Clean sneakers, dirty market

White sneakers are the bomb: they look good on everyone and can be had across multiple price points. When guys ask me how to upgrade their style (yes this does happen), I’ll almost always recommend starting with a pair of mid-to-high-end clean sneaks. But finding the right clean sneakers for you is getting tougher with how many new brands there are out there, and it can feel like a jungle out there.


common projects outfit 1

(The modern male often separates from the pack to communicate with other herds through their mobile phones – slick sneakers are a must if this one is to avoid a challenging mating season)

Not to worry! I’ve been documenting this space for a few years, and felt like it might be useful to map out what I think is going on from a business perspective, as well as help you decide what to buy (read: force you to adopt my preferences).

Introduction and basics

A few principles will take you pretty far when it comes to buying great clean sneakers.

White isn’t the only option

I think every guy should have a pair of clean white sneakers, but there are other great options. Gray, nude, pink, and taupe are excellent colors that might better match the complexion of some guys. The golden rule: try to stay away from two toned sneakers, where the sole is a different color than the upper. That’s next level stuff you might not be ready for.

my common projects collection

(My Common Projects come in lots of different – but simple – colorways)

Shower your shoes with love, not criticism

People are usually wondering how to keep white sneakers clean. The answer – get this – is pretty simple: you clean them. Don’t wait until your favorite pair is caked with dirt and salt stains to wonder how to keep them clean. After you’re in the rain, dirt, or anything staining, run a wipe over your kicks.

Quality is worth paying for

The single biggest mistake that guys make in buying sneakers (jk but I got your attention didn’t I) is settling for low quality materials and builds. This problem pervades male fashion, but is acutely noticeable here: it’s good to own low-end stuff, but you get a lot more for $200 than you do for $50. In addition to a cleaner, higher quality, better fitting and looking sneaker, better stuff will last you longer. If you can afford it, don’t just go for the cheapest option.

Simplicity is king (or queen, or whatever gets the point across)

Great men’s style starts with simplicity and choice, and sneakers are the first place to start. Simple colors, simple shapes, and simple combinations tend to look best. If you want to add a splash of creativity, be thoughtful with how you do it, or you’ll start looking like Migos and/or every hypebeast. Trust me, I know streetwear.

The players: what to buy

The way I see it, there are 3 distinct buckets to choose from when you’re looking at buying your latest and greatest pair of clean kicks. Before asking around, make sure you’re comfortable with how much you want to spend and what kind of quality you’re looking for.

The Low End

You’ve probably heard of Adidas’s Stan Smith: they sell millions (probably) of these per year, and they’re the headlining low-end clean sneaker. Sneakers on the low-end will typically sell for less than $100, come from a major brand like Adidas or Nike, and last for 6-8 months of normal wear.

the classic stan smith

(An iconic, true classic – The Adidas Stan Smith)

Here are some of my favorite low-end options:

  • Adidas Stan Smith (I prefer colorways that are a bit more unique: pastel colors, contrasting soles, something that just makes it not identical to everyone else on the subway)
  • Nike Blazer (the American version lacks any perceptible quality, so try to buy the European version if you can. I have them in pink and they’ve lasted for a while)
  • Reebok Workout Plus

The low-end is a great place to start if you’re foraying into non-athletic sneakers for the first time. 5 years ago, my explanation of the low-end would have ended here. But there’s a new segment of the low-end that I find disturbing, and I think you should probably stay away from: the knockoffs.

High-end clean sneakers have become so popular that new manufacturers have been trying to copy them: steal the silhouette and major aesthetic principles, but use cheap materials. A few examples of this:

For comparable prices, the quality of these guys will be significantly less impressive than your typical Stan Smith. They’re trying to look like $300 sneakers with $50 materials, which is kind of like letting your Mom buy you clothes: it works, as long as “works” means “doesn’t at all work.”

My recommendation: your first pair of clean sneakers should be Stan Smiths. Outsized and best quality to price ratio on the low-end.

The Mid End

The low-end has been around basically forever. Stan Smiths were released in the 1970’s, which for millennials like myself might as well have been the Dark Ages. The luxury high-end has been a staple of American high life for centuries already. But this bucket is relatively new, and it’s existence is largely a product of the (great) proliferation of DTC (direct to consumer) companies that don’t rely on retailers to sell their stuff. I’m also noticing a non-trivial increase in how much men care about their dress, which helps these companies thrive.

