Men once faced a depressingly uninspired choice when it came to shoes: Opt for the comfort and function of traditional sneakers or go for the look and luxury of dress shoes instead. Then came CLAE. Its brilliant and unique proposition, which forever changed the face of men’s footwear by eliminating the either/or. Shoes could and should be both.

Since bursting onto the sneaker scene nearly two decades ago, CLAE has evolved from the domain of trendy trainers to include many other silhouettes — each as effortlessly L.A. cool as the last. So how’d CLAE get from there to here, and where is it headed next? Here’s the rundown.

Indie Origins and Many Influences

The brainchild of Sung Choi, CLAE was born from his diverse experiences while living in Seoul, New York and Los Angeles. Looking back, Choi credits his work ethic and core values to his Korean upbringing and his character and vision to his time in New York. So what did L.A. bring to the table? It “taught him to relax a little,” he said in an interview.

Already a fixture on the independent streetwear scene in the early 1990s, Choi made the move from designing graphics and apparel to footwear in 1997 as a co-founder of PNB Nation. A few years later, CLAE was born. Choi told Hypebeast of the brand’s inception, “The idea for CLAE began in 2001 with the desire to bridge the gap between sneakers and shoes….With CLAE, we wanted to offer the best of both worlds, creating stylish comfortable footwear that could seamlessly transition with you from one moment to the next.”

“With CLAE, we wanted to offer the best of both worlds, creating stylish comfortable footwear that could seamlessly transition with you from one moment to the next.”

CLAE’s journey to success wasn’t without a false start along the way — specifically, a three-year hiatus during which Choi regrouped and reorganized toward a relaunch that fully embodied his vision for CLAE. Of returning to the business after stepping away, Choi reflected, “I did have a few reservations, naturally, but I felt it was the right time. It was nerve-wracking through the first few seasons of relaunch, but once we delivered and the shoes began to sell, I felt a little bit of relief and even more certain that I’d made the right move.”

Up and Running With CLAE 2.0

With the relaunch, CLAE was not only back on track, but unstoppable as the brand started to make a name for itself. Said Choi of the ethos guiding the hybrid collection through the curves, “I think footwear is trending towards a more simplified, classic style; we see Chuck Taylors and classic Vans all over the place in addition to a reemergence of traditional hard-bottom shoes and work boots like Red Wings. I think now it’s time to move forward and bring some fresh ideas into the mix and reinterpret what we see so much of. We’re true to our original mission…CLAE fuses an athletic heritage with a more casual silhouette, all while using the quality materials and topnotch construction.”

The Edwin

Which begs the question: Where has Choi continued to find his inspiration through the years? “My design influences are the clean, simple lines of the mid-century modern art and design movement coupled with the energy and attitude of NYC in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I see both of those inspirations culminating in a vanguard youthful energy with a sense of tradition and practicality in function. With travel, music, food, design, art, and film as my guide, I’m driven by a myriad of varieties in life and the discoveries that lie therein,” he told Sneaker Freaker.

“With travel, music, food, design, art, and film as my guide, I’m driven by a myriad of varieties in life and the discoveries that lie therein.”

Choi has also been influenced by some of history’s greatest legends, including Bruce Lee “for his fluidity and taking an intelligent approach to his work;” Miles Davis “for his infinite style and his courage to keep things moving;” and John Coltrain “for his physical dedication and spiritual devotion to his craft.” Choi continues, “I hope that all of the above is seen within CLAE’S DNA, from taking an intelligent and thoughtful approach to design, to the dedication and devotion to the craft.”

CLAE x Son of Cobra Limited Edition Collection

As new entrants to the independent shoe industry emerge, what differentiates CLAE from the also-rans? Choi doesn’t see these competitors as a threat to CLAE. In fact, he’s excited about the larger range of footwear options now available for men. At the same time, he’s discerning about what’s worthy and what’s not. “I believe that we all have to look back for inspiration and step forward for innovation. It’s how that inspiration is internalized, interpreted, conceptualized, processed and executed that will separate you from the rest today….there are so many clothing and footwear brands with poor interpretations and executions of things that have been done. In those cases, the ‘golden era’ should be left alone,” he insists. It’s this attitude that has secured CLAE a place at the forefront of the minimalist sneaker movement.

