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Leather sneakers 101: Everything you need to know

Leather sneakers 101: Everything you need to know

23 Mar 2021

Leather sneakers 101: Everything you need to know

By James Shackell

Men’s leather sneakers have come a long way in the last 10 years. They’ve evolved into their own distinct footwear category, with sub-genres, different styles and dozens of colours to choose from: low-rise or high-top, leather or canvas, white soles or full colour variants, weekend kick-abouts or suit-and-tie office commuters.

The big thing to remember is that not all sneakers are created equal. There’s a world of difference between hand-stitched soles and the scuffed-up trainers that used to live at the bottom of your sports bag. In this article, we’ll break down everything you need to know about good quality men’s leather sneakers. How to style them, how to take care of them, and which pairs you need in your wardrobe.

Men's sneaker basics

Sneakers have managed to claw their way from street style to high fashion, but they’re still no substitute for dress shoes. Most men’s sneakers sit somewhere in the world between ‘casual’ and ‘smart casual’. You can also wear sneakers with business suits, but that’s another whole article right there. The beauty of the men’s sneaker is versatility. If you get the style right, there are almost no rules. You can wear them with no-show socks or ankle socks, summer or winter, denim or chinos, shorts or sweat pants. The main things to remember are: buy sneakers that match your current wardrobe; don’t wear them to weddings; and keep them clean.  

Common sneaker styles

Men’s leather sneakers come in all sorts of shapes and styles, but we’ll do our best here to break down the major categories. The first is the basic men’s sneaker. This is something like the DECO or BURNIE: good for weekends, with a white rubber sole and cushioned heel. Classic sports sneakers, like the DECO MESH, are more of an athleisure statement—they work well with jogger chinos, sweats or slim-fit jeans. Then there are the dressier, luxury sneakers, like the TRACER or VADER high top. These guys can be styled with dress chinos or suit pants, depending on the colour. If you are only opting for one pair of sneakers, we recommend the basic style—either DECO or SMITH—in plain white. This is arguably the most versatile men’s sneaker, and it’ll give you the most mileage.

Sneaker features

Most people don’t think of sneakers as having dedicated ‘features’ beyond the basics: sole, tongue, laces etc. But good leather sneakers are different. When they’re made properly, they should support your foot, just like boots or dress shoes, with a breathable leather upper and cushioned heel. Many of our sneakers feature what’s known as ‘Strobel’ construction, which is what you find on most high-quality athletic shoes. The leather upper is hand-sewn into the fabric bottom using a Strobel stitch, creating a kind of ‘sock’. This gives you the ultimate blend of comfort and durability. Well-made leather Strobel sneakers should last years and, if anything, get more and more comfortable over time. Sneakers should also have hard-wearing rubber soles with a rounded toe. They should feel light, but strong. If you can bend them in a circle, look elsewhere.

Sneakers and suits

A few years ago, this would have been a fashion crime (not to mention sending your boss’s pulse through the roof). But sneakers in the office are pretty common these days. The trick is styling them correctly. We’ve written about styling sneakers and suits before, but here are the basics. Stick to simple colours, like white or black sneakers. Don’t mess about with sports styles—you’re looking for classic shapes and sleek lines, not pumped-up kicks. A pair of crisp white sneakers under a structured navy or charcoal suit is modern-day ‘business casual’ in a nutshell. One last tip: keep your sneakers clean. Scuffed up, muddy sneakers should never be seen in the office.

Our favourite sneakers to wear with suits

Sneakers and casual outfits

This is obviously sneakers’ home turf, and most guys feel pretty comfortable styling sneakers with casual outfits. Still, it pays to experiment. If you’ve got a pair of white sneakers already, try branching out with tans, pastels, petrol blue or neutrals. Black sneakers are versatile, too. Just remember to stick to monochrome shades of black, white and grey: black-on-black trainers with black jeans and a charcoal bomber is always a killer winter look. The general rule is to think tonal: reds with reds, greens with greens, blues with blues. Alternatively, a clean white tee will work with any sneaker. And remember: white soles are more casual, but also more versatile. Block colour sneakers can work better for ‘smart casual’ events, but they’re harder to mix and match.

Sneakers and formal events

As a general rule, sneakers and formal events don’t mix. Having said that, sneakers can easily slot into ‘semi-formal’, ‘cocktail’ and ‘business casual’. As with sneakers and a suit, you have to keep a few rules in mind. First, stick to pure leather sneakers without any visible heel. Second, dress sneakers should always be a neutral shade, which means white, black, grey, navy or dark brown. Low-tops are usually the way to go here, although a well-fitted suit pant will usually hide your high-tops anyway. When it comes to styling, try a suit jacket, patterned shirt, slacks and some BURNIE navy sneakers. Lean into the look with a punchy pocket square and some quality accessories.

High-tops vs Low-tops

High-top sneakers date all the way back to the 1890s. They have their roots in athletics and basketball, but these days they’re more of a fashion statement. When it comes to styling high-top sneakers, we recommend a good pair of blue-wash or black jeans with a strong double cuff. You want a slim, relaxed fit – nothing too skinny or too wide. To finish the look, just throw on a contrast crew tee, or a layer up with a trucker jacket. Low-top sneakers are your stock standard men’s sneaker, so it’s hard to make a misstep here. Low-tops work well with shorts, jeans and chinos. You can even wear them under a suit (see above). We recommend a crew sock with low-tops, even if you’re rocking shorts. Sports-style ankle socks should really only be worn at the gym.

Leather vs suede

All leather sneakers need a bit of love and attention, but suede and nubuck especially. With these styles, you really want to invest in some suede-friendly weather repellant and shoe polish. We’ve got a full guide over here. And don’t let the extra upkeep put you off: suede and nubuck sneakers have a texture and warmth that you don’t get from regular leather. They’re usually considered less dressy than other styles. Wear them in the warmer months (when you’re less likely to get rained on). Just throw clay nubuck sneakers under some light denim and a well-fitted polo. Or maybe a pair of royal blue VADER mid-rise with cuffed navy chinos and a simple white tee.

How to clean leather sneakers

Sneaker care is super important, especially when it comes to leather sneakers. Leather is a sturdy material, but water and dirt are its natural enemies. They get into the grain and dry out the leather, which often forces the vamp (the sneaker’s upper) and the welt (the strip around the sole) apart. Before you wear your new leather sneakers, spray them with a water and stain protector. This will help keep the leather supple and weather-resistant. We’d also recommend giving them a scrub and some nourishing shoe cream every six months or so. To wash your leather sneakers, just moisten a magic eraser, or grab a shoe brush, and rub off as much dirt and grime as you can. Dry thoroughly with a cloth, then apply the shoe cream to finish. You can check out our complete guide to shoe care over here.