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The manly art of shoe shopping

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Gentlemen, think of buying fine footwear as sort of like hunting for a car.

January 24, 2010|By Roy Rivenburg
  • LUXURY MODEL: Black and brown control the color spectrum, and lace-ups trump slip-ons in the business world, says footwear author Meghan Cleary.
LUXURY MODEL: Black and brown control the color spectrum, and lace-ups… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

In footwear folklore, women have Cinderella's glass slippers, Dorothy's ruby shoes and Carrie Bradshaw's cache of Manolos. Men have O.J. Simpson's Bruno Maglis, shoe bomber Richard Reid's explosive high-tops and Nikita Khrushchev's legendary Cold War shoe tantrum at the United Nations.

Not surprisingly, shoe shopping scores low as a favorite male pastime. But sooner or later, sole-searching becomes unavoidable. To make the chore a little less painful, we asked fashion gurus, foot doctors, shoe merchants and shoppers for tips on landing a stylish, high-caliber pair of men's dress shoes.

The simplest method is to outsource the job. "I leave it up to my wife because she has a keen sense of style," says John Mackey, a 51-year-old freight sales rep from suburban Seattle.

It's a common tactic. Former shoe-shopaphobe Stephen Duffy, 29, a jury consultant in Costa Mesa, used to rely on female relatives for guidance as well. "I started out as a typical guy -- totally afraid of it," he says. But after working as a bartender, on his feet all night, Duffy developed an appreciation for quality shoes and slowly learned how to find them.

In some ways, shoe hunting is like buying a car.

Step 1: Test-drive several models

In a typical day of walking, human hooves endure several hundred tons of force, doctors say. And ill-fitting shoes are the villain behind 1 out of 6 Americans' suffering corns, calluses and other ailments.

Dr. Dennis Frisch, a spokesman for the American Podiatric Medical Assn., recommends starting with a few basics. Get measured, shop in the afternoon (feet swell during the day), try on both shoes and buy the size that fits your larger foot. Also, make sure you can wiggle your toes and have three-eighths to half an inch between the longest toe and the end of each shoe.

Avoid shoes that feel like they need "breaking in," Frisch cautions. Although fine leather requires several wearings to soften and mold to the foot, a shoe that's painful in the store is probably bad news.

"Try different styles and sizes," he advises. "To find the right fit, you have to invest time."

Step 2: Avoid sports cars

Once upon a time, about 400 years ago, men wore shoes that rivaled anything donned by women. They strutted in high heels decorated with jeweled buckles and colorful embroidery, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The Enlightenment brought an end to that. The emphasis on rationality led men to abandon their inner Elton Johns, she says. To this day, "men are afraid of fashion because it connotes femininity."

On the plus side, that makes choosing color and style a snap. Meghan Cleary, a footwear author who bills herself as America's shoe expert, says black and brown control the color spectrum, and lace-ups trump slip-ons "if you want to be taken seriously" in the business world. She encourages men to experiment with colors, but in understated ways, such as black wingtips tinged with deep auburn or deep green hues, or hand-burnished for a different texture.

Cleary rates cap-toe, wingtip and split-toe designs as a virtual photo finish. All are fashionable, she says.

Step 3: Check the tires

Choosing a sole -- leather versus rubber -- is trickier, the footwear equivalent of Mac versus PC.

"Old-school thinking is that leather is dressier," says Dennis Daniels, a shoe salesman at Garys, an upscale Newport Beach shop. "You don't want a big old tire tread on your foot when you walk into a boardroom."

But synthetic soles have legions of fans, partly for their traction on slick surfaces. For the indecisive, Cole Haan offers a hybrid: leather-soled Italian shoes with Nike Air technology hidden inside.

A related debate centers on sole thickness. Thin is considered more fashionable but is not always practical.

"If you mostly sit at a desk, thin soles are fine," says Frisch, the podiatrist. "But if you get off the subway and walk 10 blocks every day, the shoe is going to hurt and wear out sooner."

Step 4: Examine the upholstery

History's most durable footwear appears in the Old Testament: God marched the Israelites through the desert for 40 years but their sandals never wore out, according to the Bible (Deuteronomy 29:5). Modern cobblers can't match that feat, but they have created other unusual products. New & Lingwood, a British shoemaker, sells $1,600 loafers crafted from Russian reindeer hides found aboard a 1786 shipwreck and cured in baths of oat flour, wood liquor and seal oil.

Other exotic skins include ostrich, crocodile and peccary. Most don't hold up like calf leather, generally regarded as the gold standard for dress shoes. But even calfskin has skeptics.

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