It’s hard for me to imagine going without a pair of sneakers this time of year. Summer is about having the windows down and volume up, biking somewhere on a hot afternoon, and hanging your feet off a picnic bench while BBQ-ing with friends. Camp moccasins and penny loafers can be great for these sorts of things, but I also like having a pair of casual sneakers you can wear with jeans and camp collar shirts.
I’ve cycled through a bunch over the years, but find I keep returning to the same ones (although, the first pair below were recently acquired). If you’re looking to get a pair this summer, here are some of my favorites. Since they’re mostly designer shoes based off classic silhouettes, I’ve included links to the originals, which are much more affordable. As sneakers go, the build quality between the low and high end of the spectrum is smaller than it is in dress shoes – almost everything is in design. I like the uniqueness of these versions, but their designers found the originals to be inspiring for a reason.
A few of weeks ago, I met up with Kiya from Self Edge for coffee. If you’ve ever met him, you’d appreciate how simple he dresses for a guy who owns one of the best denim boutiques in the world. The first time we met, he wore a grey sweatshirt with some olive Stevenson fatigues. The second time he had on a striped ringer tee, raw denim jeans, and these Visvim Skagways. I liked the sneakers so much that I bought a pair later that week.
Visvim offers their Skagway every season in slightly different materials and patterns, and these bamboo prints are the best I’ve seen from their collections. They’re made with a Japanese hand-printing technique called katazurizome. The company describes it as a kind of resist dyeing method, although I’m not sure that’s correct. As I understand it, resist dyeing involves applying a dye-resist paste or tying up the material before coloring it, so you get a reverse print effect from where the dye didn’t take hold. See this old post about African indigo dyeing techniques.
From their online video, katazurizome seems to be a simple stenciling method. A paper stencil is fixed on top of a piece of material – here being black suede – and then a worker applies paint using a short, rounded, deer-hair brush. Since they use short and quick brush strokes, the prints end up having a lot of variation. One pair of Skagways I bought had a fairly uniform print, while another had a bit more bubbling and irregular character. I kept the second.
I can’t say enough about how much I like these. The EVA Phylon midsoles and vulcanized outsoles are exceptionally comfortable; the soft leather lining allows your feet to slip out a bit more easily than other Chuck Taylor remakes. And there’s a ton of great detailing – a uniquely designed tongue, double needle sewn toe cap, and of course the hand-stenciled bamboo print. They’re a great way to wear a more interesting shoe, even if you have conservative tastes like me, and work well with brands such as Chimala, Kapital, and Orslow. Try these if you like workwear wardrobes that have a slightly more contemporary streetwear vibe, rather than things that are strictly traditional or repro.
Sizing: I went true to size, although some recommend going down a half size. I think I could have gone down, although TTS is still comfortable for me.
Affordable Alternative: Chuck Taylors 1970s High Tops
Common Projects is best known for their Achilles, an all-white, under-the-radar low-top that started the minimalistic sneaker trend nearly fifteen years ago. They’re popular because they’re versatile, but also kind of burnt because they’re ubiquitous. I still occasionally wear mine, but I mostly like the company’s b-ball high-tops these days.
These are basically the Nike Air Forces 1s made with better materials and a slimmer silhouette. They go well with certain contemporary casualwear outfits, but have a more distinct look than the anonymous Achilles. I wear mine with jeans and leather jackets, sometimes a topcoat in the fall. Saint Laruent’s SL-01 has a slimmer-still profile that I like with my Margiela five-zip, but the build quality is so awful they’re hard to recommend. Common Projects are still overpriced, like all designer sneakers, but at least you’re getting something for your money. Portugal The Man apparently agrees.
Note, these b-ball high-tops are sold out at the moment, but they’re almost sure to return come fall. If you’re looking for something now, Vor’s 2Bs are similar and on sale at No Man Walks Alone, a sponsor on this site.
Sizing: Go a full size down
Affordable Alternative: Nike Air Force 1s
If German Army Trainers look familiar, it’s because the brothers who invented them would later go on to start Adidas and Puma, two companies who still make shoes with a familial resemblance. At some point in the 1970s, German soldiers wore these as standard issue for indoor exercises, which is how they got their name. And when the standing army was downsized after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, these sneakers eventually made their way into military surplus shops across Europe.
A decade later, Martin Margiela and his team bought a few pairs for their Artisanal line, where they remade and recycled everyday objects into fashion items. They embossed the tongues on their vintage GATs with Margiela’s numeric branding, hand-painted the outsoles, and passed them around the design studio so the staff could doodle on them. The shoes were then distributed to different stores around the world, along with a card that encouraged the new owners to add their own messages.
The style has been part of Margiela’s permanent collection for over fifteen years, and they’ve offered them in every iteration imaginable, from paint splatters to a paper version that allows you to recreate the graffiti look of the originals. I like the plain, no-graffiti, white-and-grey ones with a gum sole best. They have a low-key, sporty sensibility and go well with almost anything – from contemporary minimalism to classic casualwear to even some workwear. If I could only wear one pair of sneakers for the next five years, it would probably be these just based on their versatility.
Sizing: True to size
Affordable Alternative: Addias BW Army Trainers
Engineered Garments originally released their Vans Vault collab a few years ago, but it’s returned every summer since at their Nepenthes store in NYC. These come in slightly mismatched uppers, where the materials used for the vamp and quarters are switched between each shoe. They’re great in that slightly offbeat way that has defined not only Japanese brands in general, but Engineered Garments in particular. Fair warning, wearing these means you’ll spend at least thirty minutes each day explaining that, no, you didn’t accidentally walk out the house with mismatched shoes. And no, this isn’t the fashion right now. You just like them, OK?!
To be honest, these aren’t my favorite on this list, but they’re some of my most worn. You could leave them two feet from your front door and basically walk into them without missing a step. They’re simple, fun, and easy to put on. They also go well with the sort of things you’re likely to wear when you’re running out for an errand – chambray shirts, field jackets, and jeans; t-shirts and shorts; or trucker jackets and fatigues.
Nepenthes re-released these sneakers today in-store, but they’ll be available for phone orders starting Monday. You can get Nepenthes’ contact info and see this season’s colorways on their blog. Get the white version for versatility.
Sizing: Go a half size down
Affordable Alternative: Vans Slip Ons in Hairy Suede
In the 1970s, shortly after Japan fell in love with Ivy Style, the Japanese started noticing that American college students were no longer wearing neckties with tweed jackets to classes. Instead, many were repurposing outdoor brands such as Sierra Designs and Eddie Bauer into their everyday attire. Certainly, the oxford-cloth button-down remained popular, but instead of hook-vent sport coats and striped rep neckwear, students were wearing 60/ 40 parkas, Levi’s jeans, and Champion sweatshirts.
The look was later coined “Rugged Ivy” (or sometimes “Heavy Duty Ivy”). In his book Ametora, David Marx described it as two sides of the same coin. Students at certain colleges still wore blazers, but ones in more rural locales such as Dartmouth were more likely to be found in down jackets and denim.
If you like these things like I do, or simply want to dress like a narcotics FBI agent in an undercover sting operation, try Spalwart’s Marathon Trails. They have that classic retro-runner look, but with a slightly funkier treaded outsole that gives the style a sense of humor. They’re a bit flimsy in terms of construction, but still durable and reasonably comfortable – especially on hot days since half the shoes are made from breathable mesh panels. Classic, low-key, and kind of dad-ish, but in a good way.
Sizing: True to size