Material Matters: Dad Shoes and Dad Shoe Accessories
It’s easy to dismiss the ‘dad shoe’ phenomenon as devoid of any useful footwear technology. The entire aesthetic is based on the suburban male stereotype of a man more adept at fixing lawn mowers than programming the VCR, a Hank Hill type who thinks ‘online streaming’ is something to do with fishing. But let’s not forget that that very same bloke was the first guy on the street to get a car phone in the 90s, and once upon a time, some of today’s dominant dad designs were at the top of their game too.
For any middle-aged gent with a knee that plays up in the cold and a tendency to preface names of social media platforms with ‘the’, the main consideration when purchasing a shoe is comfort. Nothing flashy; just a sturdy, comfortable shoe. So for the last few decades, dads have gravitated towards the most practical of trainers.
In the early 80s, New Balance made the decision to guide their 990 away from fashions of the time, kickstarting a legacy of grey that still thrives today. Not only were their plain slate sneakers visually appealing, but thanks to their athletic pedigree the comfort factor was off the charts. Additions such as ENCAP and the MCD enabled New Balance to become the first true ‘dad shoe’ brand, while their width sizing (something most other sneaker brands still don’t do) was the icing on the cake for fat-footed fathers everywhere. But as comfortable as Steve Jobs’ signature shoes may be, all those advanced athletic additions are reflected in the price, and around the world dads sang out in chorus: ‘what am I – made of money?!’
The 90s gave rise to all manner of advanced footwear innovations with visually apparent tech like split-soled Reebok Graphlite runners and Nike’s Foamposite. Skechers, on the other hand, were growing rapidly despite doing absolutely nothing that could be considered cool by today’s standards. By the turn of the millennium, it occurred to someone in Beaverton that they’d shut out a massive market; accordingly, they set their minds to designing a shoe for the average Joe – enter the Nike Air Monarch.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how ‘dad shoe’ style came to be stylish. Legions of leisurewear dads certainly aren't responsible for taking their cumbersome footwear from school runs to cool; we only have ourselves – and the internet – to blame for that. These digital days have spawned a new kind of ironic fashion that is defined by humour. It opens up a strange space where things that are considered uncool can be worn in jest, thus redefining them as cool – it’s best not to think too hard about it. Anyway, it was in this space that dad style dawned.
Nike’s Monarch has since become the prototypical dad shoe. Love it or hate it, nobody can deny the unadulterated design's lasting effect on the industry. The original design brief was to make something simple, affordable and accessible. By the Air Monarch IV, designer Jason Mayden had perfected the formula. The IV boasted a thick, stable Air sole, a wide rounded toe and a lacing system that could be yanked to choking point. The Monarch IV was such a huge success that the Swoosh pressed pause on developing the line and churned out millions upon millions of the same three colourways: white, white and black, and black.
With over a decade of repeat purchasing from satisfied dads, it was only a matter of time before curators of ironic fashion claimed the Monarch as their own. Once they did, the look caught on. Overnight, ‘dad style’ shifted from being an ironic pejorative to a legitimate fashion movement. High-fashion brands set about designing luxury versions of the affordable designs, sportswear manufacturers dug into their archives for anything with a little extra chunk and New Balance… well they just kept making grey runners.
Soon the whole thing outgrew itself. Balenciaga’s Triple S became a parody of a parody, while Kanye’s Yeezy Wave Runner lit the fuse on the movement’s ultimately doomed hype cycle. Even the Monarch became a victim of its own success; after holding fast to its no-frills for so many years, the Monarch was tweaked and reborn as the M2K Tekno – though not intended to be a replacement for the IV, it does taint the purity of the ironically cool name. (And in another twist, Kanye West accused the M2K of ripping his Wave Runner, as though ungainly sneakers had been his idea.)
Now the question on everyone’s mind is, how long this can possibly last? Once again, the fashion world has hijacked an iconic aesthetic for its own gain, and that never ends well for the OG fans. Perhaps it’s time for footwear manufacturers to return to the lo-fi dad shoes of yesteryear, reflecting on what made the Monarch such a success to begin with. Whichever way it goes, we can’t wait for the day we can stop saying ‘dad shoes.’
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Denim Dissected, adidas and Parley Reinvent Recycling and Nike React vs. adidas BOOST.