Perceptions of sneakers have shifted a lot over the last decade or two. It wasn’t long ago that wearing anything but a pair of smart shoes would have seen you turned away at the door of a nightclub or swanky bar. If those establishments were to operate a similar dress policy today there would be nobody inside.
Sneakers are ubiquitous. They’ve infiltrated every corner of men’s fashion, from sportswear and everyday style to haute couture and tailoring. That last one is perhaps the most surprising, and it’s thanks largely to the rise of the dress sneaker.
These upscale sports shoes have completely redefined sneakers, taking them from strictly athletic or casual wear to something that can be worn with a suit or to a fancy restaurant. They’ve been instrumental in the loosening up of dress codes across the board, cementing their reputation as modern essentials.
Thinking of adding a pair of dress sneakers to your footwear rotation? Here’s everything you need to know.
A dress sneaker is a piece of footwear that combines the DNA of a sports shoe with the traditional construction and attention to detail of a classic dress shoe. They’re made from high-quality leather, feature little to no visible branding and are often extremely minimalist in their design. This means they’re extremely versatile, and can be worn with anything from a T-shirt and shorts to a suit.
Granted, a dress sneaker will never be as dressy as a Derby or Oxford shoe – these are still your go-to shoes for formal events. But for most semi-formal and smart-casual settings, a dress sneaker is now perfectly acceptable.
The rise of the dress sneaker can be traced back to the early 2000s and the launch of the Common Projects Achilles Low. This now-iconic shoe set the tone for the next two decades of sneaker design, moving the focus away from maximalist, performance-inspired designs and towards something more refined, understated and elegant.
The Achilles Low wasn’t anything new in terms of its design – there had been many other minimalist sneakers before it – but it was the first to really focus on the build quality, materials and craftsmanship in a way that had only previously been seen in dress shoes.
This, as far as we’re concerned, was the dawn of dress sneakers as we know them today.
The Common Projects Achilles Low is the high-water mark for dress sneakers. It’s the shoe that started the movement, and although strikingly simple, its streamlined silhouette is instantly recognisable. You can spot it by its low-profile toe box, gold lettered heel and beautifully smooth Italian leather uppers.
The shoe is handmade in Italy using the finest hides, with a highly durable yet elegant Margom rubber sole. That’s it. No excessive detail, no intricate graphics or panelling. Just pure quality and simplicity.
White is the classic option, but it’s also available in black, navy and pretty much any other understated colour you can think of.
Shop now at Farfetch
Crown Northampton is another Northamptonshire brand applying centuries-old shoemaking techniques to its sneakers. The Harlestone Derby is part Derby shoe, part sneaker, handmade in the UK using the absolute highest quality materials.
The base price is £385 a pair, but this can rise depending on the materials used. If you opt for a pair made using Horween cordovan leather, for example, then you can expect to pay up to £685.
Granted, it’s not cheap, but neither are the best dress shoes, so why would a pair of sneakers made to the same exacting standards be any different?
Shop now at Crown Northampton
Oliver Cabell’s signature sneaker, the Low 1, is clean, simple and eternally stylish. It’s handmade in Italy using the absolute best leather from the most acclaimed tanneries and finished off with a super-durable Margom outsole and calfskin insole.
It’s a great alternative to the Common Projects Achilles Low for anyone who wants to spend a little less money but secure a shoe that’s every bit as good.
Shop now at Oliver Cabell
Direct-to-consumer brand Morjas looks to democratise luxury shoes by working with some of the best suppliers and manufacturers to create stunning footwear at price points that belie the quality on offer.
As a result, Morjas is able to offer this beautiful dress sneaker for less than £200. Even though it’s crafted with high-end materials and meticulous attention to detail.
Shop now at Morjas
Velasca partners with the finest makers in Italy and uses the best quality materials to craft its shoes. It then sells them directly to you, meaning no retail markups or hidden costs.
The upshot is that you’re essentially getting a pair of luxury shoes for significantly less than you might pay elsewhere, and this stunning high-top dress sneaker is no exception.
The Ghisa is made from smooth calf leather and available in five versatile colourways. It comes in a high-top silhouette, which makes it a great option for autumn and winter, and there’s a woven heel tab at the back to make getting it on and off as easy as possible.
Shop now at Velasca
This streamlined sneaker from JAK is a modern twist on a simple, minimalist style. It has a classic dress shoe shape, with the flat sole and round toe box, but a stitched panel that extends around the back and down the sides lends it a slightly sporty look.
Still smart and understated, but perfect for anyone looking for a slightly more contemporary take.
Shop now at JAK
Grenson is one of the OG Northamptonshire shoemakers, renowned for its handmade dress shoes, characterful brogues and beautiful leather boots. In recent years, it has moved with the times and incorporated a number of sneaker styles into its lineup too, the Sneaker 1 being the original and most popular.
The silhouette is based on a 1970s tennis shoe, and has an uncluttered design with only a small stitched panel on the toe box for decoration.
It’s available in a number of understated colourways, including a tan hand-painted calf leather version, which further blurs the line between traditional shoes and sneakers.
Shop now at Grenson
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