The Point of Distinction

Here at Put This On, we’re all about encouraging a simple, classic aesthetic. You won’t find Ed Hardy t-shirts or Versace suits here. But what makes a simply constructed outfit something special? I call it a “point of distinction.”

It’s an idea I first read expressed by my friend MistahWong, who’s one of the best-dressed men I know. The principle is simple. One’s style should be impeccable. Fit should be inarguable. So on and so forth. But there should be something about your outfit that says “this isn’t generic, this is me.”

Back when MistahWong was wearing business suits for work, he wore almost exclusively solid navy and gray with white shirts. Perfect fit, conservative cuts. Heavy black or burgundy longwings. But he also wore casual silk knit ties. Or, as above, a felt flower in his lapel. A simple point of distinction.

Above is what I’m wearing on a cool morning in Southern California. Literally a white t-shirt, khakis, and a black chamois shirt. Add some bold sneakers and sunglasses and you have distinction.

Accessories, of course, are the easiest choice. I find that adding the glasses above (which are made by the California maker Kala) to an otherwise very conservative outfit works well. I’ll sometimes add a vintage stickpin to my lapel. There are trendy choices, like colored laces or bracelets, though those have run their course to some extent. The goal isn’t necessarily to be outrageous, but simply to demonstrate that you care.

It’s easy to pile wild choice on top of wild choice, or conversely to make nothing but down-the-middle clothing decisions. To choose to demonstrate understated mastery and nonetheless show distinction is much more difficult.

"When I started designing shoes in late 1985, athletic shoes were just basic performance footwear. There was no romance, no tying in with athletic personalities, no design inspiration from outside. They were just done for sports. Then Nike came on the scene." - Tinker Hatfield
A fascinating little history of the Air Jordan at the Cooper-Hewitt’s Object of the Day blog.
(Above: Hatfield’s original design for the Air Jordan XIII)

"When I started designing shoes in late 1985, athletic shoes were just basic performance footwear. There was no romance, no tying in with athletic personalities, no design inspiration from outside. They were just done for sports. Then Nike came on the scene." - Tinker Hatfield

A fascinating little history of the Air Jordan at the Cooper-Hewitt’s Object of the Day blog.

(Above: Hatfield’s original design for the Air Jordan XIII)

The German Army Trainer - GATs - A Sneaker Icon
It can be maddeningly difficult to find a simple pair of sneakers.
If you’re comfortable with something that’s heavily branded, there are some decent options. There are Adidas Stan Smiths and Sambas, Nike Air Force Ones and Tennis Classics, Converse Jack Purcells and Chuck Taylors. But when you’re looking for something without a logo on the side, your choices narrow dramatically.
I recently went on a quest for all-white summer sneakers, and ended up with a pair of Common Projects Achilles, the laughably expensive (but tastefully simple) designer sneakers favored by streetwear enthusiasts. I paid for them with some store credit to a website that had been gathering virtual dust for months - I was days away from using it to buy artisinal sausage links. If you haven’t returned something expensive for credit lately, though, CPs might not be an option for you; the retail on the Achilles was $380. The shoes are made in Italy and the materials and build are excellent, but there are few among us who’d feel comfortable dropping that kind of coin on sneakers.
The good news is that there’s an alternative.
There is one simple leather classic that bears no brand: the GAT, or German Army Trainer. As the name suggests, it was designed for use in the German military, who’ve been using them for decades when exercising indoors. The simple, utilitarian style has inspired famous designers to knock them off - the Maison Martin Margiela version costs about $500. Adidas has knocked them off as well, but adding branding to a shoe whose raison d’etre is its unbranded aesthetic seems a bit silly.
The real deal is still being manufactured, though, and like most military surplus, they’re reasonably inexpensive. The only tricky bit is that they’re tough to find outside of Germany. You can search on eBay, where, for example, this seller is selling them for about $50, shipped, and says he has a variety of sizes. You can also use the search terms “bundeswehr turnschuhe,” “bundeswehr hallenschuhe,” and “bundeswehr sportschuhe" on ebay.de to see if you can turn any more up. They tend to sell for about $30-50, with an additional $25 or $30 for shipping. (You’ll need an assist from Google Translate here.)
There are also German style enthusiasts willing to proxy. One who’s gotten good reviews on StyleForum is this guy, who sells the shoes new for $85, including shipping to anywhere in the world. That’s a lot to pay for surplus gym shoes that go for $30 or so in Germany, but what you get is a genuinely iconic shoe, and I don’t use that term lightly. Simple, unbranded and imminently wearable: qualities that are shockingly difficult to find.

The German Army Trainer - GATs - A Sneaker Icon

It can be maddeningly difficult to find a simple pair of sneakers.

If you’re comfortable with something that’s heavily branded, there are some decent options. There are Adidas Stan Smiths and Sambas, Nike Air Force Ones and Tennis Classics, Converse Jack Purcells and Chuck Taylors. But when you’re looking for something without a logo on the side, your choices narrow dramatically.

I recently went on a quest for all-white summer sneakers, and ended up with a pair of Common Projects Achilles, the laughably expensive (but tastefully simple) designer sneakers favored by streetwear enthusiasts. I paid for them with some store credit to a website that had been gathering virtual dust for months - I was days away from using it to buy artisinal sausage links. If you haven’t returned something expensive for credit lately, though, CPs might not be an option for you; the retail on the Achilles was $380. The shoes are made in Italy and the materials and build are excellent, but there are few among us who’d feel comfortable dropping that kind of coin on sneakers.

The good news is that there’s an alternative.

There is one simple leather classic that bears no brand: the GAT, or German Army Trainer. As the name suggests, it was designed for use in the German military, who’ve been using them for decades when exercising indoors. The simple, utilitarian style has inspired famous designers to knock them off - the Maison Martin Margiela version costs about $500. Adidas has knocked them off as well, but adding branding to a shoe whose raison d’etre is its unbranded aesthetic seems a bit silly.

The real deal is still being manufactured, though, and like most military surplus, they’re reasonably inexpensive. The only tricky bit is that they’re tough to find outside of Germany. You can search on eBay, where, for example, this seller is selling them for about $50, shipped, and says he has a variety of sizes. You can also use the search terms “bundeswehr turnschuhe,” “bundeswehr hallenschuhe,” and “bundeswehr sportschuhe" on ebay.de to see if you can turn any more up. They tend to sell for about $30-50, with an additional $25 or $30 for shipping. (You’ll need an assist from Google Translate here.)

There are also German style enthusiasts willing to proxy. One who’s gotten good reviews on StyleForum is this guy, who sells the shoes new for $85, including shipping to anywhere in the world. That’s a lot to pay for surplus gym shoes that go for $30 or so in Germany, but what you get is a genuinely iconic shoe, and I don’t use that term lightly. Simple, unbranded and imminently wearable: qualities that are shockingly difficult to find.