While women’s fashion lives and dies by large swings of the pendulum—hems sweep floors, then barely graze knees; one season, stilettos are all the rage, and the next, it’s sandals—menswear is a much subtler affair. For proof, one may merely look at the finely drawn details that pass for a style revolution in the world of men’s shoe design.
Take, for example, the recent, barely perceptible trend that’s making big waves below the ankle: classic footwear silhouettes made from pebble-grain leathers, in which treated cow hides are embossed or pressed to give a raised, bumpy finish, either to camouflage imperfections in the material or purely for stylistic purposes. The subtle swap instantly imbues traditional lace-ups, slip-ons, and boots with a textured, slightly rustic look—somehow simultaneously casual and refined. Brands ranging from staunch traditionalists (Church’s and Salvatore Ferragamo) to swaggering trend-chasers (Gucci and Dries Van Noten) are standing behind the look.
“It boils down to their versatility,” says Jim Parker, store manager and buyer at the Armoury, a tony menswear boutique in Manhattan’s Tribeca that focuses on luxury suiting and accessories. “Because of the texture, pebble-grain shoes pair well with a wide range of casual and semi-formal clothing, from heavy denim to gray flannels.” He and the store’s owners believe in the understated appeal of pebble-grain shoes so much that they will start offering them as part of their own in-house label this fall, to sit alongside other brands they stock, such as those from the hand-crafted cobblers at Carmina.
“That same texture tends to show wear less than smooth calfskin—and definitely less than suede—making them a great choice for foul weather dress shoes,” Parker continues. “That’s why we usually stock them with rubber soles.”
Steve Taffel, owner of the West Village shoe boutique Leffot, started to noticed an uptick in interest in the style around two years ago and pegs it to an overall trend in relaxed dressing. “Using a pebbled or textured leather with a formal style shoe is a way of dressing down the look and adding versatility,” he says. “Men are increasingly looking for shoes that can be worn for work and casual wear.”
Pebble grain can also add a bit of European élan to more conservative-leaning designs. Take American designer Thom Browne, who’s made a name for himself by giving whimsical updates to menswear classics. Browne frequently uses pebble-grain leathers in his footwear designs, which lend his penny loafers and wingtip boots flair without breaking too much with tradition. In menswear, hair-splitting changes can have major reverberations, so this sort of update helps maintain a delicate balance of desire for certain shoppers of discerning taste.
“It’s a subtle way to create a unique-looking pair of shoes without standing out too much,” says Taffel.
In other words, pebble grain delivers the formality of a dress shoe without all that stuffiness. GQ magazine calls them “a great country look and make your tweeds look even tweedier, whether you’re on the East Coast or east of La Cienega,” while the popular menswear blog Put This On wholeheartedly endorses them in conservative black.
If this seems like obsessing over silly sartorial minutiae, consider this: Business Insider found that “research shows that 80 percent of hiring executives say shoes are ‘extremely important’ in creating the right impression in work environments, but only 51 percent of young men even wear appropriate shoes to an interview.”
Don’t be surprised, then, if the smooth, patinated leathers gently tucked away in your closet suddenly look dull and lifeless or—perhaps worst of all—flat-out boring. If your glossy, polished dress shoes need a little additional personality, you know what to do.