Ideal for dressing down a suit and just as at home when worn with chinos and an Oxford shirt, smart casual sneakers are a versatile addition to any shoe collection. But what exactly are ‘smart casual sneakers’? Essentially, they are minimally designed kicks made from luxurious materials like leather, nubuck or suede. Consider them the laid-back, contemporary alternative to your Derby shoes. In short, you need a pair.
How Sneakers Became Smart Casual
It wasn’t long ago that smart casual attire demanded ‘proper’ shoes. Sneakers wouldn’t even be a consideration – if you didn’t have loafers, Derbies or desert boots on your feet, it wasn’t smart casual. But with the continuing casualisation of dress codes and men now placing as much importance on comfort as they do style, smart casual sneakers developed into its own category.
Brands like Common Projects capitalised on this gap in the market, producing high-quality, pared-back designs that were as at home combined with a shorts and tee as they were an unstructured suit. Luxurious leathers were used, while traditional shoemaking techniques brought these sneakers ever closer to their Goodyear-welted counterparts.
Fast forward to today and the term smart casual leans more on the latter part of the phrase than ever, making sneakers an essential part of the look.
What Types Of Sneakers Are Easiest To Dress Up
Smart casual sneakers tend to take their cues from classic tennis shoes shapes. Minimally designed, the silhouettes are stripped back, with a lack of extraneous detailing and panelling, with a focus on one or two luxurious materials like leather, suede or nubuck.
The most versatile options come in muted colourways, so if you’re on the hunt for a pair that will work with everything from jeans to chinos to suit trousers, stick to neutrals like white, beige, stone, brown, grey, navy or black.
Recommended Smart Casual Sneaker Brands
Uniform Standard specialises in clean, minimal designs and its Series 1 sneaker is a prime example. Built on a low profile cupsole and handmade from premium Italian calf leather, it’s a classic, versatile shoe that’s perfect for finishing off a tailored trouser and polo shirt combo.
It also makes use of plenty of recycled materials, from its moulded footbed to its insole, giving the sneaker a sustainable edge that’s often lacking with other brands.
Think of Northampton shoes and you likely picture expertly crafted, Goodyear-welted designs in classic silhouettes like the loafer, Derby or Oxford. But this shoemaking mecca has recently been turning its hand to kicks too.
Crown Northampton constructs its sneaker models in the same way it does its shoes. Made from the finest Scottish deer suede, its Harlestone model is cork-filled by hand, ensuring they mould to the wearer’s feet with time, while the rear ‘dog tail’ tab is double stitched for a clean, minimal finish. This is what genuine craftsmanship looks like.
JAK shoes does things the right way, from its old-school manufacturing processes to its direct-to-consumer model, which enables it to price its wares competitively.
All the brand’s shoes are handmade in Portugal in a family-owned factory using locally-sourced materials of the highest quality. The result is the Royal: crafted from calf suede with a buttery-soft leather lining, this pared-back silhouette is ideal for finishing off a lightweight summer suit.
In recent years a number of independent sneaker brands have entered the market, hoping to challenge the established names by cutting out the middleman and selling directly to customers, delivering high-quality footwear at an affordable price point.
Oliver Cabell is one of the leaders in the sector, going as far as to call out luxury brands for their steep markups. Even if it didn’t take that stance, OC produces beautifully-made, simply designed shoes that are among the best smart casual sneakers out there.
Its 481 model takes inspiration from classic 1980s designs, but updates it with a vegan corn upper and recycled rubber outsole, all of which is handcrafted in Italy.
The original smart casual sneaker brand, Common Projects turned the fashion industry on its head with the launch of its now-iconic Achilles shoe back in 2004. This luxury, minimal white sneaker offered a level of refinement that hadn’t been seen before, and it’s not hyperbole to say that they changed the way modern men dressed forever. Finally, this was a sneaker that didn’t look out of place in smarter social settings, and was even able to hold its own with tailoring.
Often copied yet never bettered, the Achilles model is now available in premium-quality calf leather or suede and almost every colourway imaginable, including seasonal shades, meaning there is something for every type of dresser and outfit.
One of the first brands to start producing truly high-end leather sneakers, Axel Arigato is well known for its clean design aesthetic. The aptly named Clean 90 are a case in point with their smooth leather upper, slightly chunky rubber sole and distinctive gold logo stamp on the outer side of each shoe.
A simple design that’s been replicated around the world, this is the sneaker to go for if you’re after an unfussy silhouette you can pair with dark indigo jeans or slim-fit chinos.
Zespa was founded in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, which isn’t a bad place for a brand to gather inspiration. Influenced by the laid-back nature of its locale, Zespa’s designs are classic and easy to wear, while its materials and construction are top notch.
Most of its smart casual trainers are typically minimal, but the ZSP4VH silhouette takes things in a slightly different direction. With its chunky, blown-up sole and large foam collar it’ll add a contemporary edge to tailored looks.