We are living in a unique period of time where there is a proliferation of small companies edging in on markets once solely dominated by a small handful of bigger players. Pick almost any industry. Beer, once ruled by A.B. InBev, SABMiller, and Heineken, now needs to compete with a huge host of micro-brewers and younger companies like Stone or Sierra Nevada. Coffee giants like Starbucks, Peets, and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf have ceded ground to micro-roasters and quality focused brands like Blue Bottle, La Colombe, and others.
This kind of growth isn’t just relegated to the vices in our lives. Much like the increasing number of upstarts in the athletic apparel market, new sneaker companies have made their way into the market in a big way. Some are old, resurrected from obscurity, while others are brand new companies either laser focused on style, performance, or a little bit of both. Same goes for footwear. And while we all know it can be easy to go for the tried and true pair of Vans or New Balance sneakers when the kicks on your feet start fading, we’d like to encourage every guy to take a look at some of these smaller makers before making a final decision.
Athletic Propulsion Labs
You would think that if you made something that got banned from one of the most consequential athletic associations in the world, you might not want to brag about it. Athletic Propulsion Labs does not subscribe to this way of thinking. They got their shoes banned from the NBA and they want you to know about it. According to the league, their kicks were so good that they provided an “undue competitive advantage” to players wearing them. How does that work? Well, each of their shoes are equipped with a patented Load ’N Launch Technology in the forefoot that allows wearers to run faster and jump higher. This technology makes them the only brand to ever have been kicked out of the basketball league in its entire history, but it also sets them apart from all other athletic shoes on the market. Not only are you going to be sporting fashionable, comfortable sneakers when you have APL on, but you’ll actually be able to put more points on the board, too. Not bad for a small company run by a couple of brothers that started in the middle of the largest recession in 100 years.
If you find yourself a little turned off by big, gaudy, and loud shoes, then you may want to pay Osaka-based brand Buddy some attention. The 4-year-old company turns out a handful of different styles of sneakers – all of them higher quality iterations on classic canvas silhouettes like hi-tops, chukkas, slip ons, and low lace-ups. Instead of using a simple canvas, however, most all of Buddy’s shoes make use of high-quality vegetable tanned leather and suede. All things said, these are a solid choice for the guy looking to keep a classic look that is subtly unique.
If your sneakers went off and acquired a sophisticated taste in cigars and whiskey along with a deep knowledge of renaissance art and Russian poetry, this may be what they ended up look like. Common Projects, a joint venture of the American Art Director Prathan Poopat and Italian Creative Consultant Flavio Girolami, combine familiar sneaker and dress shoe designs with high-quality Nappa Leather to great effect. Hand stitched in Italy, these shoes have a kind of uncanny look to them in that they resemble the shoes you see every day, but the leather used along with the attention to detail seem to almost elevate them beyond just that.
Greats is to sneakers what Warby Parker is to glasses and sunglasses. The 4-year-old Brooklyn-born sneaker brand started by Ryan Babenzien and Jon Buscemi offers a better product for a cheaper price and do it all in a more convenient, seamless manner. Both of the founders have a strong background in the sneaker world – Buscemi was part of DC Shoes, and Babenzien worked for K-Swiss and Puma before starting their own company, and it shows through in both their business smarts (they’ve grown incredibly quickly) and shoe styles. Whether it be a classic lo-top sneaker with a knit, sock-like fabric or a chukka boot made with fine Italian leather, their line is full of a host of familiar silhouettes that all have a contemporary look.
Founded by two brothers Emil and Sandy Corsillo, The Hill-Side was launched out of another joint endeavor of the brothers – a New York-based boutique by the name of Hickorees. Running the store gave them insight into what men were looking for when it came to higher end, more fashionable picks. The primary lesson they seemed to have picked up while running Hickorees was the importance of the material. You won’t find The Hill-Side revolutionizing the sneaker, but you will find them reimagining classic looks with striking fabric and craftsmanship out of a 140-year-old factory in western Japan. These shoes do fall on the higher end of the spectrum, but just a quick scroll through their line and it is hard to say that it isn’t warranted.
