How Comfortable Shoes Became the Coolest Thing in Fashion

Fashion Updates Trends

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One photo in the latest lookbook from Palace Skateboards, the idiosyncratic British skate label, feels somehow even more Palace than the rest: loud colors, eccentric details, and a smidge of sartorial subversion. The model in the photo, acclaimed songwriter Will Oldham, is sitting on a stoop; his pants have risen to reveal maroon-red socks with the British label’s wildly coveted “P” logo. His pose puts the image’s focus on the socks and shoes—but the photo doesn’t feature any of Palace’s hyped-up Adidas sneakers, or even their Gucci-on-acid snakeskin loafers. Instead, Oldham is wearing…Dansko clogs? Somehow, the designed-for-comfort shoe usually found in hospitals and kitchens had squirmed its way into a red-hot lookbook—and it looked like it belonged.

On an adjacent corner of the Internet, fashion-crazed men are still ranting and raving about the ongoing collaboration between Rick Owens and Birkenstock: starting last year, the gothic master of avant-garde menswear teamed with the beloved cork-soled footwear brand on some extremely off-kilter sandals and clogs. He wasn’t alone: earlier this month, at New York fashion week, the arthouse label Eckhaus Latta sent a pair of rarefied Ugg boots down the runway, where it looked right at home within the brand’s collection: effortlessly luxurious with a hint of in-the-Bushwick-know cool. And last year, plastic shoemakers Crocs enlisted pioneers of New York streetwear Alife for a streetwear-inspired collaboration. Then the brand teamed up with the massively popular singer Post Malone on a line of bewildering shoes. Both collaborations sold out immediately.

Even by 2019’s wild-style standards, something bizarre has happened: The suburban footwear trusted by non-fashion-savvy people for comfort and durability has completely and totally infiltrated the world of contemporary style.

lime green birkenstocks
The Concepts Birkenstocks.

The spot in the market is there: for some time now, men’s footwear has been a bit of a lawless mess, with designers and wearers alike playing fast and loose with the definition of what “cool sneaker” actually means. It’s been exciting to watch, but it hasn’t necessarily been pretty. The monstrous Balenciaga Triple S unleashed a fury of bulky ugly-on-purpose sneakers in its wake. Then that trend collided with the current affinity for utilitarian workwear, and suddenly rugged trail and mountain sneakers starting popping up within menswear’s inner circle. It seems now that the next frontier of men’s footwear is not ugly sneakers nor mountain shoes—but the type of full-on comfort footwear worn by those who drive around town in a minivan.