Leather sneakers have become a staple of the modern man’s wardrobe, occupying closet space once reserved for dress shoes. But decades before anyone was lacing up a Common Projects Achilles—or one of its innumerable imitators—to pair with a suede bomber jacket and tapered joggers, college students were mixing canvas trainers in with their blue blazers and chinos. Like most items to enter the Ivy canon, the canvas sneaker wasn’t adopted as a conscious style choice but was simply what students reached for as they hastily dressed for class.
“Casual Ivy style as worn by college students was always a mix of whatever they had in their wardrobe—or their friend’s wardrobe. Often a mix of high and low,” says Robert Squillaro, who serves as the merchandising director of classic campus outfitter J. Press. “Sneakers during the Ivy heyday were classic in style and made in canvas, usually white or black. This style is timeless, although now mostly worn casually and not for athletics.”
Mud-splashed canvas sneakers, often paired with madras shorts and wrinkled oxford shirts, turn up frequently in the 1965 photo book Take Ivy, which is widely credited with exporting the Ivy League look to Japan. In a sartorial case of things coming full circle, J. Press now sells the MoonStar Gym Classic, a Japanese-made white canvas sneaker.
“We went with MoonStar for the classic style, the quality of the make, and the fact that they are not overexposed here in the U.S.,” Squillaro says of the under-the-radar brand. “We consider them the best of the Japanese retro-style sneakers.”
If there’s a market for vintage-inspired canvas sneakers, Japan has it cornered. And its epicenter is the city of Kurume, where the related brands of MoonStar, Shoes Like Pottery, and Doek are all created in the same historic factory.
MoonStar itself traces its roots back to 1873 and is today one of only three factories in Japan capable of making sneakers via the traditional ka-ryu process of vulcanization, a labor-intensive method that better fuses the upper to the sole. At the start of the 21st century, MoonStar was mostly producing children’s styles and orthopedics, until it launched the fashion-conscious brand Shoes Like Pottery. So-named because of the similarities between its heat-based vulcanization process and the way that ceramics are finished, the cleanly designed sneakers are prized by specialty retailers like Seattle’s Blue Owl Workshop, which stocks its own exclusive collaborations with the brand.
“The old-world manufacturing process is on par with what you’d find in a pair of Japanese selvedge denim or a loop wheel sweatshirt, and they age just as well,” says Logan Kegley, who serves as Blue Owl Workshop’s marketing manager. “We actually think the shoes look better with a little bit of wear on them, just like a good pair of jeans.”
Shuji Koda, a 35-year-old veteran of the Japanese clothing industry and owner of the apparel group GoodWeaver, consulted on the creation of Shoes Like Pottery and became its sole domestic agent in 2011. In 2014 Koda launched Doek, which takes its name from the Dutch word for “cloth” and makes vulcanized sneakers at the MoonStar factory using hard-wearing kasuri canvas woven on vintage looms.
Doek has since found admirers among Western designers, and today produces a range of classically styled “oxford”, or tennis sneakers for the Ivy-adjacent British label Drake’s. Another recent collaborator has been Sweden’s Rubato, which partnered with Doek to design an ecru-colored oxford with an indigo rubber bottom inspired by a vintage pair of U.S. Navy deck shoes.
“We feel that Doek has a very similar philosophy to us,” Rubato co-founder Oliver Dannefalk says of the partnership. “The materials are excellent, and they are hand-vulcanized so they age with grace, just as we want the Rubato products to do.”
Yes, the canvas sneaker may have humble origins, which remains a key part of its laidback appeal. But as this trio of closely related Japanese labels attests, even the simplest of styles can be a showcase for craft—and deserving of a spot in your summer rotation.