Written by Kate Stanton
A Brief History Of Luxury Sneakers
Back in 1984, when sportswear was for leisure and casual dressing, fashion house Gucci introduced what’s believed to be the world’s first luxury sneaker. It was something of a break from convention; trainers, until then, weren’t generally worn by those with the money for designer goods.
They were for athletes, teenagers and emerging rappers such as Run DMC and The Beastie Boys who were regularly showcasing sportswear brands such as Adidas, Puma and Nike - They were not something typically associated with big names in high-end fashion.
The Beastie Boys on stage wearing Puma
But while the impact of the Gucci Tennis may not have been instantly significant, history suggests it was the beginning of a new footwear category altogether.
Elizabeth Semmelhack, author, curator and creative director of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, has described the move all those years ago as ‘very prescient.’
“(Gucci) were getting in there much earlier than any of the other brands we see doing it now," she said in a CNN Style feature in 2015.
As fashion moved away from the conspicuous consumption of the ‘greed is good’ 1980s, a more casual approach was being adopted, even in formal settings.By the mid-‘90s, many employers began relaxing standards with dress-down Fridays, while street styles such as ‘grunge,’ blended military, utilitarian and sportswear pieces for a laidback, even scruffy, look.
A lot of designers responded by toning down the luxe look of many collections; quality and prices meant their products were still exclusive, but more modest in appearance. Italian fashion brand Prada launched a high-end yachting shoe in 1996.
Semmelhack, whose books include Rise of Sneaker Culture, explained: “(The Prada PS0906) showed a move away from a shoe designed for elite athletic purpose or even playground purpose… shifting toward an expression of style." Soon, brands including Tom Ford, Dior and YSL introduced their own versions of footwear that bridged the gap between comfort and quality as it became clear sneakers were now more than a passing trend in all walks of life.
The humble running shoe’s luxury version had become an undeniably a big deal, and continues to be, with a huge rise in consumers and producers over the last 10-15 years.
And while the original Gucci incarnation was hardly ostentatious, with no more than the signature red and green stripe on the heel and brand name across the tongue, it could look almost gauche compared with the minimalist styling that has now become a byword for taste and elegance.
An updated release of Gucci's Original Tennis Shoe
Common Projects trailblazed the pared-back, uncluttered aesthetic that birthed a sub-category in 2004. Utilitarian in style and concept and with no logo in sight, founders Prathan Poopat and Flavio Girdami’s backgrounds in graphic and industrial design informed the so-called ‘luxury minimal sneaker.’ With simple, wearable silhouettes and a distinct lack of branding (save for the signature string of numbers running along the outside of each pair, denoting style, size and colour,) the look influences the industry to this day.
(It should be noted that some fashion scholars point to Adidas Stan Smiths, first seen in 1963, as an earlier example of the aesthetic, but while an undeniable early classic of the minimal look, it would be a reach to describe them as high-end.)
Since their debut nearly 20 years ago, many brands have taken cues from Common Projects, attempting to develop – or imitate – their style. The ethos continues to inform the look and design of shoes aspiring to embrace maximum minimalism – as the bar for tailoring and materials is raised ever higher, the more stripped back and simplified the aesthetic becomes.
Crown Northampton Luxury Sneakers - The Very Best Leathers We Can Source
As the name suggests, the Harlestone Horween Shell Cordovan sneaker uses shell cordovan leather tanned in the world-famous Horween Leather Co factory in Chicago, US.
Historically, the material – taken from a small and specific portion of horsehide – was used to make work boots due to its durability. It comprises fibrous tissue made up of collagen and elastin, which gives it a tight, dense characteristic.
Cordovan ripples – rather than creases – meaning cracks and stretches are kept at bay. It’s also resistant to water. With care, pieces can last a lifetime, even when worn regularly.
It goes through an intensive tanning process which takes at least six months, each piece slowly steeped in vegetable liquors; hand-curried and hand-shaved. Learning the skills involved to produce cordovan shells takes years. Just one to two square feet of leather can be extracted from each hide, as opposed to a typical 20-25sq ft from a cowhide.
Stacked Horween Cordovan Shells
Horse leather farms are rare and tanneries that process it even rarer. These factors, along with its stunning, glossy appearance, have made shell cordovan a coveted material, now more often used for formal footwear, such as dress shoes. Today it is the world’s most expensive and highly sought-after leather.
Sneaker Surgeon - The Rose Anvil Review
Weston Kay, aka Rose Anvil, has built on an already successful YouTube presence by taking a knife to world-renowned footwear to uncover the hidden secrets within.Having sliced open a pair of our Overstone Derby all-white calf sneakers he named them Overall Winner in a ‘Best White Sneaker’ round up.
Literally deconstructing shoes in his leather studio, Kay analyses the build, materials, finish and style, offering his thoughts on each individual component, as well as the (uncut) product as a whole.
Like the Upton and Abington in the same all-white sneaker range, the Overstone Derby is made of chrome tanned European box calf leather - A type of leather usually reserved for high end dress shoe production.
Declaring the shoe ‘almost as good as it gets,’ Kay singled out the Overstone for the quality of its materials, and described the finish as ‘nearly perfect.’ Kay’s opinions are informed by a long career working in the leather trade and an impressive knowledge of footwear.
As with all our shoes, Overstone, Upton and Abington sneakers are handmade to order in Northampton, England, and can be restored and maintained through our resoling service.
Unparalleled - Continually Raising The Bar
Not merely a participant or a follower in the search for the ultimate luxury minimalist sneaker, Crown Northampton's Harlestone Hand Stitch Collection are being named by some as the best in the business.
The Harlestone Horween Shell Cordovan has been named by Rose Anvil's Weston Kay as the 'highest quality' sneaker in the world, hot on the heels of our Overstone Derby all-white taking top spot as ‘Best Minimal Sneaker.’
With the Harlestone Hand Stitch, we’ve taken the high-end sneaker concept and evolved it to a style, comfort, quality and durability that is quite possibly unparalleled.
Drawing on more than 100 years’ of skills and experience in the industry, we mirror Northampton dress shoe history and quality to make footwear that ticks all the boxes a discerning connoisseur expects.
“The materials we use are far superior when compared with many other big luxury brands and sourced from world-class tanneries and leather farms,” explains Mark Higgs, Crown Northampton Brand Manager.
Of course, if the fancy takes you and wallet is obliging, you can spend thousands on a limited edition; celebrity-endorsed or even well-worn vintage sneaker. But price and quality aren't necessarily signifiers of one another.
“We operate on smaller margins to give the customer the highest level of quality for what they spend,” explains Mark Higgs, Brand Manager. “We do this by cutting out a lot of the unneeded ‘middle’ costs as we generally deal directly with the customer.”
Relying on authentic word-of-mouth recommendations rather than pricey ad campaigns adds to Crown’s ability to offer high quality footwear at prices that belie the craftsmanship and materials used to create the brand’s coveted sneakers.
There’s no official definition for 'luxury sneakers', but our definition is that ‘luxury sneakers’ are made to standards far exceeding those in mass production. They are handmade to order; with the worlds best materials from limited sources, and made in smaller, limited batches. At least that’s how we do it here at Crown Northampton.
From a historic shoemaker in a historically world-famous shoemaking town comes the most unassumingly modern footwear, informed by more than a century of artisan craftsmanship.
The ultimate in luxury minimal sneakers.
Shop all Crown Northampton Sneakers here.