While some people have run out of lockdown to make up for lost time, a number of men have, er, shoved back onto the streets. They saunter, dawdle and slouch to lunches, get-togethers and work meetings, propelled by indifference rather than haste.
They’re on mule time. Their feet are shod in clogs, sabots, backless loafers, espadrilles with crushable heels, and several other iterations of covered-toe, open-backed shoes. All fall under the mule umbrella and generate slow movement due to their front-heavy form.
“The mule is a casual shoe,” says Noah Thomas, a fashion editor and co-founder of Mule Boyz, a wry Instagram account devoted to the footwear. “It’s for standing, posing and chilling. You can’t run, so you have to be relaxed; that’s where the feeling of luxury comes in.”
Men’s heels – naked and with socks – have never been more striking. Because while women’s mules have been popular for decades, the “mulement” for men (thanks the Mule Boyz for that term) has only recently shifted from cult status to mainstream fame.
Simmering since 2015, when Gucci introduced its fur-lined Princetown mules, it took a big step forward during the pandemic, when countless guys lived in Birkenstock’s Boston clogs, Crocs, or real slippers. When taking out the trash was the longest journey of the day, tying shoelaces was out of the question. Mules – snug, comfortable, easy to slip in – had the answers.
“The great thing about a mule right now is that it’s easy, but at the same time you can dress it up conceptually,” said Jonathan Anderson, creative director for JW Anderson and Loewe. He did just that with the JW Anderson chain loafer mules, black leather slip-ons featuring a huge sculptural gold chain that was a hit in mid-2020.
Zhooshed-up designs resonate with male shoppers. According to Lyst, an online platform that collects data from more than 17,000 brands and stores, searches for “leather mules” and “suede mules” are up 151 percent this year compared to 2020. At luxury e-retailer MatchesFashion, which have registered a triple-digit growth in men’s mules in the past 12 months, they are becoming a popular alternative to sneakers.
“The sneaker has been such a dominant shoe for men, but you’ve got that guy who wants to move on — but he still wants an elevated casual shoe,” said Damien Paul, head of menswear at Matches. Mules, which occupy a sweet spot between a loafer and a slipper, are the shoe that fits.
While this trend may be new, the relationship between men and mules is not. They were worn by the Romans (“mule” comes from mulleus calceus, the name for the red slippers of patricians) and by the Sun King Louis XIV, who hopped about in a dizzying pair, according to the work “Feet and Footwear” by Margo DeMello. By the 1800s, however, it became “outrageous” to expose your heels in public, Ms DeMello writes, and mules were locked up in bedrooms.
Centuries later, some still find them distasteful. “A lot of people don’t want to see any part of a man’s foot,” said Mr Thomas. “They say, ‘Ugh, why are we promoting something that makes a man leave his house with his heel- from?'”
Nevertheless, the general embrace of mules by the men’s clothing community shows how much progress has been made over the past decade, said Jian DeLeon, the menswear and editor-in-chief at Nordstrom and the other founder of Mule Boyz. The appeal of the shoes mainly stems from flirting with the boundaries of good taste rather than with potential suitors. Where men’s clothing was once about “looking better when you’re dating, it’s now about standing up for yourself,” said Mr. DeLeon.
His girlfriend, he added, “hates” mules at men. He has more than 30 pairs.
That’s not to say they can’t be sexy. Because it looks like you’ve dressed the front half of your foot but forgot the back, they telegraph an undo suggesting swagger. “A mule automatically makes an outfit feel less thoughtful,” said Mr. Paul, “and a lesson we learned when we got out of lockdown is that you want that effortless feel to your outfit.”
As cities reopen and men have more sartorial madness than prepandemic, this relaxed look is being tried out in smarter environments.
Dan Comrie, a 35-year-old Londoner, paired his suede Our Legacy Camions with a navy suit for a wedding in northern England, where his ensemble had “raised eyebrows,” he said. Ryo Takiguchi, a graphic designer in Tokyo, donned JW Anderson blue mules—without socks—for a “rather formal” work meeting.
The Mule Boyz think no occasion is too big for mules. “I wear Birkenstocks with my tuxedo – the high-low idea is everything,” said Mr. Thomas.
Mr. DeLeon paired Gucci mules with a Prada tux and a Hawaiian shirt for a wedding. “It’s about owning it,” he said. But as with many style risks, he warned: “You have to show it’s purposeful. It’s the nuance that goes into intentionally changing the pitch of a song versus playing the wrong note.”
Also worth remembering: go for a pedicure (no one deserves to see cracked heels); invest in decent socks (socky mules can look more casual); and pair your shoes with baggy pants (“nothing skinny,” said Mr. Takiguchi) to match the relaxed overall vibe.
Flowy, long pants play with expectations because mules look like a regular shoe from the front, “but there’s the surprise at the back,” said Loris Messina, a founder of Sunnei, of Milan. Sunnei creates lace-up slip-ons – like mutated sneakers and derbies – that heighten playfulness.
Best of all, mules allow you to get around difficult dress codes. Most offices “have a rule against open-toed footwear, but don’tback‘ said Mr. DeLeon with a straight face. “You feel like you can get away with something.”