Listen to this article
This year marks 60 years since the first ascent of Mount Everest, so it’s probably little wonder that almost every men’s brand worth the name has created an ode to mountaineering footwear – many of which break new ground (pun intended) in merging luxurious and performance materials.
“Boots have become more and more popular to wear, not just with denim, but with tailoring as well,” says Steven Taffel, founder of Leffot, a shoe store in New York. “It looks like the luxury brands are now picking up on this and offering high-luxury, high-performance versions.”
Bally, for example, has an authentic Everest pedigree. When Tenzing Norgay climbed the mountain in 1953 alongside Edmund Hillary, he was wearing a pair of Bally boots, given to him the previous year when he took part in an exhibition in Switzerland (Bally’s home base). Designed specifically for climbing over 20,000ft, the boots had a distinctive reindeer-fur shell, a felt liner and rubber soles that – for the first time – were cemented to the leather midsole. This reduced the metal in the boots and made them less conductive of cold, cutting down the chances of frostbite.
Bally has recreated Norgay’s boot, building on a copy in the company’s archive in Schönenwerd. The Himalaya is covered with shaved deerskin and incorporates a lace-up system made by the same factory as the 1950s original. For the more pedestrian among us, there is the Graf boot (£550), with a lightweight sole and calf leather; the Viller (£550), which incorporates technical waterproofing; and the cashmere-lined and square-toed Vincens (£795).
Italian shoemaker Santoni’s Everest boot (£425) has cushioned ankle support, a luxurious calfskin upper, and a distinctive detail: hand-painted uppers. “They are our trademark, our calling card,” says chief executive Giuseppe Santoni. “The Everest boot comes in brown, red, tan and two shades of green, each painted by hand by our artisans in Brescia. It combines all the technical aspects of a hiking boot with the beautiful finish of a dress shoe.”
Santoni has a tradition of creating practical shoes with luxurious touches. Its San Moritz boot, for example, is designed for ski resorts – ankle-high and waterproof, but with a more elegant last. “The crossover between sport and city has always been a fascination for us,” Santoni says.
Tom Ford also echoes the original Everest-climbing boots with fur-covered versions (from $4,470). Hermès and Louis Vuitton offer more wearable versions: Hermès via its Sporting Life collection, which includes a black calf boot with striking orange laces (£920), double stitching and oiled leather, and Vuitton with three versions of its Thunderbolt boot. All have the distinctive padding and lacing system of a hiking boot, but come in black calf (£620), grey “pony-styled” leather (£750), and dark brown alligator (£5,450); with laces in red, green and blue respectively. Berluti, another LVMH brand, has kept a hiking boot in its collection for several years. The Brunico (£1,670) is inspired by a ski boot worn by Greta Garbo in the 1960s.
“The return of the hiking boot is definitely driven by a trend towards the rugged,” says Toby Bateman, buying director at Mr Porter. “But the reasons for their popularity are also practical. Let’s face it, the British winter, if last year’s is anything to go by, is pretty bleak, cold, wet and long. What we all need are good warm boots, a chunky sweater and a nice long coat.” Even if the only climb involved is the staircase at home.
Alternative leathers: Walk on the wild side
One of the more distinctive offerings this season from cult menswear designer Carol Christian Poell is not a harem trouser or an asymmetric suit jacket, but rather a wraparound boot – fashioned from a single piece of kangaroo hide, writes Boyd Farrow. And that’s just the tip of the alternative leathers iceberg. Also favoured by his company, CCP, are horsehide, llama, deer and buffalo leathers.
“Often there are technical reasons why a certain hide is chosen to produce a particular piece, but also it is to reinforce a certain message,” says Poell. “Kangaroo, for instance, has the strongest grain. We choose skins from old and large animals because the grain is very rough and damaged from age and combat during pairing seasons. Plus the skins are huge.” He says the strength of the grain means he is able to produce unlined and unreinforced boots and garments down to a thickness of just 0.2mm.
But kangaroo? How many customers can there be? Apparently, more than anyone would expect.
Think of them as the “shadow” luxury consumer: men with “a passion for unusual techniques, materials and quality”, according to Poell. “They want longer-lasting pieces, they don’t care about seasonal trends.” Poell is not alone in catering to this market; similar work is being done by Simone Cecchetto’s Rome-based company A Diciannoveventitre and Maurizio Amadei’s Milan-based MA+: brands that relish long-forgotten materials, artisanal production methods and rough-hewn finishes.
“These guys can’t make things quickly enough for our customers,” says Campbell McDougall, owner of one of Europe’s most influential menswear stores, Darklands Berlin. “We’re shipping pieces all over the world. People are happy to pay for top quality leathers and craftsmanship.” Among the bestsellers are distressed sneakers from A Diciannoveventitre made from horse, llama or buffalo leather, costing around £1,200 a pair.
Darklands is currently hosting a pop-up shop by Guidi, one of the most revered names in leather craftsmanship, whose rugged shoes and boots, mainly made from horse, donkey or buffalo, were traditionally targeted at outdoor workers such as farmers and shepherds. The company has just begun offering a bespoke service for customers to choose their own leather.
The demand for more unyielding footwear is now seeping into the mainstream. This season Canadian company Tate + Yoko has begun making boots out of local moose hide, while Australian shoemaker Feit is making its own hardy versions out of buffalo (£365, pictured). And many American heritage brands have rediscovered bison.
One such US brand is Trask, created 10 years ago by former Reebok executive Harrison Trask, which recently became part of footwear giant Genesco. Relaunched this autumn, and offering premium boots made from bison, Norwegian elk and wild ram – and pushing the “made in America” angle – the company is hard-pressed to meet demand. “The website only went live mid-October and we had sold out of elkhorn and bison boots in our Reserve Collection within a week and a half,” says Trask’s Garrett Baber. “The prices are higher, but people seem happy to pay for something extra special that will last. With buffalo numbers thriving, it is really good timing.”