How The White Trainer Took Over The World

The story of how the humble sports shoe made the journey from your kit bag to the highest tiers of luxury fashion - and changed the way we dress for good

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Fashion label Alexander McQueen has just launched a new shoe which will set you back £360, slightly undercutting a similar effort from Bottega Veneta creative director Tomas Maier who described it as "the modern brogue."

And these are both bargains, compared to Rick Owens' £649 bid for the same market or indeed Kim Jones' recent £680 effort for Louis Vuitton.

The link? They're all white trainers.

Alexander McQueen White & Black Leather Sneaker, £360
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In 2016, the humble white sneaker has found a foothold at every price point - from high end fashion to high street sportswear - and been embraced by every style subculture, from the preppy chino-and-blazer crowd to the streetwear kids to the peacocks in three-pieces lining up for London Collections. 

It has become a classic that sits comfortably alongside the Oxford and Derby in the wardrobe of any stylish man, a versatile staple that can be turned to any occasion. As tennis icon Stan Smith remarked recently when asked about the ubiquitous sneaker made in his name: "Now it is worn for just about everything except tennis."

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But how did a piece of kit that started out as literally that make the journey from your gym bag to the fashion runways? How did the white trainer take over the world - and help transform the way men dress in the process?

Key releases from the past eighty years or so of trainer history can take a lot - though of course not all - of the credit.

For the 1936 Germany Olympics, basketball player Chuck Taylor added a white model to his already successful collaboration with Converse All-Stars. The release became popular not only with players donning the functional shoe but swathes of young American boys imitating them back home. 

John Lennon wearing Spring Court white trainers on the cover of Abbey Road
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The very same year, Frenchman Georges Grimmeise founded Spring Court with the aim of making a white shoe for playing tennis on clay. It didn't take long before the shoes walked off the court and found themselves on the feet of musicians and artists, from John Lennon on the cover of Abbey Road to the go-to casual favourite of Serge Gainsbourg and David Hockney.  When James Dean and Steve McQueen gave them their nod of approval to white trainers, their off-duty cool was cemented forever.

Steve McQueen wearing white trainers, 1963

In 1971s, adidas created the white tennis shoe that would become one of its most successful releases ever. The shoe featured a white leather exterior and rubber sole and was named after an American tennis player called Stan Smith.

By just 1988, the adidas Stan Smith had sold a record-breaking 22 million pairs - not bad for a piece of kit designed for chasing serves.

Meanwhile, popular culture continued to reflect the growing public obsession with white sneakers appearing on film stars such as Tom Hanks in Big (and again in Forest Gump) and Michael J Fox in Back To The Future. And yet, despite our love affair with athletic style and comfortable shoes growing ever stronger, trainers at the time remained firmly on the streets and playing fields. As they became more technically advanced, heavily-branded and brightly coloured (air bubbles, giant Nike swooshes and the like), trainers could barely have felt further from office-ready and the idea of wearing them with a suit was laughable. 

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But the rise in athleisure and sports-luxe wasn't far away, and the white trainer's journey to fashion omnipresence was about to become complete.

In 1997, Prada launched their Prada Sport line to the disdain of rival high fashion houses, which then all slowly but surely followed suite. Sleek white trainers began appearing on the feet of editors and bloggers at fashion shows in Milan and New York, who were watching the same item break the final taboo by appearing on the runways before them.

A Prada Sport campaign, 2001
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From Lanvin to Margiela to Acne, Gucci and Bottega Veneta, white sneakers began appearing at every level of the luxury market in the years the followed, with the fashion world at large embracing the paired with tailoring look with increasing confidence.

A brand that early on identified the need for pared back stylish trainers was Common Projects. Peter Poopat and Flavio Girolami, who founded the company in 2004, felt that as they matured and their tastes developed they couldn't find cool minimal trainers. They began their mission to "Bridge the gap between the Guccis and Nikes" and they now generate around $10 million a year in revenue.

Common Projects popular Achilles Low trainer

Although Poopat and Girolami cater to more colourways than purist white, their basic white Achilles trainer is their Jordan, if you will. The minimalist design and seamless construction of the cult $400 shoe means that it even holds value in the second hand market. According to Arun Gupter, founder of online fashion marketplace Grailed.com, "There is just so much hype around them; the Achilles almost always resells for $250-plus even when worn."

And Common Projects aren't the only ones making a killing selling sleek white kicks. ETQ Amsterdam has a huge range of white and off-white leather trainers with varying soles, geometric patterns and waxed laces. Although ETQ stock a range of colours their Dulux colour chart of white options suggests they know what the market wants. Starting at around £160 a pair they are cleverly undercutting the super-luxury but offering men a stylish alternative to Converse, Nike or Adidas.

Meanwhile, a little closer to home, shoe designer Mr Hare has mastered a modern take on sportswear with their white low top trainers. Big names from Tinie Tempah to David Gandy have been seen wearing the Notting Hill-based designer.

"The sneaker is no longer perceived as casual fashion," President of Pedder Group Peter Harris said in an interview with The Business of Fashion earlier this year, "High-tops from Buscemi and Christian Louboutin are their own statement."

"For a lot of guys, a clean, well-made sneaker now works in the office," Sam Lobban the buying manager at Mr Porter, said in the same piece.

"If you go back four seasons, the offer was far more succinct. Our offer was very much Valentino, Lanvin, Margiela and, outside of that, maybe Common Projects," he explains "Now have a wider selection more reflective of market and demand."

Sneaker trends come and go quicker than in perhaps any other area of menswear. This year alone, tonal shades, running knits and retro releases have all already had their moment - what will have emerged by next season to keep a young and notoriously obsessive demographic interested is anyone's guess.

But the simple, clean white sneaker - the blank canvass upon which any modern look can be built - is different. If the disappearance of the hat from post-war society marked a turning point away from Victorian stuffiness, perhaps the emergence of the white sneaker will be seen as a moment on the same timeline towards a more relaxed way of dressing, the gradual unshackling of men from dress code and convention. In any case, it is had to imagine them going anywhere anytime soon.