A Nike footwear designer (I’m pretty sure it was the legendary Tinker Hatfield, also responsible for a couple of iconic Air Maxes) once said that sneakers are cartoons of real shoes. With their clownish rounded toes, bumper guards and thick rubber soles, they’re ungainly by design, built to accommodate cross-purposes: comfort vs. support … traction vs. flexibility. But it’s sneakers’ very childlike cloddishness — and the fact that we all wore them when we were five — that seems to make them problematic four or five decades later.
As Paul Cavaco, the New York fashion publicist who doubles as creative director at Allure magazine, put it in a recent New York Times interview, “You’d think there is enough distance between your foot and your face that you can get away with [them], but [sneakers don’t] go with the older face. I’m still trying to figure out what an older person is supposed to wear.”
I’m still trying too, and it’s not all that difficult. (For answers for both men and women, see the Recommended section, below). But it’s a good idea to follow some ground rules, such as avoiding:
· Anything flashy
· Bright colors, no matter how basic or classic the sneaker. (OK, there’s one exception: Bensimons. See below.)
· Anything wonky or ultra high-tech — like a molded upper or an Instapump
· Velcro straps
· A platform or wedge sole
· High-tops, unless you’re playing basketball.
· High-priced designer sneakers. Why Armani, Chanel, Albert Elbaz for Lanvin, et al., have foolishly put their name on shoes that need no couture imprimatur is a mystery to me. Sneaker style is not about status or froufrou — it’s about utilitarianism.
Adhere to the general rule of thumb for smart older dressing: Stick to simple, classic styles. That includes:
· Paradoxically enough, the very Pro-Keds that we grew up with, plus the spate of casual lace-ups they inspired
· Those early, low-tech runners and basketball shoes that have evolved into heritage streetwear essentials
· The latest round-toe, flat-soled, ultra-lightweight runners, designed to emulate barefoot running
All of the above have a definite unisex fashion cachet, whatever your age. So the good news is, you can’t go wrong here. From a sneaker point of view, at least, if ever there were a right moment, style-wise, to be ambling into the golden years, this is it. And after all, sneakers, which came to the fore in the 1950s and '60s, are, in a sense, part of the Baby Boomer DNA.
Plus, sneakers are comfortable and forgiving for older feet, says New York podiatrist Kirk Lebensfeld: “Running shoes, in particular, with their superb cushioning, rigid counter, lightness of weight and roominess, are best for general use.”
· Keds Champion Originals. Canvas and rubber icons, first built in 1916. Zero breaking-in required.
· Vans Authentic Sneakers. More structured than Keds, with a signature vulcanized waffle sole.
· Converse All-Stars. My, what a neat toe cap and long lacing panel. Worn by Woody Allen, Brad Pitt and millions more. This is the best-selling sneaker in the U.S.
· Bensimon Classic Laceup Flats. Seventies-vintage French. Rendered chic and adorable by their slightly squat toe cap, and the fact that they were worn by Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. Their soft canvas uppers rapidly loosen, leaving you with sneakers you’ll also love as bedroom slippers. They come in colors so saturated and sophisticated that these are the only sneakers I permit myself to wear in teal. (Bensimons come in large sizes, but I consider them too pretty for men.)
· Puma Suede Classic Plus. The 1968 Walt Frazier-Tommie Smith basketball shoe. It’s Pro Keds progeny and an old-school classic, says Brad Gansberg, a sneaker expert who is supervisor of the team sports department at New York’s Paragon Sporting Goods. And while it doesn’t give the support of a contemporary basketball shoe, it’s just right for the street.
· Nike Free Run+ 3. Serious, lightweight, low-to-the-ground runners with cooling mesh inserts. Designed to mimic barefoot running, they feel like cushioned socks. And like just about everything Nike, they come with built-in pizzazz.
· New Balance 990. The classic American-made running shoe. Pigskin upper with breathable mesh inserts. New Balances tend to be heavy, says Dr. Lebensfeld, who recommends them for those who are hard on their shoes or have rear-foot problems.
· Adidas Superstar 2. Another retro basketball shoe from 1969, that’s now a fashion staple. Comfortable tumbled leather upper, rubber shell toe, strong base. It’s a Paragon Sports favorite for older guys, Gansberg says.
· Brooks Trance. Plush comfort, with a certain fashion pizzazz. Gansberg cites it as a serious runner with a last that suits a lot of different feet.
· Our Legacy Runner. Ivory suede and canvas, with a white midsole that will remind you of saddle shoes. Part of a Swedish menswear line.