On that note, Choi voices his approval of brands like Polo, Barbour, Uniqlo and Nom de Guerre, which he says “know exactly who they are and where they’re going.”

A Few of Our Favorite Frontrunners

Whether you’re a longtime lover of CLAE or you’ve yet to discover the joy of rocking this new breed of shoe, there’s a pair out there with your name on it. A few styles we’re loving these days — all available in an array of materials and hues including everything from sesame nubuck to dark pink suede?

The Bradley

The low-top Bradley, a rethink of the traditional court shoe and perhaps CLAE’s most iconic style, which claimed a spot on Men’s Journal’s list of “11 Sneakers That Are Totally Office-Appropriate”

The Ellington

The Ellington, a study in easy elegance and casual class which was hailed by GQ as its “Obsession of the Day”

The Gregory

The Gregory, a sophisticated update on the classic sports shoe and one of Spy’s picks for “5 Best Sneakers for Grown-Up Skater Style”

The Richards Zip Vibram

The Richards Zip Vibram, a collaboration with international streetwear boutique Highs and Lows which puts a new spin on CLAE’s timeless Chelsea boot

Speaking of collaborations, CLAE has brought its “California cool” vibe to many partnerships, including with the likes of Agnès B, American Rag and Publish Brand.

If some of its shoe names sound familiar, meanwhile, there’s a reason for that. Choi pays homage to celebs who’ve influenced him over the years by naming shoes after them. “I use the names of individuals who have given me so much inspiration over the years. It’s less about specific pieces, and more about the individual’s vision, discovery, and art of pursuance or accomplishments. For example, our Cousteau is named after Jacques Cousteau, the man synonymous with underwater exploration. I made a shoe that referenced a boat shoe, so who better to name it after than the man who said, ‘A lot of people attack the sea, but I make love to it,’” Choi proposes.

“An advantage to all CLAE styles is that you can dress them up or down and look good everywhere in between.”

While CLAE shoes are celebrated for their wearability, Choi has a few tips to share for putting your best foot forward. “I would stick to clean and simple pieces (maybe because that’s my personal aesthetic). In my experience, Uniqlo, UNIS, and A.P.C. have great basic; both the quality and cut are there, and the simplicity and details complement CLAE well. An advantage to all CLAE styles is that you can dress them up or down and look good everywhere in between,” he says. Choi is also an admirer of “low key and consistent” labels like MUJI and Patagonia.

The Future of CLAE

Who does Choi have in mind when conceptualizing CLAE’s cult-favorite designs? “Young, old and everyone in between,” he volunteers. In other words, pretty much anyone who values a good pair of shoes. “I know that I personally need shoes that are versatile, that can carry you from day to night without sacrificing style or comfort. CLAE is here to address the changing times of menswear, I think CLAE is where footwear is going for this generation and beyond,” he explains.

The Edwin

It’s no wonder that CLAE landed a spot earlier this year on Rolling Stone’s roundup of “8 Sneakers Your Favorite Artists are Wearing Right Now.” One CLAE devotee? Shawn Mendes, who wore a pair of Bradleys during a recent photoshoot. And he’s far from alone. David Beckham, Tom Brady, Reggie Bush, and Tom Cruise are also among the ranks of famous folk for whom CLAE footwear is a go-to.

It’s no wonder that CLAE landed a spot earlier this year on Rolling Stone’s roundup of “8 Sneakers Your Favorite Artists are Wearing Right Now.” 

Also worth noting? CLAE’s laidback looks are no longer just for men. Two years ago, the label launched its debut unisex collection, CLAE for Everyone. Concludes Uncover LA of this development, “Now it’s that much easier to twin with your GF, BF, BFF, or whoever.” Choi may lay claim to the impressive distinction of having revolutionized the landscape of men’s footwear with CLAE, but doing so meant leaving a childhood dream in the dust. “I always hoped… to be the starting point guard for the New York Knicks,” he told Hypebeast. Count us among the many CLAE enthusiasts who are glad he left passing and faking to the likes of Emmanuel Mudiay and Dennis Smith Jr. and pursued his passion for cool kicks instead.