Something very strange happened to men’s footwear a few years ago. Something very good, undoubtedly—but strange nonetheless. First came the ugly sneakers. Then the sock sneakers, and then simply the hideous sneakers. Dress loafers went on an acid trip. In-the-know streetwear labels started designing Uggs and Crocs. John Mayer showed off the nearly $900 sandals he practically lives in. Mountaineering sneakers and walking clogs showed up in red-hot look books. At some point, Birkenstock made the jump from German orthopedia to covetable fashion. Shoes jumped the shark—and it ruled.
The shift was so abrupt, so jarring, that it now feels hard to be surprised by whatever footwear trend is lurking around the corner. But 2020 has been a weird year in all respects. So it's only right that it's ushered in a trend that somehow managed to catch even us at GQ off guard. Menswear’s newest micro-obsession? Water shoes.
Water shoes! Yes, the perplexing footwear—usually rubber, with a vibe that sits somewhere in between sneaker and sandal—seems to be having a moment in the sun. Merrell's Hydro Moc is perhaps the most polarizing of the genre, and yet it's the runaway star here. The Cronenbergian shoe is covered in holes, almost offensively so, and is made from colorful molded ethylene-vinyl acetate in a way that makes it resemble saltwater taffy. And it is, somehow, a hit. “I started wearing the Merrell Hydro Moc this spring, and it’s probably the shoe I’ve logged the most time in since March,” says Antonio Ciongoli, the designer behind one of New York’s vibiest new labels, 18 East. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both noted the shoe's popularity.
The Hydro Moc also clearly has a fan in Kanye West. One of the rapper-designer’s latest footwear creations, the Yeezy Foam Runner, is a waterproof slip-on shoe made of molded foam that is covered in cutout segments. The resemblance is uncanny.
And where Yeezy goes, the rest of menswear is sure to follow. When Palace Skateboards unveiled its latest collaboration with Adidas, it was a pair of vibrantly colored water...sneakers? Whatever you want to call them, they were the item that everyone seemed most excited about. Nike's "Canyon" sandal, inspired by the brand's All Conditions Gear sublabel, features a beefy outsole, a plush foam midsole, and a product description stating it was designed for both "cityscapes" and "river banks." Hoka, makers of innovative running sneakers, debuted its own amphibious style: the Hopara, which looks like it could have been designed by Jun Takahashi or Errolson Hugh. Even Gucci sells an outdoorsy closed-toe sandal that looks fit for a romp in the river.
So: Why the water shoe? Is nothing sacred? Start here: They feel pretty good to wear—far cozier, to be sure, than the dress shoes we no longer need to wear. Water shoes subscribe to the contemporary notion that fashion footwear should provide style and function in equal measure.
There's more to it than that, though. "I think that clothing designed for an actual purpose is having a moment in general," says Ciongoli, whose own brand's durable fleeces and meant-to-be-baggy cargos also carry an aura of functionalism. "With people stuck at home for so long, the idea of buying things that romanticize the idea of being outside and exploring things is really appealing."
Ultimately, the appeal is multilayered: a bit of fashion defiance, a blurring between sportswear and city wear, a quarantined summer that calls for a rethinking of the house shoe. But whether you're on your third pair of Hydro Mocs or have sworn off the idea entirely, consider yourself lucky. It could be worse, after all: We could still be arguing about Crocs.