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ANKLE-AREA ACCESSORISING: At Concepts NYC, a few racks of blink-and-you'll-miss-them Adidas and New Balance and Nike.
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ANKLE-AREA ACCESSORISING: Aglit Italy specialises in luxury laces, a concept so surface-level preposterous it seems like material for a Funny or Die sketch.
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ANKLE-AREA ACCESSORISING: The oddness of the Buscemi 100MM shape was a sort of implicit demand: You had to adjust your outfit accordingly.

It's all about the sneakers

They are the most important signifier and, sometimes, the great equaliser. After all, 999 times out of 1,000, shoes are more important than pants
Sep 24, 2016 5:50 AM

WHAT we talk about when we talk about athleisure is wrong.

We celebrate the mainstreaming of casual comfort as a retort to the tyranny of tailoring. We blather on about the potent social-media salesmanship of superficially jobless celebrities forever photographed out in the wild, getting a pressed juice or a macchiato. Where are they coming from? Where are they going?

All of that is a waste of words. The correct answer is that it's all about sneakers.

Why would you wear fashion sweatpants if you weren't trying to get out of the way of showcasing what's on your feet? After all, 999 times out of 1,000, shoes are more important than pants.

They are the most important signifier and, sometimes, the great equaliser. They are the way two men assess each other from afar: slight head nod of acknowledgment, followed by a focusing of the eyes on the foot of the other, to see where he stands, and what he stands on.

The first sneaker manufacturer built explicitly for this world is Buscemi, the luxury line that arrived in 2013, and that just opened, on one of the quieter blocks in SoHo, its first retail space, which has the feel of a store on one of the quieter blocks on Madison.

Buscemi's initial offering, way back when, was the 100MM, a luxe sneaker with prices approaching US$1,000. It had an awkward silhouette: mid-top, narrow at the ankle, rounded at the toe. There was a handle angling out at 45 degrees from the back - a smart innovation! - and a gold latch on the front with a gold lock dangling from the center. That hardware was the key: If your pants didn't cinch somewhere above it, to show it off, you were missing the point.

Rappers wore them, then athletes, then those who liked to be in proximity to rappers or athletes. And now, maybe, you.

The front two-thirds of the new store is a hilarious, swank feint: Versace-lite carpet on the floor underneath a set of gilded pyramids, one of which has a white 100MM on display as if at the Met. Walk in and pay respects, then sneak behind the wall to the back, which has a tight and elegant display of the company's line, for men, women and babies. (The women's style options are broader, and in colours that would be just as welcome on the men's side of the store, if anyone's listening.)

The oddness of the 100MM shape was a sort of implicit demand: You had to adjust your outfit accordingly. Buscemi's new styles scream their needs even louder. The buffalo leather workboot (US$1,250), sturdy enough for a day at the job site, and beautiful enough for a night at Up&Down; and the new basketball sneaker (US$1,195), which has a space-shuttle silhouette, silicone injections for comfort and plenty of gold hardware.

On the foot, it looks like a luscious warhead. I wanted a pair badly but fretted over the price and also the width of my jeans, which are not skinny but still disappeared inside these sneakers as if they were leggings.

As pants silhouettes have become increasingly starved - a trend that's soon to be reversed, thankfully - and fabrics increasingly athletic, shoes have two options: like the Buscemi, become the raison d'etre and the conversation piece, or alternatively, play nice and fit in by extending that silhouette, the reason blah Adidas running sneakers are the current ne plus ultra of fashion footwear.

At Concepts NYC, the local branch of a footwear-bro outpost from Boston, the opposite solution of Buscemi is on display: a few racks of blink-and-you'll-miss-them Adidas and New Balance and Nike. Handsome choices, and mostly reasonably priced, but hardly game changers.

Better is the selection of Visvim, including bulky mountain boots and hoagie-shaped walking sneakers (US$750), and the electric-blue Birkenstock Arizona with a marshmallow-white sole (US$240), exclusive to the store.

In the front hung the apparel to go with these sneakers - endless sweatpants by the mid-price, mid-fashion Canadian line Reigning Champ, a so-so selection of jackets from Arc'teryx and Stone Island (both of which have shops within a 10-block radius), and T-shirts and sweatshirts with distressed seams by the drapery maven John Elliott, quickly becoming the Eileen Fisher of fit streetwear bros.

In this store, sneakers are important but verge on unremarkable, a strategy to reach both basics and connoisseurs. There is a world, though, where footwear flamboyance is taken as an article of faith. Aglit Italy, which opened its NoHo storefront in May, specialises in luxury laces, a concept so surface-level preposterous it seems like material for a Funny or Die sketch.

And yet! A quick walk around the store yields unexpected ideas. On display is a Timberland with shearling fur laces, a Chuck Taylor with distressed denim, a Stan Smith with a pink lambskin lace with matching rosette.

Lace samples dangle from wall displays in oversized test tubes: lambskin in various widths and colours, including several bold ones, from teal to mustard; suede, denim, shearling. (Prices vary depending on length, material and how the laces are finished at the ends. Mostly, they're under US$60 a pair, with shearling fur closer to US$100.)

For all of the billions of dollars spent on sneakers, to say nothing of the money spent marketing them, there is precious little energy devoted to how you might make them your own. Inventive laces, rendered with flair, is one worthy option. If you've designed your whole outfit so as to put your sneakers on display, why not peacock? NYTimes