Wherever you are right now, take a quick look around at people’s footwear. What brands are they wearing? Chances are, the results of your visual sneaker survey will look a little something like this: Adidas, Nike, Converse, New Balance, Nike, maybe a bit of Reebok if you’re lucky, Adidas, Nike, Nike.
No matter how classic the shoe or how exclusive the drop, it’s clear that just a few companies have a monopoly on the sneaker market. So what are you supposed to do if you don’t want to follow in the air-cushioned footsteps of everyone else?
Thankfully, there are plenty of under-the-radar footwear brands out there, each with their own unique spin on standard, run-of-the-mill sports shoes. They may not have the same industry clout as your Stripes and Swooshes but what they do have on their side is individuality.
ARKK’s futuristic trainers may look like they came through a tear in the fabric of spacetime from the year 3000, but they’re actually just from Denmark. The brand has done the unthinkable in fusing that stripped-back Scandi aesthetic with a hearty dose of futuristic styling.
The resulting shoes defy convention and are impossible to lump into any one category. They’re lifestyle trainers with sports DNA and one eye firmly on innovation. If you’re looking for something striking, different and yet somehow tasteful, go Danish.
Say what you want about the French, there’s no denying they know their way around an atelier. Remarkably, this national flair for fashion extends south of the ankles, too. And the proof is in the pudding… if by “pudding” you mean the artisanally crafted footwear of Southern French sneaker brand Zespa.
Produced locally in small batches by skilled workers and using fine Nappa leather, Zespa’s brand of luxurious minimalism puts it right up there with the likes of Common Projects. The only difference: these ones are ever so slightly easier on the wallet.
We’re suckers for a good backstory and under-the-radar Swedish sneaker label Spalwart has a good’n. It all began when the company’s founders happened upon a room full of 1950s footwear moulds while visiting a factory in rural Slovakia. After dusting them off and making a prototype they quickly realised they were onto a winner and set about establishing a brand.
The retro styling and distinctly wabi-sabi aesthetic has seen Spalwart become a favourite among fashion insiders, including Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Those who know the brand favour the shoes for their characteristic imperfection and use of premium materials. And those who don’t, well, they will soon enough.
There must be something in that crisp, eastern-European mountain air because Novesta is another Slovakian throwback brand with a cult following and some seriously tasty shoes to boot. You may not have heard of the label, but it’s been quietly doing its thing for just shy of century and the designs have remained more or less unchanged throughout.
The Star Master is probably the most recognisable model – known for its canvas construction, tyre-tread midsole and oversized lace loops. However, there are also retro runners and high-top styles on offer, all unified by an overarching simplicity and sturdy construction.
Take one streetwear designer, a dash of beachy styling, a pinch of minimalism and strain it all through a skate-culture shaped sieve and what do you get? Well, something that looks a lot like Aprix.
Pronounced ah-pree, this simple skate-inspired footwear line is the brainchild of Noah designer and former Supreme creative director, Brendon Babenzien. Aside from having a CV that would make your average streetwear nerd weak at the knees, Babenzien has an eye for what makes a good pair of sneakers and his cheerful selection of stripped-back modern classics is proof.
If you thought made-in-the-UK shoes maxed out at the fine footwear of Northamptonshire, think again, because we Brits make some top-shelf trainers, too. For evidence, look no further than the retro trainers of Lancashire’s Norman Walsh – a sports footwear veteran with serious knowhow.
These are shoes that ooze character, with details such as locally sourced fabrics and regional patterns adding a uniquely British edge. Each pair is handcrafted in the brand’s Bolton factory and finished with a tastefully sized Union Jack to the side. Look out for throwback runner styles like the Tornado and the Ensign, alongside old-school fell-running boots and the odd collab.
If you don’t count yourself as a fan of the whole ugly, chunky sneaker movement you’d be well advised to avert your eyes about now. Swear’s mind-boggling customisable shoes aren’t what anyone would describe as unassuming – they’re big, they’re loud and they make no bones about it.
Customers can either design their own shoes, choosing from thousands of possible colour and style combinations. Or failing that, they can pick a ready-made pair from the label’s best-selling options. Swear’s fully customisable model has seen it partner with some of the world’s hottest fashion brands, which makes it all the more surprising that it’s remained largely under the radar.
