Buying trainers: a guide for the older man

A re-edited version of this appeared in The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine.

In general, a man doesn’t give much thought to his trainers. He may well have a pair tucked away in the wardrobe, waiting for when he needs to walk the dog or go out for a quick drink. But that’s where the relationship ends: he thinks of them—if he ever does think of them—as throw-them-on shoes, shoes that don’t matter. This is a pity. The right pair of classic trainers can be as versatile as a pair of made-to-measure oxfords from Lobb.

By “classic” trainer, I don’t mean the modern, hyper-size sports shoe, with their various air pumps, cushioned soles and space-age lacing systems. These are too big, too clever-clever and too noticeable to be much use. For trainers that bring out the best in clothes—or at least the clothes that a grown man might want to wear—you need the simpler styles: how trainers looked before trainers got silly. Often constructed of fine leather in dark or understated colours, and with a lack of any obvious markings or branding, a classic trainer will be reminiscent in shape of the pumps of the 1960s and 1970s You could play a spot of a five-a-side in a pair, if you had to, but they’re smart, too—as smart as trainers can get without actually becoming shoes. Coupled with a pair of slimmer-fit, indigo jeans, a good jacket and a well-fitting shirt, they’ll see you right for all but the most formal of occasions.

There’s no shortage of places to shop for this type of shoe—the big sportswear brands such as Adidas, Nike, Puma, Lacoste and Reebok are sold globally. But you’ll want to pass on these brands’ showiest models and instead search out their retrospective ranges. Adidas’s Originals line (, in particular, is a cornucopia of classic shoes from the company’s back-catalogue. Models such as the Stan Smith, Forest Hills, Universal and Stockholm are constructed mainly from leather or coloured suede, and have a timeless shape that will work with most casual trousers, especially a pair of relaxed-fit jeans or dark cords—perfect for Saturday-afternoon outings or leisurely evenings in the pub. But be wary of the much-hyped, money-spinning collaborations between the big sportswear labels and established designers, such as that between Alexander McQueen and Puma. Aside from Adidas’s work with Porsche Design, they’re all a more ponderous, overstated and more expensive version of the real thing. It’s like someone buying a chic modernist house, and the adding a Tudorbethan roof to it. Then charging you twice as much for the privilege.

Perhaps surprisingly, higher price is not necessarily a guarantee of a better shoe. Many designer fashion labels have spin-off sportswear lines, punting out tracksuits and shoes plastered with visible logos. But when I was doing the research for this piece, I found a pair of plain black Comme des Garçons pumps, at Dover Street Market in central London, that were indistinguishable from the ones worn by six-year-olds in school gymnasiums up and down the country to do their forward rolls in. The price to you? £155. Admittedly Prada does a few perfectly crafted black leather trainers—but even then, it adds garish red logos running up the tongues of some styles, which spoils the whole thing. At the other end of the market—and usually that’s where they’re found—you should avoid the temptation to save a few quid by buying a pair of imitation pumps. They may look like that pair of Adidas you saw last week, but the four stripes, cardboard sole and unpleasant smell of substandard glue will soon illustrate the folly of your purchase. Plus, if you wear them out with your children they’ll never speak to you again.

For people with concern for those who actually make these items, the likes of Adidas and Nike haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. Both brands use giant factories in south east Asia and South America as a way of cutting costs and sadly, their record in labour relations has been poor. For example, in 2005, 33 Adidas employees in Indonesia were sacked for taking part in a legal strike over pay – workers had been paid as little as 60 cents an hour. It was only a concerted campaign by Oxfam that finally got them a severance deal two years later. More hopefully, Nike, for years a target of anti-poverty campaigners, has made a concerted effort to distance itself from these sort of practices. In 2005, it published a dossier which contained details of abuses at its factories in Asia and joined the Fair Labour Association – both of which were seen as positive moves forward by human rights groups. Neither firm, however, can compete on these issues with Brazilian/French trainer brand, Veja (, which not only makes strikingly retro sports shoes in organic cotton and wild rubber, but also ensures workers are rewarded for their toils by running the business on a co-operative model.

Another danger comes in the form of the horrendous casual shoe/trainer hybrids that have surfaced in the past few years. Often constructed in pre-distressed leather and covered in all sorts of unsightly details—oddly angled Velcro fastenings are popular—they’re usually worn by men with intricate mullet haircuts, purposely bashed-about jeans and nasty suit jackets. These are not for you. Instead, stay svelte and explore the ranges by the Majorcan cobblers Camper, the Italian high-end sportswear specialist C.P. Company—or amiable but intermittently stuffy English shoemakers Clarks. If it’s lo-tech, classic simplicity you’re after, Converse’s Chuck Taylor and Jack Purcell basketball boots will look super-fresh with a pair of 1950s-style, baggy, turned-up jeans, while Superga’s cotton Cotu plimsoll has been complementing Italian men’s fitted summer shorts since 1925. You could also try some of the classy European styles produced by the Swedish brand Tretorn and France’s Spring Court (the latter as worn by John Lennon on the front of Abbey Road).

Of course, one of the problems about buying trainers is the actual shopping experience. Like record shops and hi-fi stores, trainer emporiums can be horribly intimidating places. Specialised men’s boutiques such as Oi Polloi in Manchester, or Liverpool’s Transalpino, can be easier on the male ego, with assistants who’ll happily take you through their tailor-made choice of retro-looking trainers and reissues without making you feel like an unwanted guest. These shops also boast fantastic, easy-to-use websites if you can’t make it in the flesh. At the top end, London’s Lanvin menswear store in Savile Row is a joy to a shop at, while around the corner, in Brook Street the ultra-friendly boutique Browns has just opened a dedicated shoe store; in Paris, the Bonne Marché branch in St Germain is particularly welcoming and well-stocked. And if you have to go high-street, the UK-wide chain Size (, boasts an unrivalled selection of reissues, while Office carries plenty of the bigger sports brands. Be warned, however: some members of staff wear baseball caps turned to the side—unironically.

When you put on a pair of trainers on it’s wise to bear a couple of things in mind. Firstly, the laces: many an outfit has been ruined by huge bows flapping off the feet of an otherwise carefully dressed man. Either cut the laces shorter, or tie them behind the tongue: that way you’ll get a nice, clean silhouette and be less likely to fall over when running for that early morning flight. Think about what you’re wearing them with, too. The sleeker the trainer, the narrower your trousers should be. You’ll often see smart footwear swamped by cheap, baggy jeans, lost under a blanket of shredded denim—keep your jeans resting on top of your footwear. After all, what’s the point in shelling out on quality sports shoes if no one can see them?

If you find you’re getting stuck about what trainers to plump for, use the same rules for buying other clothes. Think about what other items you’ve got, the sort of places you’ll be going and what suits you. Don’t be too clever or ambitious. This is not about fashion or taking risks, it is about style—and that, as we know, is timeless. Happy hunting.


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