“Future Classics.” That is how Native Shoes likes to refer to their own line. It’s an interesting term because it can just as easily mean classics of the future – as in ‘these shoes are ahead of their time’, as it could mean classic shoes given a futuristic treatment. The truth is, their shoes embody a little bit of both. The Vancouver, British Columbia-based brand’s first big hit was the Jefferson, a kind of Chuck Taylor on acid, but since then they’ve branched off and are putting out everything from the increasingly popular Apollo Moc to a line of city-ready boots. All of their shoes are made of synthetic materials, all of them are super lightweight. If you are looking for something a little more fun and loose to throw on your feet, it is well worth the time to consider this brand.
You wouldn’t be completely off base to compare People Footwear to Native Shoes. Native was started by Damian Van Zyll De Jong, and after he left the company in 2013 he set out to start this new endeavor. People has a similarly spacey, exploratory vibe to it. Their line features more traditional silhouettes, but they’re built with strikingly different types of materials and come in loud, fun colorways. Their woven Phillips High, or their Stanley Knit are probably the best examples of this – a classic hi-top with a basket-weave upper, and a Vans-like lo with a knit instead of a canvas upper. As Damian put it in an interview with SlamXHype, the brand is constantly looking for ways to re-create “shoes we know and love and make them better”.
Founded in London by Gareth Skewis, an old school skateboarder turned designer, this footwear company draws its inspiration as much from the city as it does the country surrounding London. Leather, suede, and canvas uppers are matched with vulcanized or crepe mids for a unique, refined look and comfortable fit. A great pick for the guy looking for something a little more on the dressed-up side of the spectrum.
For the most part, when you are looking for a new pair of sneakers, you are trying to get your hands on something that is clean and fresh off the shelf. Satorisan, a 6-year-old company based out of Valencia, Spain, takes a much different approach. They offer an interesting take on classic skate silhouettes by constructing them with textured and worn-in looking materials varying from suede to leather from some of the finest tanneries. They also have a kind of looseness and comfortable look that brings to mind a favorite worn-in tee or sweatshirt.
A lot of the brands on this list were started in the past 20 or so years. SeaVees? Well, it’s a little more complicated. Back in 1964 the company was among the first to be making the classic Californian canvas top sneaker. The brand fell by the wayside, however, as people like Keds and Vans grew to be synonymous with west-coast footwear. It wasn’t until it Steven Tiller, a shoe designer looking for a new start on the west coast after a career working for larger companies, came across a pair of old SeaVees in a Japanese thrift store that they began to make their way back. He bought the rights to the brand, and has been helming the ship and revitalizing their line – bringing a little bit of the craziness and wonder of the 1960s back with it.
Shoes like Pottery
A lot of things set Shoes Like Pottery apart from others on the market, but one thing, in particular, stands out – their Ka-Ryu process. This unique and rare way of producing footwear involves firing shoes in their kilns and returning the rubber to its initially soft and malleable state, making it so it can be fused onto the shoe’s upper instead of simply glued. This makes for a more resilient shoe that’ll keep its shape for longer. In addition to this process, the shoes have a distinct look to them. The simple but effective addition of the cyan outsole and button, along with high quality textured fabric make them a great addition to a casual wardrobe.
York Athletics MFG
Ankle problems. Johnny Unitas had a hell of an arm, but when it came to his ankles he had a hard time. The people he turned to in order to stave off further injury and aggravation was the Indian Head Shoe Company of Manchester, New Hampshire who produced for him high-top cleats to play in. The president of Indian Head, Henry Spaulding, knew what he was doing. So do his grandsons, the team behind York Athletics MFG. The five brothers in charge of running this new athletic brand benefit from a generations worth of firsthand knowledge of the demands of athletes as much as they benefit from all of the new technologies and fabrics available today. Their shoes are lightweight, breathable, and attractive as hell.