Mid end clean sneaks will sell for less than $300, but offer a significant quality upgrade over the low-end. A few popular brands that I’ve explored:

The mid-end combines elements of the low and high-end (thanks, professor obvious) – price is still accessible for your friends that are (still) associates at PwC, but materials are much higher quality than what you’d expect from Adidas or Nike.

axel arigato clean 90

(Axel Arigato keeps a really clean shape, but has some models with cool detailing, like this marbling on the sole of the Clean 90)

These brands are getting pretty popular, too. I’ve seen a ton of men and women in NYC wearing Greats (always the flagship “Royale” model, which I just can’t stand), and they’re a significant upgrade over the lower end alternative. Koio prices themselves like higher end, but offers mid-end feel and fits in my experience.

The mid-end is a great place to shop once you’ve gotten your mileage out of Stan Smiths or the like, and you’re looking to step up to better leather and sleeker aesthetics without breaking the bank. It’s a great way to differentiate your style along with all the other men differentiating their style in the exact same way.

My recommendation: the mid-end is a great introduction to what makes the high-end awesome. I’d consider this a one time purchase, but an educational one: stick with Greats if you never want to spend more, or Koio / Axel Arigato if you want a taste of the next step up.

The high-end

The high-end is where I irresponsibly waste my paychecks, and I’m constantly encouraging my friends to try it out (it’s hard to explain at first why it’s worth it, but as with much of life, feelings cannot be rationally communicated). There’s one name that sticks out here, and they’re the defining brand of white and clean sneakers on the planet: Common Projects.

common projects achilles retro

I’ll save you the love poems for another time, but needless to say I’m a fanboy. I own 8 pairs of these bad boys (thanks for the ride, Black Friday 2018), and I think they’re just the bomb. They’re clean, handmade, built with awesome quality materials, and last for a while. Almost every high-end clothing manufacturer dresses their models with these gems.

The high-end is marked by price points greater than $350 (on average: keep reading for an interesting trend), Italian handmade craftsmanship and leather, and some sort of unique, embellishing mark. Here are some of the classics:

Each of these is slightly and subtly unique: Common Projects has iconic gold lettering (yes, real gold) on each sneaker, Givenchy has looping leather knots on the back, Saint Laurent uses stars and handwriting, and Golden Goose uses the ubiquitous large star (and distresses their sneakers). If these sound silly and frivolous to you, you’re probably a rational human being.

golden goose superstar

(Distressed sneakers are about as ridiculous as you can imagine, but the Golden Goose silhouette is pretty awesome)

You might be thinking: “Justin, you just told me about a wonderful mid-end with great quality and price options. Why would I ever spend more than $300 on glorified pieces of animal hide?” Excellent question, my inquisitive reader. The key to the high-end is understanding that it isn’t for everyone, and it’s not always a rational choice. Some people will just feel a draw to a product. Life is short. Buy the shoes.

Something interesting has been going on though: prices have been coming down on high-end sneakers, and it’s not because manufacturers want them to. There are so many brand new (and awesome) curated retail sites opening up – END, Farfetch, Bodega, Opumo, and Matches Fashion, to name a few – and that means that more places than ever are selling these products. With more sellers, there are also more sales (at different times, which is key). These days, it’s not hard to find high-end sneakers on sale somewhere for much less than you’d normally pay. Some high-end items are getting into mid-end price territory, and I’m keeping an eye out for how that impacts market dynamics.

If you’ve tried shoes from the low or mid-end and you’re looking to take your style to the next level, I’d consider looking at these brands. You don’t need to be an Upper East Side mom to wear them, so just follow your heart.

My recommendation: (fake) studies have shown that Common Projects make any man look like a rugged male model. Don’t spend more than you want to, but consider opening yourself up to experiential retail.

Conclusion

Buying sneakers is like a journey with multiple steps – you’ll develop taste over time and decide what price point and style is best for you. Take it slowly, keep good care of what you’ve got, and you’ll be in great hands. And if you’re ever looking for advice or ideas: hit me up on Twitter (@jgage718).

Dec 02 | 2018