“Hey, cool boat shoes” is not really a sentence that most people expect to hear when sauntering around in their Top-Siders. Boat shoes, after all, are generally viewed as the oatmeal of footwear. Ubiquitous, good for daily use, often a shade of brown, but not really anything to set heartbeats racing. Though a staid classic of maritime casual wear, and a favorite among style icons like JFK and Paul Newman, they have, over the years, also developed an unfortunate association with the Tucker Carlson set.
But thanks to recent reinterpretations by some very stylish brands, that fusty old image of the boat shoe is changing. Nowadays, hearing “cool boat shoes” is not actually uncommon at all.
As far back as 2009, the boat shoe first entered higher fashion territory courtesy of Band of Outsiders and its popular collaboration with New England brand Sperry, the boat shoe’s originator. In recent years, Sperry has teamed up with Noah and Jack Spade for more colorful and adventurous takes on their classic Top-Sider. And just this month, the brand launched a new collab with NYC neo-prep brand Rowing Blazers, featuring a lineup of CVO sneakers and, you guessed it, Top-Sider boat shoes.
“We try to educate customers that you can wear boat shoes differently,” says Cristina Faris, Global Product Director at Sperry, of these collaborations. “We all know there’s a little bit of a stigma out there, and our biggest thing is breaking that perception. Doing things with Brendon Babenzien [of Noah] and Jack Carslon [of Rowing Blazers], that’s a big part of it.”
There have been other popular boat shoe collaborations over the past year as well, including a much-hyped union between London skate brand Palace and British shoe company Kickers. The maritime silhouette has also recently popped in the designer fashion world, with Prada, Saint Laurent, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Gucci all releasing their takes on the classic shoe. In fact, it’s been something of a boat shoe bonanza over the last year or so. Which surely must have a few salmon-shorted finance bros scratching their heads.
Finance bro jokes aside, though the shoes do currently call to mind a certain strain of preppy frat culture, the fact is they’re much more of a blank canvas than most people realize—one on which people can project their own personal connections. For Brendon Babenzien, founder of Noah–who’s worked with Sperry over the past few years, but doesn’t currently have a collab in the market–that connection is constancy. “They’ve just always been a part of my life,” he says. Something he credits, at least in part, to his childhood.
“When I was growing up, and that period when your parents are buying your clothes, traditional was the norm,” he explains. “So you had this very basic platform that you built from as a teenager. And the platform was essentially preppy. And then, when you were old enough, you added other components.”
For Babenzien, those components came from surfing, skating, and music, all things he fell in love with as a teenager. “It was kind of the beginning of the smashing together of these cultures. We were these kids from Long Island who skated and surfed, but we also liked hip-hop.” So the Top-Sider habit he’d acquired in his youth was jumbled alongside skater tees, Dickies pants, hoodies, and Quiksilver board shorts. Hardly the uniform of a prepster, but it is very much the vibe of Babenzien’s aesthetic at Noah, and it’s a perfect example of how boat shoes can be re-imagined for an entirely different, non frat guy style. The key to it, he says, is authenticity. “The reason we can reference all of these things at the same time, and re-contextualize what most people view as preppy, is that it’s a genuine thing for us. This is who we are.”
Jack Carlson, founder of Rowing Blazers and the newest addition to the Sperry collab family, also sees authenticity as a major factor in the boat shoe’s stylistic malleability. Not just in the way they are authentically worn by non-preppy types, but also in how Sperry presents itself. “I like Sperry because, even with all of their heritage and history, the brand has a fun, youthful aesthetic. It’s true to itself, but not stuck in its ways.”
That’s the thing about boat shoes. Sure, JFK wore them. And yes, they are shoes that serve, in a very utilitarian way, the sailing crowd (Paul Sperry created them specifically to be durable and slip-resistant on a boat). But they’s also shoes that, at their core, are associated with fun—going to the beach, hanging out on a boat, summer afternoons with friends. You don’t wear them to assert your privilege at a regatta on Nantucket. You wear them because they look way better than flip-flops, and they’re nearly as comfortable and easy to throw on.
“They’re a feat of engineering,” says Babenzien, both of the shoe’s durability and its versatility. “Technically speaking, you can bring that shoe on a trip and wear it all day, then wear it to dinner. It’s so diverse. If you think about how often that happens, it’s pretty rare.” And when that much versatility comes into play, re-contextualization is a cinch. If you want to wear boat shoes and not look like a finance bro, just don’t dress like a finance bro. It’s all about making them your own. Which is actually pretty punk. After all, “there’s no punk look,” as Babenzien says. “You fucking do what you want and that’s punk.”
Color-Block Boat Shoes
That’s exactly the spirit that Sperry wants to embrace with these collaborations. “We obviously love the boat shoe,” say Cristina Faris. “It’s our iconic silhouette, and it’s a timeless classic. But what we love even more is when we get people like Jack or Brendon who get excited to do their version of it—twisted up a little bit with color, materials, outsoles, and really make it their own.” And that’s why the boat shoe is such an ideal canvas. It means so many things to so many different people, but it also can, thanks to its throwback simplicity, mean entirely new things to people who never really thought about them before.
“Sure, I think of Nantucket or Maine when I think of Sperry,” says Carlson. “But now I also think of downtown. I think of people who might have deal sleds in their closet. But also kids who have Vans and Converse in their closet. I think they’re just for anyone who appreciates authenticity.”