Counter culture

Selling with sole

By Alfred Tong | 17.07.17

With men’s shoe collections growing, brands are keen to put their best foot forward.

Men are becoming more adventurous and engaged with fashion and, correspondingly, with footwear as a result. The stereotype of the shoe-mad (female) fashionista is being turned on its head.

Research from Mintel shows that men aged 25-44 are now more likely than women of the same age to be motivated to update their footwear because of a new fashion trend. The numbers tell a story of men becoming more adventurous and engaged with fashion and, correspondingly, with footwear as a result. Much of this growth can be put down to the rising popularity of trainers and casual, fashion inspired shoes: “Sneakers are to men what designer handbags were to women: items which have huge cultural and design cache,” says DJ Kish Kash, London’s most prolific trainer collector, whose own collection totals almost 2,000 pairs.

Cheaney Shoes offers a club-like gentlemen’s outfitters environment
Cheaney Shoes, Covent Garden
According to Mintel’s research, 52% of people want retailers to help them find a better fit

Brands such as Red Wing, Clarks Originals, Timberland and Dr Martens also have huge appeal for men who are into trainers, explains Kash.“For instance, Clarks Originals, say a pair of Wallabees, sit somewhere in the middle of the formality spectrum. If you had a venn diagram there’d be brogues on one side and trainers on the other. A pair of Dr Martens or Wallabees would sit bang in the middle. It’s a sweet spot because it helps men to dress for a variety of social situations, without the stuffiness of a fully English leather shoe.”

Bucketfeet, Washington DC

Currently, the mantle of Leading UK Footwear Brand belongs to Clarks. One of the ways in which it has successfully achieved this is with the rollout of its ‘Clarks Originals’ lines, all of which have huge cult appeal from their association with youth culture in Britain, Jamaica, and the US. Clarks Originals taps into the trend for authenticity, craftsmanship and heritage, at a relatively accessible price point of £90-£110. But analysts believe it has to do more to keep up with current trends.

According to Mintel research, the biggest challenges for shoppers instore is finding the right ‘fit’. 52% of people want retailers to do more to help them. The investment being made by the likes of schuh in technology not only makes the instore experience more efficient, it also allows retail teams to do what counts: to offer expertise and advice, acting as a kind of instore influencer rather than running to and fro from the stockroom.

Oliver Sweeney, Covent Garden

In London, start-up shoe company Baudoin & Lange make a version of the Belgian Slipper, a lightweight loafer, which was once a favourite of New York WASPs (Bernie Madoff owned 300 pairs). “Our product is a staple like the Tod’s or Gucci loafer, or Warby Parker glasses. We offer the same shoe in different colours and materials. So that makes it easier to offer consistent sizing. Sizing and fit are a crucial issue,” explains the brand’s founder, Bo van Langeveld.

It’s a space that encourages shoppers to appreciate the handcrafting and skill that goes into making quality shoes

For sheer theatricality and service, few stores beat Crep Protect in London’s Fitzrovia. It isn’t even a shoe brand, but a type of sneaker cleaning product. Rare, exclusive and collectible trainers sit upon Jenga-style bricks that jut out of the wall and move along conveyor belts, while screens display stock market-style ticker tape showing the rise and fall of prices in the international sneaker market. The store also offers a cleaning service with which to fully refurbish trainers – using Crep Protect, of course.

While other shops such as Grenson and Oliver Sweeney make use of photographs of men in aprons polishing shoes, and have the odd tool scattered around a mock in-store workshop, atelier George Cleverley has no need: bespoke shoes are actually still made here entirely by hand. Cleverley’s exclusive collaboration for online men’s retailer MR PORTER and the MR PORTER X Kingsman spy film franchise has recently brought its ready-to-wear shoes to a wider audience.

The Frye Company, Washington DC

History, tradition and craftsmanship are the themes for the design and interior of the Cheaney Shoes flagship in Covent Garden. It’s a space that encourages shoppers to appreciate the handcrafting and skill that goes into making quality shoes. Shoe lasts adorn the walls like an art installation, while leather swatches, soles, stitching etc., are housed in glass cabinets. It’s a stylised Northamptonshire workshop brought into the heart of central London.

In spite of challenges (best illustrated by the near collapse and last minute rescue of Jones Bootmaker and Brantano earlier this year), these – and there are more – fine examples of best practice in men’s footwear retailing illustrate a sector which is in rude health, and ripe with both instore creativity and opportunity.


Alfred Tong is a journalist, trend forecaster and brand consultant who has written for The Times, The Face, Timeout, Harpers Bazaar and Esquire. He has also consulted for American Express, Ralph Lauren, Nike and Thomas Pink.


This article is taken from Issue #5 of Counter Culture, our free digital magazine.


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