18 Minimalist Sneaker Brands For Men Who Prefer Understated Kicks
If you like your kicks with a sleek silhouette and understated styling then look no further.
Who doesn’t love a minimalist sneaker? Ever since Royal Navy plimsolls came onto the commercial market in the 1870s, the pared-back white sneaker has gone through multiple iterations to become what it is today – a sleek, super-clean casual shoe that transcends its sporting origins and can be worn in virtually every way imaginable.
The original plimsolls didn’t even have a left or right shoe until around the mid 1800s but soon became more sophisticated for the purposes of playing tennis and other sports. Now, the ‘tennis pump’ has come to define a minimalist sneaker that we wear casually rather than play sport in.
In this article, we’ll look at the considerations you need to make when shopping for minimalist sneakers, as well as spotlighting the coolest brands producing them today.
What is a minimalist sneaker?
Minimalism in fashion is a term open to interpretation, but suffice to say that it’s a genre that eschews embellishment in favour of a sleek silhouette, subtle details (if any) and a restricted colour palette.
So what does that mean in terms of sneakers? When we think of minimalist sneakers, it’s the classic tennis pump silhouette that comes to mind – that lo-fi sports shoe that came out of the burgeoning sports and fitness craze of the 1950s that hasn’t really changed too much in the intervening decades.
Cut in soft leather and with a rubber sole, the minimalist sneaker can often feature contrast colour heel tabs, or perhaps a contrast suede panel on the upper, but besides that and perhaps a logo, it is a relatively clean and simple sports shoe that has made its home in everyday contemporary menswear.
How has the minimal sneaker influenced men’s fashion?
The minimalist sneaker’s influence on modern menswear has been significant, playing a key role in the crossover between sportswear and casual, everyday style. Being naturally comfortable, combined with it’s sleek, clean looks, the minimalist sneaker was integrated into the smarter end of the modern wardrobe in the early 2000s at a time when only traditionally smart shoes such as Oxfords, Derbies and loafers were considered as styles to wear with a suit or tailored trousers.
The minimalist sneaker broke the mould – not without a good deal of resistance we might add – but when brands such as Common Projects hit the menswear scene and stylish types started to wear their pared-back styles in a smarter context, they never looked back. Now, minimalist kicks have become such an embedded part of a modern capsule wardrobe that it’s hard to think of a time when sartorial types looked down their noses at them.
Beyond the lo-fi tennis pump, you can also find more contemporary sneaker silhouettes that play the trend by being totally monochrome, rather than having a clean, classic shape.
What to consider when buying minimalist sneakers
Although the silhouette of the minimalist sneaker has its roots firmly in sportswear, it was when brands started to create them in premium leathers that the concept of them as a crossover shoe really took hold.
Today you can expect to find them crafted in buttery-soft leather and premium suede fabrics, often handmade to the same meticulous standards as traditionally smart shoes. Note that most of those British legacy shoemakers such as John Lobb, Grenson et al. have all dipped their refined toes into the minimalist sneaker market and to good effect, too.
As discussed above, the evolution of the tennis pump has been the key direction of the modern minimalist sneaker, but new shapes have also been able to capitalise on the pared-back aesthetic through monochromatic colour palettes.
Oversized soles, as per Alexander McQueen’s iconic sneakers, are very contemporary and yet still have at their core the prime tenets of the pump. The key then – regardless of the shape – is for the shoe to consist of few superfluous details, minimal branding and no more than one or two colours.
The best minimalist sneaker brands for 2023
Los Angeles-based Clae has been quietly producing its own brand of minimalistic sneakers ever since it launched in 2001, garnering a devoted following thanks to its ‘Bradley Essentials’ model , which is constructed using a super-soft Nappa leather upper.
As well as premium leather, Clae produces pared-back styles in waterproof nubuck and vegan options too. Style-wise, the silhouettes are second-to-none, including perfect summer mid-tops and slip-ons.
Making great minimalist sneakers is easy. Making great sustainable minimalist sneakers? Not so much. Brazilian footwear brand Cariuma is one of the companies that does it well and does it honestly.
Unlike a lot of sneaker labels, which create a small number of planet-friendly designs and a great many more that are not, Cariuma’s whole range is consciously made from natural and recycled materials, including rubber, cotton, cork and bamboo. It also leads the way with green design practices and carbon-free shipping.
