Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Winter White That Works for Spring


WHATEVER the charms of the International Tennis Hall of Fame gala, held every year during the United States Open, looking for men’s fashion trends there would seem to be a fool’s errand.

But at last September’s event, the tennis legend Stan Smith spotted a spring look months ahead of time: a group of stylish young men had come in black tie and brand-new Stan Smiths, the white, stripe-free Adidas sneakers that have done more to enshrine Mr. Smith’s name in the annals of pop culture than his tennis record ever did.

“It was pretty neat,” said Mr. Smith, 60, who won the United States Open in 1969 and had the shoe named after him in 1971. “For me, they’re my work shoe.”

And now city men are wearing them to work, too, bringing sprightly new meaning to the WASPy old-man expression “white shoe.” A combination of factors — hip-hop stars who brag that they wear a new pair of clean white Nike Air Force 1’s every day; designers like Marc Jacobs (who has worn Stan Smiths since junior high) and John Varvatos (who made Converse Jack Purcells and Chuck Taylors must-haves again) — have converged to make the all-white, old-school sneaker into Le Shoe for the smart set.

They are, it turns out, perfect for young, for old, for rich, for poor. They go with jeans, a suit, even a tux; you can wear them to work, to play and even to appear on Oprah (as Mr. Jacobs did). They can be cheap (basic Stan Smith’s are $55 at or not (the 25th anniversary Air Force 1’s are $2,000 at Barneys New York) or in between. They even come with a brand of fashion approval: several designers now offer their own version of the white sneaker, among them Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent, Neil Barrett, Dries van Noten and Miuccia Prada.

Sneaker craziness may not sound like anything new, but this time there’s a rub, and like it or not, it involves a toothbrush.

“They need to be clean,” said Daniel Peres, the editor of Details. “It’s a good look, a right-out-of-the-box-clean pair of white sneakers, and it’s the only kind you can wear with dressier clothes, nice jeans or even a suit.” But he reiterated his proviso. “Some people do everything they can to make them look worn and dirty, which is wrong. I’ve seen fashion editors in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, shuffling their feet in the dirt to make their Chucks look worn in. I just stood there in horror.”

According to a nurses’ advisory site, the best way to keep white shoes dazzling is with Murphy’s Oil Soap and a toothbrush, and those white rubber soles might call for a go with whitewall-tire cleaner. Or you can subcontract the work and take them to the shoeshine man.

Sean Donovan, a sneaker collector who just bought a fresh pair of Stan Smiths for a new job (as a salesman at the Marc Jacobs store, in fact), said he was careful to keep his new shoes in rotation with, say, his white Air Force 1’s. He sprays them immediately with water and stain repellent, which makes normal scuffs easy to wipe off. “If you want to get crazy, you can go at them with an old toothbrush and some Soft Scrub,” he said.

Mr. Donovan, who has about 65 pairs of sneakers, agreed that clean is key. “A white shoe, it makes you feel fresh,” he said. “It’s like when you wash and iron your clothes, it makes you feel like everything’s together.”

Given the care the humble shoes require, the current trend is not without a kind of upended silliness. “It’s really turned an ordinary product into a luxury product,” said Bradley Carbone, an editor at Complex magazine, an urban young men’s magazine, which, naturally enough, follows sneaker obsessions closely. “A few years ago when you had rappers like Fat Joe and Jay-Z talking about wearing a new pair every day, people responded by trying to keep theirs as crisp and clean as possible. So it has an aspirational seal to it, even though it’s on an inexpensive shoe.”

While Mr. Peres likes the look, he won’t be sporting it any time soon. “They draw all attention to your feet,” he said. “I don’t want to have to compete with my shoes.”

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