When it comes to formal footwear, there are dress shoes, and there are dress shoes. One of these will look okay for six months before falling apart. The other will keep you looking sharp for years, and should in fact get better with age, as the leather picks up warmth and patina. We obviously want you to buy more of the latter and less of the former.
But how do you tell a good men’s dress shoe? What are the signs to look for? We’re assuming you’re not a professional cobbler here, so it can be hard to know what looks good from what genuinely is good.
Let’s get started.
Why quality matters in dress shoes
Dress shoes are obviously the top of the range. They’re the most luxurious, elegant and sophisticated men’s shoes on the market. As such, you kind of want to invest in a proper pair. Buying cheap men’s dress shoes is a bit like buying a cheap luxury car – there’s an inherent contradiction, and it’ll end up costing you more in the long-run. There’s also comfort, durability and style, all of which follow the old saying: you get what you pay for.
Cheap thongs, sure. Cheap dress shoes, no.
Men’s dress shoes should always be made of leather, not canvas or synthetic rubber. But not all leather is created equal. What you want to look for is known as “full grain leather” or “full leather”. That’s premium grade leather that hasn’t been sanded to remove imperfections, and it generally comes from a better part of the hide.
The grade below that is “top leather”, which is fine, but less good than “full grain”. Below that, you’ve got leftover leather scraps, often marketed as “genuine leather”. And below that you’ve got faux leather, but let’s not even go there.
The other alternative for quality dress shoes is suede. Suede is made from the underside of the leather hide, giving it that trademark fuzzy nap. Suede dress shoes are slightly less formal than full leather, but they make an excellent smart casual shoe (just remember to look after them properly).
You can do this in two ways: either with glue (what’s known as cement construction) or stitching (also known as Blake stitching). Blake-stitched men’s dress shoes, like our ALBERTO tassel loafers and WITHERS Derbies, are definitely the way to go, if you can find them, but there’s nothing wrong with cement construction either. We use pure cement construction on our BRENNIN and WINGATE dress shoes, for example.
Keep in mind, there are a couple of advantages to Blake-stitched dress shoes. Although they’re slightly more expensive, they do cut a slimmer profile, because the stitching process involves fewer layers. The construction is also a bit more durable than pure cement, due to the combination of glue and stitching.
Lastly, on the top shelf, you have the D’oro collection. These are, essentially, the best and most flexible dress shoes we know how to make: hand-crafted in Italy, with leather in-soles, soft latex rubber and flex leather outer soles. You can find the full range of D’oro Aquila shoes here, but if you’re looking for the very best, you can’t go wrong with some MOTLEY dress shoes.
Cheaper dress shoes often feature rubber soles, while more expensive dress shoes (usually) have pure leather soles. This one is a little down to preference. Leather soles feel and look better than chunky rubber, obviously, but rubber does have better grip. Leather soles are generally more comfortable on your feet, especially if you’re going to be wearing dress shoes all the time. On the other hand, leather can absorb water, which can flow into the upper and the lining, making leather soles less weather resistant.
A good compromise material is thunit, which we use sometimes here at Aquila. It’s a synthetic rubber that has a very similar look and feel to real leather. You can find thunit soles on our BARCLAYS black dress shoes.
As a general rule of thumb: the more layers in the sole, the better. So a triple-leather sole will last years, while a single-leather sole will probably wear quickly at the heal and toe.
If the stitching around the upper looks frayed or ragged or uneven, that’s often a sign of poor quality men’s dress shoes. Handmade dress shoes always have neat, discreet, barely noticeable stitching, with no loose threads or signs of fraying. Give the outside of the shoe a good inspection, particularly around the vamp, the heel cap and the welt.
If your dress shoes are marked as “dip dyed”, that’s a good sign. It means they’ve got a rich, multi-toned colouring – and they’re also one of a kind. No two dip-dyed shoes are the same. The process involves literally dipping the leather in a vat of special dye and allowing the pores to absorb color in their own unique way. The shoes are then dried, cobbled together by hand, and re-nourished with a series of special polishes. Poor quality dress shoes never bother with this process, so it’s a quick way of filtering out the good stuff.