Men have discovered what the ladies have known all along. Now, more than ever, it's all about your shoes.
"And it's about high time. Women have had a blast with shoes for years," says Jim Moore, GQ's creative director.
"I think it's the most exciting category in menswear at the moment. It's a huge focus for us," says Terry Betts, buying manager for London-based online retailer Mr. Porter.
And the trade paper Footwear News reported recently, "Men's footwear is on fire at retail, thanks to style twists on old classics," citing updates like pops of color, vintage details and distressed finishes that are making traditional silhouettes look fresh.
The retail sales add up to some staggering numbers. Personal luxury goods have risen more than 10% for each of the last three years worldwide, and men's shoes are outperforming that figure, according to Bain & Co., a leading advisor to the luxury sector. With global designer footwear annual revenue pegged at more than $15 billion for 2012 and men's business growing to 40% of total luxury goods, it's no wonder retailers are so enthralled.
Fueling the fire
Fashion editors and retailers agree that several factors are driving the men's shoe trend. One is the "New Trad" revival of the suit and other classic menswear tropes, with the corresponding upswing of interest in heritage and artisanal shoe brands. Another is the impact of e-commerce, which gives today's aspiring man unprecedented access to styles from around the world.
Factor in fashion magazines and the blogosphere, which enthusiastically parse the virtues of handmade footwear and have turned formerly hidebound styles — like the vaunted "double monk" featuring a monk strap with two buckles — into must-haves for footwear aficionados.
Cool choices in sneakers and the entrance of women's shoe designers into the men's market are also getting men focused on their feet.
Artisans and heritage brands
Mr. Porter is bringing a new and appreciative audience to legendary British brands such as John Lobb as well as to newer purveyors of handmade styles in a more contemporary vein, such as Marsèll and O'Keeffe, both made in Italy.
"We're excited about going to artisanal brands like Marsèll and giving them a global platform. These are the kind of things that can get lost in a store," Betts says.
But at the luxury department stores on Wilshire Boulevard, they're just as bullish on similarly heretofore-obscure brands, often at nearly four-figure price tags.
"I'm obsessed with Bontoni," says Neiman Marcus Group's fashion director, Matthew Singer, by phone from New York. "They basically make their shoes out of a house in Italy, something like five pairs a day. They're a classic brand but with a modern sensibility."
GQ's Moore says his magazine's readers aren't afraid to spend $500 on a pair of shoes if they're aware of the craftsmanship involved in making shoes by hand, "whether they're bench-made in Britain, made in Italy or Maine-made."
Mention of Maine conjures up rubber-soled shoes for sailing and topstitched preppy loafers, but designer Alejandro Ingelmo has mined this heritage for one of the most talked-about collections for spring. He's given those classics a forward-fashion spin, seen in the brush-marked, blackened neon loafer set on an over-scale sole or the chukka with a white bumper finishing usually found on sneakers, all using domestic materials and manufactured in the state.
"There's just something about American shoes," Ingelmo says. "They just have guts. It's like nobody can make a pickup truck like Americans. They can try, but nobody else can do them. They don't have the same strength."
Luxury sneakers are also fueling men's shoe trend. About five years ago, designer Alber Elbaz of Lanvin kicked off his haltingly high-priced men's collection with equally extravagant kicks. Sneakers had entered the lexicon of high style.
Around the same time, Ingelmo says, he designed some sneakers for himself, and then buyers started asking for them. Now the category has exploded, with retailers citing big brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada as well as indies such as Pierre Hardy, Maison Martin Margiela and Raf Simons as linchpins.
High-style high-tops abound in flashy metallics, signature logo motifs and wild patterns that have grabbed a lot of the attention from male fashion hounds, providing an emphatic exclamation point to prevailing slim suits and skinny jeans.
Looking ahead, the recent European men's fall 2013 catwalks showed baggier trousers coming into play with a new emphasis on low-top sneaker variations, notably at Lanvin, Ami and Simons. The latter's collaboration with Adidas, a heavy-duty style with an off-road sportiness, was clocked by Mr. Porter's Betts as the hot designer sneaker to watch right now.
Low-tops also get the luxury upgrade in designer Ruthie Davis' debut men's collection, a nod to her previous stint at Reebok before founding her eponymous women's line in 2006. But her new styles — brightly hued, platform-soled jogging takeoffs or metallic copper retro "trainers" with spike-topped toes— will most likely be pounding club floors, not athletic tracks.
"I'm not into men's wingtips. I don't hang out with Wall Street guys," deadpans Davis. "You don't get the excitement you get when you get a new pair of Nikes when you buy a dress shoe, so I thought, 'Why can't those worlds come together?'"
Davis joins a burgeoning list of high-end women's shoe brands that have crossed over into the men's department, topped by powerhouses Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin. At its recently opened men's boutique in West Hollywood, Louboutin has launched a "Tattoo to Measure" option that takes a guy's favorite ink and translates it into a custom-embellished pair.
Retailers say men have no qualms about wearing the same labels that women do. Justin Timberlake, for one, has been spotted in red-soled Louboutins in his "Mirrors" video and on "Saturday Night Live," among other places. Louboutin recently told Forbes magazine that sales of men's styles now account for almost 25% of the company's business. "It's kind of like in the denim world," says Singer, "when women's players like 7 and Adriano Goldschmied and J. Brand came in, and people first thought, "'Are guys going to really wear that?'"
There's even the occasional opportunity for a little cross-marketing. Barneys.com recently sent an email blast to customers touting Prada — whose high-fashion offerings for both sexes have often shared design motifs — with side-by-side pictures of complementary studded styles: in silver on a black calfskin slipper for him and in jet jewels on a black silk platform for her.
Spikes and studs, in fact, are poking up all over this spring in men's shoes at the edgy side of the spectrum, while soft suede desert boots and loafers in a garden of dusty shades such as lavender, slate blue and spearmint beckon to traditionalists.
To accommodate the trends, retailers are expanding selling space and tweaking brand offerings at stores like Bloomingdale's, where it's a corporate priority, says Kevin Harter, vice president for men's fashion direction. The new Bloomingdale's opening this September in Glendale "will have a beautiful men's shoe floor." And the store plans to add upscale label Church's, previously not readily available in L.A., and Gucci, which is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its horse-bit loafer with a commemorative "1953" style, to the mix.
"Men used to have a pair of black shoes, a pair of brown shoes and a pair of sneakers," Harter says. "That's just not the way it is anymore."