It’s a big claim, but we’re calling it: the minimalist sneaker is the quintessential footwear choice of the 21st century. The style, which can be traced back to the launch of Common Projects in 2004, is now a foundation of the male wardrobe: an elegant, democratic shoe that works with tailoring, denim, sweats and everything else. Nothing else comes close in terms of overall influence. A genuine everyday, everywhere sneaker, it brought casual comfort to high fashion and proved that dressed-down staples can be beautifully designed and brilliantly made.
The design DNA may be simple and stripped-back, but the choice on offer is staggering. The popularity of minimalist sneakers gave rise to a new wave of independent sneaker brands that put premium construction, sleek silhouettes and eco-conscious design at the heart of everything they do. Ground your wardrobe with our pick of the best.
Key Style: Bradley
Born in 2001 in Los Angeles, Clae distils that easy-going, West Coast vibe into its comprehensive range of minimal sneakers. Drawing inspiration from the architecture, design, colours and elegance of its hometown, the brand’s shoes are meticulously handcrafted in the same Vietnam workshop they have been working alongside for the past 20 years.
Expect clean lines, premium materials and versatile colourways that will never fall out of style. These are sneakers designed to be worn everyday, for every occasion.
Clae’s bestselling silhouette is the Bradley: a sleek, minimal silhouette available in a wealth of quality materials – including aniline, oiled, full grain or milled leather, nubuck or waxed suede, and textured canvas – and versatile colourways, as well as a choice of rubber or gum soles. It will quickly become your go-to shoe, no matter which one you pick.
Key Style: High-Top Essential Sneaker
Artisan Lab’s mission is simple: make the very best products it can, using only the best materials and partnering with the best Italian artisans. This is the antithesis of mass-produced footwear – the brand only produce a limited batch of footwear each month, giving its community the chance to pre-order with 20% off. Anything left over is sold as stock, making it a sustainable way of approaching fashion and business.
This direct-to-consumer, cut-out-the-middleman approach also means that you get a higher quality product for less, making Artisan Lab sneakers excellent value for money.
Our pick of the current range is High-Top Essential. One of the cleanest, slimmest high-top sneakers we’ve ever seen, it is handmade using premium full-grain calfskin leather, coming complete with margom soles and an antibacterial removable insole. There is currently limited availability in black, white and off-white.
Key Style: Upton Wholecut
Crown Northampton is a fifth-generation, family-owned business with real shoemaking pedigree. Using only the finest locally-sourced materials, all of its footwear is made to order in its Northamptonshire factory ensuring all processes from design to production remain in-house and entirely under its control.
The brand’s new Sneaker Collection is handmade using first-grade suede and leather uppers sourced from the finest tanneries in the world, including the Horween Company and C F Stead. Coming fully leather lined with an exclusive rubber sole, sidewall stitching secures the sole unit and allows the sneakers to be resoled a later date to increase longevity.
If you’re looking for a smart sneaker that can dress up like a Derby shoe, the Upton Wholecut is for you. Crafted using a single piece of leather, wholecut design and construction is a mark of true quality that not many manufacturers can match. An easy way to separate yourself from the white sneaker crowd.
Key Style: Clean 90
Launched in 2014, Swedish brand Axel Arigato is one of the best-established labels producing high-quality minimalist sneakers. ‘Arigato‘ is Japanese for ‘Thank you’ and was originally used to describe something that was valuable and hard to find. That about sums up the brand’s proposition.
Axel Arigato works with a small number or European tanneries and suppliers, and the majority of production is based in Porto. Its extended range includes designs inspired by vintage athletic shoes and chunkier styles, but the Clean 90 is our go-to. Something akin to a quintessential minimalist white sneaker, it will work with tailoring, sweatpants and everything in between.
Key Style: Series 1
The Uniform Standard story is a familiar one in sneaker and fashion circles: with 18 years’ experience designing products for other brands, in 2018 the founders decided to branch out on their own. Social and environmental responsibility is at the forefront of everything they do, with the East London-based brand utilising the finest Italian leathers and premium recycled components to create their lines.
The Series 1 is the flagship silhouette. A clean, timeless style that can be dressed up or down, it’s available with smooth calf leather or textured suede uppers in a wealth of colourways.
Key Style: ZSP4
Founded in 2009, in the Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, Zespa combines high-end craftsmanship with typical Mediterranean flair. Starting out by re-envisioning the design of the traditional espadrille, turning it into something smarter, the brand has since set its sights on the humble sneaker, elevating it through luxury materials and detailing.
The ZSP4 is our pick of the range. A minimal, sophisticated silhouette that’s handmade in Portugal using full-grain calf nappa and nubuck from Italy, they feature anatomic inner soles for all-day comfort. These are the type of sneakers you could easily wear with a suit.
Key Style: LT 01
Founded in Amsterdam in 2010, ETQ was created as an answer to the luxury trend of loud, garish branding and excessive pricing. Shunning fleeting fashion trends, the Dutch brand simply produce high-quality, well-designed sneakers for a fair price. The entire range adheres to the company’s minimalist principles, using shape and proportion to help its offering stand out from the pack.
The LT 01 is ETQ’s flagship model. It features a clean upper with a substantial sole and comes in a number of timeless colourways that will never go out of style. We particularly like the VEGEA® options – you would swear these sneakers had premium leather uppers but it’s actually a material created using wine waste and vegetable oil. We’ll drink to that.
Key Style: Royal S01
Founded in 2014 by Isabel and José Maria, JAK is an independent shoemaker based in Lisbon, Portugal. All of its products are built in the northern region of Portugal, famous for its multi-generation, family-owned shoe factories, and sold directly to consumers, allowing it to deliver better quality for a lower price point.
When it comes to design, JAK is an advocate of slow fashion and therefore produces timeless, versatile sneakers designed to be worn over and over again. The materials used are all sourced locally and responsibly – primarily full grain leather that ages beautifully over time and develops its own unique character.
The Royal S01 is JAK’s bestselling silhouette, and it’s easy to see why. A sleek, unspoiled upper is complemented by an ultra-soft calf leather lining and shock-proof inner soles creating the perfect marriage of design and comfort. Available in a variety of materials and colourways, the suede versions are our favourites. An easy way of bringing texture and a touch of luxury to your everyday looks.
Key Style: Modelo ’89 Vegan
SAYE set out with the mission to make truly sustainable and environmentally-friendly footwear cool. We’d say they’ve accomplished that. Initially using leather to craft its line of sneakers, over the years it has worked with specialist suppliers to create new, groundbreaking vegan materials – coming to the point now where they no longer need to produce leather versions at all. From 2022 the brand intend to only sell 100% vegan sneakers, making them one of few companies with genuine eco credentials.
The Modelo ’89 Vegan is Ape’s pick. With a throwback aesthetic akin to a Reebok Classic, an iconic sneaker model in its own right, it comes in low- and high-top models and a variety of vintage colourways. A retro runner for the modern world.