Within recent years, men’s footwear has been a wide-open playground for style experimentation—moreso, probably, than any other area of your closet. Once fashion-forward guys collectively agreed that the over-the-top Balenciaga Triple S sneaker was covetable, no footwear was off-limits. Any hang-ups or hesitations went flying out the window, and dudes felt empowered to zig and zag when it came to their shoes.
Soon came the sock sneakers, and then the mountaineering kicks. Streetwear labels started designing Uggs and Crocs without irony. Dress loafers got a funky new look, while design-forward sandals found a larger audience. Heck: ballet slippers snuck in through the side door! All of this seemed to signal a shift in priorities for men choosing a new pair of kicks. Comfort and ease now carried more significance than formality, while the aesthetic-minded were more willing to indulge their more eccentric impulses. The increased time at home from the pandemic only seemed to expedite both of these things.
And through it all, one newly popular genre of footwear has held fast—and continues to trend upwards. And that is the mule, the hybrid shoe-slipper marked by a closed toe and an open back.
In many ways, the mule is the perfect vessel for this moment in menswear. The overarching silhouette looks and feels half-sneaker, half-sandal—two styles that can be found in most closets already. Generally speaking, most mules from recent collections toe the line of feeling both familiar and far-out. For the more outré, the Italian luxury brand Marni offers a version made of electric green calf hair, while JW Anderson’s “Chain Loafer” takes a familiar design and adds enough shiny bling to turn some heads. A more straight-laced option might be John Elliott’s luxe-minimalist design, or even this one from Martine Rose, although the stacked heel and square-toe might still garner some second looks. Even sneaker companies—everyone from Nike to Adidas to New Balance—are chopping off the heels of beloved styles in hopes of getting in on the action.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the mule’s ascent is that guys are lusting after them with the same zeal as they were sneakers just a few years ago. When the popular designer Jerry Lorenzo posted an innocuous photo of him sitting at a desk, eagle-eyed fans immediately honed in on the slim open-heeled footwear he had on. The image bounced around on the sneaker-obsessed corners of the Internet so intensely that Lorenzo had to clarify the design was not part of his Adidas partnership. Bottega Veneta, long a pioneer of more adventurous footwear, has rolled out a mule-inspired style to Chelsea boot-level fanfare. Upstart brands are doing it, too. Well-dressed guys like Seth Rogen to Tyler the Creator have shown up wearing mules within the past couple of months. (Let’s not forget that Kanye West wore a pair of suede Birkenstock Bostons on the cover of this very magazine last year.) A highly curated Instagram account dedicated to mules has racked up nearly 20,000 followers in just over a year with a level of excitement that rivals that of any sneaker Subreddit. As with any new footwear trend, there are hits and misses. This backless Stan Smith is sure to give any tennis shoe loyalist a headache, while Reebok’s new-ish Beatnik style managed to woo sneakerheads despite a challenging name.
Between a shoes-optional pandemic and an ever-rising sense of playfulness in menswear, it’s not hard to understand why wild-style mules have found a dedicated audience. Not only are they supremely cozy to wear, but they’re a quick way to add a zip of unexpected high style to any outfit.
A gravitation towards mules feels less a product of the next hype cycle and more a result of a fundamental change in how we are getting dressed. Style-savvy men feel more prone to experimentation than ever before, and the mule slides right into that desire. It gives the wearer a bit of sartorial defiance, a whole lot of comfort, and the feeling of being a bit ahead of the fashion curve. And that’s not too shabby for a shoe that you don’t even have to tie.