None of this comes at the expense of style or comfort, either. The majority of its designs come in a single colour and a low profile. Heavily influenced by skate culture, there are stripped-back slip-ons and lace-ups among the collection, all of which work as well with chinos as they do with a wide pair of skate pants.
Founded in 2014 by Isabel and José Maria, JAK is a bootstrapped independent based in Lisbon, Portugal and sells its minimalist sneakers directly to consumers – which is why you’ll find them pretty good value respective to some of the other names on this list.
The ‘Royal’ style was the first design that JAK released and is still to this day its bestselling model. It’s not hard to see why: extremely clean design, full-grain calf-leather upper, ultra-soft calf-leather lining, full leather midsoles and a cemented and stitched rubber sole for durability.
Minimalist design meets Northamptonshire shoemaking craft in this 110-year-old heritage brand. A family business, currently run by the fifth generation, Crown brings the quality leathers, solid construction and time-honoured shoemaking techniques that Northampton is renowned for, and applies them to smart casual sneakers you can wear with anything.
You can get wider fits on request and, like a quality pair of Derbies, you can also have them resoled when the time comes. You won’t get that from many luxury sneaker brands.
It mixes Swedish and Japanese design codes so of course Axel Arigato is a minimalist sneaker brand. Even when it’s making chunky moon boots or retro running shoes with multiple panels and materials, the palette is stripped-back and tasteful.
The beauty of this approach is that it makes each design truly elastic: practically every shoe they produce is versatile enough to wear with wide-legged trousers, slim-fit jeans and everything in between.
Produced exclusively in fine Italian leather and manufactured in Portugal, this is modern footwear that’s instantly timeless.
The smartest brand on this list is Aurélien, a Mediterranean-inspired menswear brand that produces stunning smart casual clothing with a strong sustainability direction. However, its minimalistic sneakers are as good as any specialist footwear brand.
The off-white ‘Portofino’ sneakers are understated classics, made from supple full-grain leather and constructed on ivory rubber soles. The ‘Bayside’ models meanwhile are tonal and textural delights, thanks to a blend of suede and linen fabrics, while the ‘Playtime’ sneaker takes a sustainable approach, being made of a water-resistant technical fabric spun from recycled PET bottles.
Founded in 2016 by Scott Gabrielson (who had no experience in fashion or retail), Oliver Cabell has done an excellent job challenging the status quo of the footwear industry, most notably with its flagship product, the ‘Low 1’ sneaker.
Cabell uses Margom outsoles as well as ethically-sourced premium Italian leather to create his minimalist designs, many of which come with contemporary distressed details that don’t detract from the pared-back aesthetic.
Born in Aix-en-Provence, France, Zespà is a relative newcomer on the scene but is already proving worthy of the accolades. With a small boutique on Boulevard des Filles-du-Calvaire in Paris, the brand first launched espadrilles in 2009 but switched its focus to premium leather kicks in 2014 and has not looked back.
The build quality is exceptional and the styling is subtle, with contrast tongue and heel details as well as suede panelling.
Artisan Lab takes minimalism very seriously. The brand uses a made-to-order process to minimise wastage, produce limited production runs and emphasise sustainability.
Taking inspiration from the sports trainers so prevalent in 70s fashion, Artisan Lab have deftly merged clean design with superior materials and the highest craftsmanship standard, with each sneaker hand-stitched in Italian ateliers using Italian calfskin that has also been tanned in Italy.
Hylo is something of an outlier on this list, since it specialises in running trainers, and yet still ticks all of our minimalist boxes.
OK, so you probably won’t be styling them with pleated suit trousers, or perhaps anything other than your gym kit, but the brand deserves a place on the list because of its clean aesthetic and brilliant sustainability credentials: its uppers are made from sustainable corn fibre, grown within 15 miles of Hylo’s factories in Putian, China. It’s durable, breathable and hardwearing.
Corn starch is used for the insoles, renewable natural rubber for the outsole and organic cotton for laces and labels, leading to a 42% reduction in carbon footprint compared to the industry average.
Fashion heads will be all too aware of Alexander McQueen’s typically subversive approach to style and menswear, a trait that was applied to one of its most popular ever products: its exaggerated-sole leather sneakers.