Luxury minimalist trainers are great, but they’ve been done to death. So it’s rare we’d champion a new brand peddling more of the same, but JAK’s are stripped-back premium sneaks with a difference.
The brand’s standout shoe is the Atom – a relaxed, one-piece take on a classic silhouette. The unique design has seen JAK’s contemporary brand of premium footwear picked up by trendsetting retailers including Opumo and splashed all over social media. Even so, for now the label is still a relatively untapped resource of grade-A trainers and a surefire winner if what you want are luxury kicks with a twist.
Born in 2016, Oliver Cabell was always going to have to prove itself in order to gain a foothold in a saturated luxury sneaker market Still, with Common Projects quality at half the price and designs that balance timeless and contemporary to masterful effect, that was never going to be much of a challenge, was it?
Oliver Cabell’s approach to crafting footwear is to showcase only what is necessary – nothing more, nothing less. It’s led to some of the crispest looking sneakers around from a brand that is a little-known but much-loved alternative to some of the pricier options dominating the market.
Finnish brand Karhu isn’t the most visible name on the sports footwear landscape. Perhaps it’s because the brand sold its three stripes logo to Adidas for a bit of cash and two bottles of whisky back in 1951. Or maybe it’s because Karhu’s sneakers are so good it doesn’t have to scream from the rooftops about them.
Those who actively seek out quality sports shoes will wind up with a pair of Karhus in hand sooner or later. And when they eventually do, they’ll likely be impressed. The brand is revered among athletes and sneakerheads alike for its shoes’ supreme comfort and knockout looks, it’s just the rest of the world that hasn’t quite caught on yet.
Since 2012, cheery Japanese brand Buddy has been producing colourful, simplistic shoes in its Tokyo workshop and shipping them in small quantities around the world. Buddy’s products use only the best materials – from vulcanised rubber for the soles, to premium suede and leather. Each pair is handmade and comes complete with an individual leather tag stitched into the insole to prove it.
Granted, these shoes aren’t going to win any awards for boundary-pushing tech or originality. However, Buddy knows its strengths, plays to them and the results are clear for all to see. Well, they are now you know about it.
For a brand that has been going strong since the 1930s and has been rocked to glorious effect by the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, David Hockney and John Lennon, Spring Court is still relatively unknown. The French tennis shoe label was revolutionary in its heyday, made with ventilation holes in the soles and designed specifically to be worn on clay.
Spring Court’s tennis shoes were a game changer, but as technology surpassed them, they were pushed to the sidelines. Today the brand may not be as active on the courts but it does still have a cult following of style-savvy fans who can’t get enough of that simple, classic styling.
Stepney Worker’s Club
Having launched in 2018, it’s no wonder that London-based footwear brand Stepney Worker’s Club is still relatively unheard of. Judging by at its debut collection of simple, classic shoes, however, that won’t be the case for long.
The Hackney-born label takes inspiration from the inclusive culture found in traditional worker’s sports clubs and channels it into footwear that toes the line between retro and contemporary. The label’s unique style has seen it picked up by the likes of END. and the Garbstore, meaning it’s only a matter of time before this little-known brand goes global.
Reproduction of Found
If you have even a passing interest in menswear then you’ll be aware of how much inspiration comes from the military. Everything from the cargo trouser to the peacoat has its roots in the forces and Japanese brand Reproduction Of Found is proving that footwear is no different.
Since 2016, the label has been recreating the most stylish pieces of military footwear and bringing them to the masses. Think everything from classics like the German army trainer, through to lesser-known American and Russian styles. Name a more stylish way to graduate from boot camp.
Founded by a couple of skate- and sneaker-industry veterans, Greats has been doing its thing since 2013, which is a fairly long time in today’s fast fashion. However, the brand has remained largely under the radar, especially in the UK.
In addition to making excellent pared-back retro sports shoes, Greats’ products are far more affordable than some of its key competitors. And in this financial climate, that’s not to be sniffed at.
The Best Sneaker Brands You’ve Never Heard Of
Be honest, how many do know?