G Bruce Boyer, one of the great menswear writers, admitted in his 1985 book Elegance that of the dozen or so pairs of shoes he owned, only two of them were not brown suede. It was, for him, a personal idiosyncrasy. Brown goes with almost anything (outside the most formal and business-driven events) and suede is a nice quirk to exchange for calf.
But more generally it speaks to the versatility and enduring popularity of suede. The reverse side of leather – the underside, the fleshy side – it is a natural foil for casual wear and a subtle alternative elsewhere.
When men are told (often by me) that they should wear proper shoes instead of beaten-up trainers and flip-flops, they sometimes reply that they don’t like leather shoes – that often leather shoes look cheap. Well, first this is because they look at cheap leather shoes, blake-stitched and best and cemented at worst. These leather shoes look bad when they are bought and only get worse with wear. They have no counter or toe stiffener and so lack structure; over time, they malform and curl at the end.
But these men have also never tried suede shoes. Take that same cheap shoe and put it in a suede and all of a sudden it doesn’t look quite so cheap. The nap of the suede partially disguises the lack of structure – and cheap suede doesn’t look as bad as cheap leather.
And of course, were they to wear well-made (read benchmade) suede shoes, they’d never look back. In a dark brown toe-cap they are a subtle sophistication; as a replacement for a clichéd style like a black ankle boot they add much-needed personality.
The reason suede so often has the adjectives ‘subtle’ and ‘sophisticated’ in close conjunction is that the texture, that closely shorn nap, absorbs light. It sucks in all illumination, almost becoming a negative image. It defies the expectation of a cleanly delineated shape. It is a surprise and yet not a statement.
This is most obviously demonstrated by wearing a worsted suit with suede (which, one presumes, Mr Boyer does on occasion – it can’t all be flannel and tweed). Such a combination provides the greatest surprise in texture. Expecting a highly polished oxford, buffed to a shine that speaks of hours of dedication, exuding personality in patina, you get nothing. Nothing but fur.
It is the kind of look that, if a man strode past you wearing it, you’d be unsure whether to do a double-take or not. There was something odd about him, but for the life of me I don’t know what. A knitted tie has a similar effect, but not quite as subtle – being closer to the face and therefore more quickly perceived, it is unexpected but readily appreciated.
We are not all Princes of Wales. I do not recommend wearing suede shoes to the most unsuitable of occasions and causing a social stir (as the Duke of Windsor, when he was the Prince, famously did). But I do highly recommend that you try them when you are bored of leather – or can’t afford good leather.