be more revealing, even in a casual sneaker? — but it’s also massively practically inconvenient. They’re pretty much only good for wearing with shorts.

So I got one last pair of replacements: the Captain’s CVO from Sperry (also the brand worn by secular saint Mister Rogers, according to a spokesperson from the Fred Rogers Center). They look fine, if slightly chunky. They gave me a huge blister the first time I wore them. I’ve started wearing them with socks.

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