Sneakers make their mark as men find their fashion comfort zone, mixing formal with informal

Ferragamo creative director Massimiliano Giornetti knew sneakers had truly arrived as a fashion statement when, at a formal dinner in Rome, he spotted a former Italian senator of a certain age wearing them with a pinstripe suit.

"It was not provocative," Giornetti said. "It was just the way you can dress now — to see that impeccable Italian suit with an eccentric touch of red socks and sneakers really underlined how sneakers are part of an elegant wardrobe."

For Giornetti, who started as Ferragamo menswear creative director 15 years ago before adding the women's portfolio, it is not so much about the sneaker as an object in and of itself, but about a coming-of-age in menswear. "It is about breaking your rules, expressing your style and your persona," Giornetti said.

Walk around the men's shoe department of any upscale department store and leather footwear still dominates, but sneakers are getting a perch too. Don't mistake this for "normcore," a unisex fashion trend of everyday clothes that enjoyed a moment among fashionistas last spring. Style-watchers say it's about freedom of expression, where the formal and the informal mix.

And fashionistas are willing to pay dress-shoe prices for the materials and workmanship that go into luxury sneakers.

"For many men, they treat sneaker purchases in exactly the same way they would treat shoe purchases," said Sam Lobban, senior buyer with MRPORTER.COM, an on-line magazine and e-commerce site aimed at men.

Ferragamo, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of company founder Salvatore Ferragamo's emigration from Italy to the U.S. where he entered the luxury business through fine leather footwear, launched a new collection of sneakers this month. They include color block high-tops and sneakers in exotic skins, with prices ranging from $540 to for $3,400 for crocodile.

The list of designers sending sneakers down the fashion runways is growing, including Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Missoni.

Lanvin was one of the first to include sneakers in their collection.

"Interestingly, the original style with patent toe-cap remains in the collection and is updated every season," Lobban said.

GQ has approved eight sneakers to wear with suits — ranging from a pair of Alexander Wang pebbled leather uppers, at $495, to Adidas' Stan Smith, price tag $75, which Lobban said was the trainer to wear for summer 2014 "for its understated style."

The appeal of sneakers is rooted in comfort, and Franklin Eugene, a Dubai-based stylist, said "it just makes sense" that men's fashion houses would get in the game, noting that the range is growing ever more "stunning" in recent months.

"While there will always be those who opine that the only proper place for sneakers is the gym, as long there are men looking for comfort and style in the same product, sneakers will have a place in men's fashion," he said.

That sneaker-sporting Italian senator needed no memo or seal of approval for his style choice. Mario d'Urso, 74 and a banker by profession, topped Vanity Fair's international best-dressed list in 2011. Something of a style iconoclast, has been wearing sneakers anywhere they aren't frowned upon — which excludes Buckingham Palace, where he has been a guest, and Harry's Bar in London — for some time now.

"Now that you have put a bug in my ear, I think I'll wear them to a dinner I am hosting tomorrow night in Rome," d'Urso said by phone.