Business

Men’s shoes could soon outsell women’s

“Shoes make a big difference. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there’s no way that thought would have entered my mind,” Jay Sparks said. Sparks, a suburban father of four, said he's not a high-style kind of guy, but in recent years, his shoe collection has expanded.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
“Shoes make a big difference. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there’s no way that thought would have entered my mind,” Jay Sparks said. Sparks, a suburban father of four, said he's not a high-style kind of guy, but in recent years, his shoe collection has expanded.

It was not long ago that many men’s closets offered a bland lineup of black and brown dress shoes, a pair of sneakers, and maybe something reserved for mowing the lawn.

There were no suede wingtips, no espadrilles, and definitely no ankle boots.

But a shift is underway in the footwear industry, where sales of men’s shoes are quickly catching up to women’s. The surge comes as a growing number of guys — influenced by social media and the footwear trends of a younger generation — are thinking more about what they put on their feet.

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Men in the United States spent about $26.2 billion on shoes last year, up from $23.8 billion in 2014. If that growth continues at its current rate, sales of men’s shoes could top those of women’s, which have hovered near $30 billion in recent years, according to the market research firm NPD Group Inc.

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The statistics suggest that while men aren’t exactly rushing out in packs to go shoe shopping, even regular guys and suburban dads are beginning to test out new, more youthful looks.

Jay Sparks, a father of four who lives in Arlington, said he felt like a corporate drone in clothes that looked like everyone else’s in the conference room when he was a sales director at Fidelity. He also noticed that his higher-ups were dressed in more casual clothing that was professional but not stale. So about two years ago, he updated his look, starting with new shirts and monk strap shoes that feature a strap with a side buckle and no laces. The 52-year-old said he now has about seven pairs of work shoes in his closet, double the number he had a decade ago, and recently wore moss-colored ankle boots to one of his kid’s sporting events.

“Shoes make a big difference,” he said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, there’s no way that thought would have entered my mind.”

The absence of an official workplace dress code for men (and a growing awareness of fashion that comes with social media) has made it easier for men of all ages to embrace a broader range of footwear. And the shoe industry, which has a long legacy in the Boston area, has responded with a vast array of new fashion options. Think oxfords with “color pop” neon blue laces from Waltham-based Clark’s, or high-top leather sneakers from Newton’s Rockport.

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“Women’s business is more mature and slowing down, and brands are looking to men now,” said Beth Goldstein, footwear analyst for NPD. “For men, things like shoes are no longer secondary.”

Jay Sparks held two of his new pairs of shoes at his home in Arlington. Sparks, a suburban father of four, said he's not a high-style kind of guy, but in recent years, his shoe collection has expanded.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Jay Sparks held two of his new pairs of shoes at his home in Arlington.

Euromonitor International, which also tracks footwear trends, said by its measure, men’s shoe sales grew 27 percent between 2011 and 2016, compared with 21 percent for women’s shoes.

Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and author of the 2015 book “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” said the shift toward fashionable men’s shoes has its roots in the way Microsoft and Apple executives and employees wore T-shirts and sneakers to work in the 1980s, destabilizing “the image of what a successful man looks like.” When the most powerful businessmen in the room were wearing their “playground” clothes, she said, people took notice.

“I call this the sneakerfication of men’s fashion,” Semmelhack said. “For men, it starts at the feet and goes up.”

In Greater Boston, where a booming technology industry meets a bevy of footwear companies (enough to call it Shoetown), the trend is already in overdrive.

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New Balance, based in Brighton, said demand for its “athleisure” models has soared 30 percent since 2010, making it the company’s fastest-growing segment.

‘If your shoes aren’t right, your outfit is broken.’

Brad Lacey, global design director for New Balance’s lifestyle shoe division, said that shift was unimaginable a few decades ago. At the time, he said, bars in Boston would not admit men wearing sneakers.

“Most brands were terrified” of deviating from the norm, he said.

Now the company is making more so-called lifestyle shoes, and selling more than ever before. A current version of its well-known 990 athletic shoe, a style launched in the 1980s, is all-leather, costs $229 a pair, and can be worn with a suit.

“It’s cool when you wear it in the right way,” Lacey said.

According to British blogger Mark Simpson, who coined the term “metrosexual” in the 1990s, men’s willingness to take more fashion risks is the “triumph of metrosexuality.”

“In a hyper-consumerist, hyper-visual, Instagrammed world, men need to enjoy shopping and care about their appearance, too,” he said. “Otherwise no one will notice them.”

Similarly, Reebok vice president Todd Krinsky said the company’s classic, all-white leather workout shoes, introduced in the 1980s when aerobics classes and gym workouts were new, have found a new popularity with a younger generation of men. The endorsement of rapper Kendrick Lamar also helped.

The anything-goes fashion messages can be tricky for men who liked the anonymity of a suit or bought shoes that got the job done, said men’s stylist Emmi Sorokin. Business is brisk, she said, as regular guys seek help navigating new dress codes and a sea of woven leather, printed, and even embroidered shoes.

“They want to know how they communicate power, but still look appropriate,” Sorokin said. “How do they make their younger team feel at ease, and do it without looking like they’re trying too hard, which is what every guy is terrified of.”

Not every man may be ready to slip on a driving moc in bright papaya from M. Gemi (cost: $248), said Cheryl Kaplan, president of the Boston company that sells Italian-made footwear online. But many have now realized they need a variety of options in their closets: loafers, oxfords, and a driving shoe, at a minimum.

If retailers have their way, most men’s closets will increasingly resemble Joselin Mane’s.

The 44-year-old digital marketing strategist in Boston is a bit of a shoe connoisseur. He said he thinks shoes spark conversations, much like cars or watches have in decades past.

While many men still balk at the idea of shoe shopping, Mane, with a background in engineering, said his walk-in closet now houses just shy of 100 pairs, not all that many compared with some friends. Each pair is carefully stored in its own clear plastic case.

Retail therapy isn’t just for women, he said.

“If your shoes aren’t right,” Mane said, “your outfit is broken.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.