The history and evolution of men's sneakers

Imagine a world without sneakers. It would be an uncomfortable, almost always impractical place, right? Well, apparently, around a century ago this was a reality. Training shoes used to be heavy leather plimsolls that didn’t even have a distinct left and right side. This was until an American inventor called Charles Goodyear discovered a new process called vulcanisation, which used heat to melt rubber and cloth together. With the help of Goodyear’s vulcanisation process, men's trainers became more lightweight and much more comfortable.

At the beginning of the 20th century, sneakers were produced mainly by rubber companies. These companies specialised in making car and bicycle tyres. In 1916, the first athletic shoes hit the mass market. From this point, the world of trainers has arguably grown faster than any other sector of modern fashion. Nowadays, we have an almost unimaginably wide range of choice, from low-top and high-top trainers to slip-on trainers and a perpetually increasing array of materials, including the more recent emergence of innovative and eco-friendly vegan materials. Most importantly, trainers are no longer a purely functional addition to the modern wardrobe: a quick scroll through the selection of men’s sneakers at OPUMO demonstrates that premium leather trainers are a viable option for smarter wear, just as ideal for pairing with sophisticated tailoring as with an everyday uniform of jeans and T-shirt.

Low-top men's trainers

The world of men's low-top trainers is one with many facets. Their lack of ankle support means they're comfortable for everyday wear, while high-top footwear may be more effective in sporting situations. That said, recent trends have seen men’s low-top sneakers take a decidedly functional route, making use of technical materials, techniques and sportswear styles. This means that you can find a whole host of low-top sneakers inspired by hiking trainers, basketball trainers, skating shoes and more at OPUMO.

For men’s leather sneakers in masterful minimalist style, look no further than ETQ Amsterdam. The Dutch label produces premium leather sneakers for men that are all timeless. You’ll never have to wonder which men’s sneakers are in style. The brand's signature low-top style – ETQ Amsterdam LT01 – takes the form of a retro-inspired tennis trainer.

Swedish streetwear powerhouse Axel Arigato also offers an impressive collection of contemporary leather low-top sneakers. Its range is characterised by high-quality materials and unique designs that range from punchy to pared back, but always with that highly sought-after gold branding carefully stamped in. Read our review of Axel Arigato's iconic Clean 90 for the full low down on the brand's bestseller.

High-top men's trainers

Originally conceived for the purpose of playing basketball, the high-top trainer was invented by Marquis Mills Converse in 1917. These canvas high-top sneakers have remained almost unchanged since their invention, although popular modern designs provide better support. Having set the precedent for modern high-top sneakers, Marquis Mills Converse’s contribution to the world of men’s footwear should not be underestimated. While techniques and materials have become more effective and more efficient, the high-top style is still alive and kicking.

For a sleek and contemporary take on the classic high-top sneaker, look to Portuguese footwear label JAK. Its handcrafted high-top style is decidedly pared-back, crafted from supple full grain calf leather with a minimalist silhouette that will complement rather than overpower your outfit.

Another great go-to brand for men's high-top sneakers is Royal RepubliQ, whose Portuguese-made premium leather sneakers are renowned for their high quality construction. Royal RepybliQ's Court High Top trainers are on the sportier end of the sneaker spectrum, drawing inspiration from the traditional basketball shoe. With a classic rubber toe cap, clean silhouette and choice of neutral colourways, they're the ultimate all-occasion sneakers, just as ideal for everyday wear as for those more sophisticated occasions.

Men's suede trainers

We can thank the stylish Swedish population for suede sneakers. The swedes originally used the material for luxurious women’s gloves. Suede and leather are opposite sides of animal skin and therefore have many of the same characteristics. Although suede is softer, it's not as durable as leather so has traditionally been seen as a luxury material. The superior softness and pliability of suede make it an extremely comfortable material for footwear, so long as you don’t mind taking a little more care of your shoes. Along with your new pair of kicks, consider purchasing a shoe cleaner because autumn and winter can be hard on a pair of suede sneakers. 

Brands doing great things with suede include Uniform Standard, whose suede Series 1 sneakers are sustainably handcrafted using recycled materials; and Hardgraft, a leather accessories label that produces its luxurious velvety suede sneakers in small batches in Italy. Opt for its high-top baseball style or more refined low-top trainers. Both styles are designed for ultimate comfort, no matter what your day has in store.

For suede sneakers that will withstand the elements, North-89's weatherproof sneakers are ideal. Innovatively constructed to combat rain, snow, and slush, they fuse understated style with ultimate functionality. What's not to love?

Slip-on sneakers

Slip-on trainers have always been a practical variation of the standard lace-up sneaker construction, but until recently, few brands could find the golden mean between style and practicality. For many years, slip-on skating shoes were the only option for those seeking style and functionality. At OPUMO, we have a range of labels offering slip-on sneakers for men that feature premium material uppers. Find casual slip-on trainers alongside smarter options to wear with more elevated outfits.

While slip-on sneakers for men are still not as common as lace-up styles, Amsterdam-based brand WAHTS flies the flag for men’s slip-on shoes. Top-quality suede uppers mean that the label’s casual slip-on styles can also be worn with tailored trousers for a smart casual look.

Uniform Standard's Series 2 slip on sneaker is another great go-to. Handmade in Portugal from premium suede and featuring a recycled sole, its minimalist silhouette lends it ultimate versatility, perfect for everyday wear. 

Vegan sneakers

As issues around sustainability gain increasing traction in the mainstream collective consciousness, more and more men are opting for eco-friendly vegan sneakers. These are trainers that are ethically made from sustainable, recycled, and upcycled materials, without the use of animal products or real leather.

One footwear brand that is paving the way for ethical sneakers is SAYE, a Barcelona-based label that produces both cow leather and vegan leather trainers. Its vegan styles are made using recycled vegan Napa leather and recycled PET. Furthering its sustainability efforts, the brand promises to plant two trees for every pair purchased. It's a win for the environment and a win for your wardrobe. Read our SAYE sizing guide to find your perfect fit.

CLAE is another noteworthy label creating stylish vegan sneakers. Hailing from Los Angeles, it produces versatile shoes that suit the demands of modern life, while adhering to eco-friendly principles. CLAE's Bradley Cactus sneakers are made from an innovative cactus leather, while its vegan Ellington style is made from hemp. They prove that you don't need to rely on animal products to have style.

Shop all men's sneakers at OPUMO.



For more men's trainers, read our guide to the best white sneakers for men.