The team at McQueen took the classic tennis pump silhouette and gave it an injection of fillers, puffing up the sole to oversized proportions. A hit since they were launched in 2016, the Italian leather design features a contrast colour heel tab and chunky rubber soles that have become instantly recognisable.
Saint Laurent has always been recognised for its slick, svelte aesthetic, more often than not coming in a dark palette of uncompromisingly black tones, but the Parisian fashion giant has long been creating minimal low-tops and high-tops in its seasonal sneaker collections.
Kicks such at the ‘Court Classic’, the ‘Malibu’, the ‘Andy’ and the ‘Venice’ sneaker are all exemplary renditions of the modern minimalist aesthetic, with subtle branding details such as a gold embossed or handwritten logo embellishing the premium white leather exteriors.
If you’re a label lover that likes to mix in high fashion with traditional tailored silhouettes, then Saint Laurent’s range will be right up your street.
Common Projects, the collaboration of designers Flavio Girolami and Prathan Poopat, can rightfully take its place in the pantheon of modern menswear as the minimalist sneaker brand that did more for its crossover than any other.
Crafted from super-soft leather and with only the most subtle logo detailing on the heel of the shoe, Common Projects’ now iconic Achilles model paved the way for the casual sports shoe to be worn in a smarter context.
Still one of the best on the market, despite many excellent imitators, CP has since expanded its colour palette to include an array of muted tones as well as the odd vibrant style, but all still conforming to the brand’s trademark luxury minimalism.
Prada has always attached an avant gardeism to its futuristic aesthetic. And nowhere is this played out better than its sneaker collection, which combines high-fashion design and geometric futurism with its unique Italian minimalism.
High-tops such as the ‘Polarius’ and ‘Cloudburst Thunder’ are next-level statement kicks, whereas the ‘Downtown’ and brushed leather styles are closer in evolution to the classic pumps which were the reference for this genre of sneakers.
North-89 is a Swedish brand that does things slightly different to the rest on this list. Founded in 2006, North-89’s inspiration is actually the Scandinavian weather, hence its shoes are water-resistant and breathable depending on the seasonality.
For spring/summer, you can expect minimalistic court sneakers handcrafted in Portugal from natural fabrics such as linen, cotton and calfskin leather. While in the fall and winter seasons you have the option of choosing weatherproof suede uppers.
All very practical, but inherently stylish to boot.
Perhaps the most minimalist aesthetic on this list, Uniform Standard are based in East London. Using the finest quality Italian leathers and premium recycled components, the label has kept things super simple by creating eight series of sneakers – each one different from the other yet sharing the same core design principles.
Each series is available in white leather or black – standard fare for diehard minimalists.
ETQ Amsterdam has been operating since 2010, crafting premium leather sneakers with a decidedly minimalist approach that informs all aspects of its output, from the actual products to the packaging.
What started as a small project with friends has turned into a fantastic brand that never deviates from its core principles. The label sticks to a small colour palette of white, off-white and muted autumnal tones for the most part, with a clean modernist silhouette refreshingly bereft of branding.
Using high-quality leather and suede uppers, its styles would make a great addition to any smart casual wardrobe.
Founded in 2013, Stockholm-based CQP is unique for the fact that it makes exclusively suede sneakers. With a focus on “materials, shape and graceful ageing”, its minimalist sneakers are designed in Stockholm and manufactured in selected facilities in Portugal and Italy, with approximately 80% of the manufacturing process hand-finished by skilled craftsmen. As you would expect, the build quality is exceptional.
It’s perhaps most recognised for its Racquet and Tarmac styles, both classic tennis pump silhouettes, but it has also created a slick line of retro runners and some pared-back slip-ons, too.
The premium suede uppers are reflected in the price, but you’re guaranteed a stunning sneaker you can pair with your entire wardrobe.
The best way to wear minimalist sneakers
The joy of the minimalist sneaker, and the reason why it has become so popular in modern menswear, is precisely because it has become so versatile.
Naturally, it suits being worn in a casual context with sportswear and casualwear: everything from track pants to chinos are a natural extension of the sneaker’s sporting heritage, but it can also be a great adjunct to formal suit trousers or pleated tailored trousers.
The clean lines of the tailored trouser lead nicely into the equally clean geometry of the minimalist sneaker, with the latter providing a crisp white contrast to the dark tones of a tailored bottom half.