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Stylish New Feat for Men: Brown : Relaxed codes in the workplace make room for dress shoes of a different color.

November 02, 1995|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When John Stollenwerk attended a meeting of a bank board in Wisconsin recently, he was the only man in the room wearing brown business shoes.

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His choice of footwear no doubt raised an eyebrow or two. In Wisconsin, cows are brown. So is chocolate. But men's dress shoes?

Actually, by the time Stollenwerk attends his next board meeting, other members will probably be following in his footsteps. Stollenwerk is president of Allen-Edmonds Shoe Corp. in Port Washington, Wis.

When it comes to men's footwear, he has seen the future. And in the future, he says, more guys will be wearing brown dress shoes to work.

Stollenwerk noticed the resurgence of brown shoes in September at Dusseldorf, site of the world's largest shoe fair.

"Brown is already big in France and Italy. I saw it on everyone's feet. Europe sets those trends," he says.

This fall, men started wearing brown shoes to work on both U.S. coasts, and Stollenwerk expects the trend to spread all the way into America's Heartland. Even to the boardrooms of Wisconsin.

What's causing men's dress shoes to take a shine to brown? Shoe experts cite corporate America's more relaxed dress codes. Men have changed the way they dress for work from the ground up, and that includes their footwear. They need a shoe that falls somewhere between their traditional black wingtips and tennis shoes to wear on casual Fridays.

"Casual Friday has caused the male consumer to find a new wardrobe. He's buying shoes that are more versatile. That's where brown shoes come in. They can be worn with a suit, a sport coat, a vest," says Harlan Whitley, sales manager for Johnston & Murphy in Nashville, Tenn. "Eighty percent of corporations have one day a week of casual dressing. The consumer isn't going to wear ratty old boat shoes or Nikes to work."

Another reason brown has been able to gain a toehold in men's dress shoes is that men don't associate the new, richer brown leathers with the flat, muddy browns of old.

"Today brown is more muted. It has a lot of interesting tones to it," Stollenwerk says.

Brown shoes have the lustrous texture of a fine stained wood.

"We're seeing a lot more hand-finished leathers that are really brushed for more of an antique look," says Dick Braeger, owner of Gary's & Co. in Fashion Island Newport Beach and one of the founders and former shoe designers for Cole-Haan.

"They'll take a brown pair and rub in a black or burgundy cream with high-speed brushes. A brown shoe can look flat or dead, but this looks lively." Gary's carries Cole-Haan and European brand men's dress shoes for about $150 to $300.

Brown shoes complement the navy, olive and gray tones dominating men's fashions.

"Brown shoes with navy suits are the thing for fall," Whitley says. "It's a spinoff of the English country gentleman look."

Fine brown threads woven into sport coats and brown pin-stripes in navy suits have made brown shoes fashionable again.

"Brown and navy definitely go together," Whitley says.

The relaxed dress code has had other effects on men's dress shoes. It has led to more hand-sewn styles, such as the season's popular moc- or capped-toe style with stitched seams that cut across the toe.

Despite these changes, most dress shoes still come in the classic silhouettes such as lace-up wingtips and oxfords.

"Styles and patterns don't change a lot" in men's dress shoes, says Patrick Percoski, manager and buyer for men's shoes at Nordstrom South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. "What changes is the colors, the soles and the leathers."

Percoski describes the new styles as "classic that's twisted." For instance, men's shoe manufacturers such as Johnston Murphy are remaking their classic designs with rubber soles.

Nordstrom offers a rich brown suede oxford by Salvatore Ferragamo with a rubber sole ($245), a rubber-soled brown leather wingtip by Evergreen ($100) and Kenneth Cole's moc-toe brown oxford with rubber cleated soles ($140). Some guys are even heading to work in short boots, such as Ferragamo's brown suede boot with rubber soles ($265).

Men want to wear the same shoe to "go to work, get off at 5, then go to dinner," Percoski says.

Brown rubber-soled shoes are a growing segment of men's dress shoes, Percoski says, but not every man has traded in his traditional shoes for the more casual look. There are still plenty of classic black oxfords, loafers and wingtips with leather soles.

"The guy that needs a black wingtip is still out there," Percoski says.

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