There's a Japanese orgy happening in my loafers right now and I couldn't be happier about it. The means of this rare and life-affirming event is a pair of socks silk-screened with a collage of traditional Japanese ukiyo-e paintings in pale, delicate hues. The socks depict scenes of men and women, reproduced in remarkable detail, in various improbable poses. The garments themselves are soft, sturdy, made in the U.S.A. and as lovely to wear as they are to look at. Welcome to Socks 3.0 : equal parts luxury item, technological marvel and wearable art.
Until very recently, men's socks were by and large monochromatic affairs, as uninspired in design and construction as the clear plastic bags in which they were sold. You had your whites and your blacks, your highs, your lows, your sports and your dresses. Occasionally you'd come across a jazzy argyle, but that was a rare find. Then a few years ago, as the rising tide of men's wear surged, our tube-socked feet were lifted to a new high-water mark when the men's statement sock was born.
For a while it seemed like a new brand appeared every week, offering ever-brighter colours and bolder patterns, the more jarring the better. Pink and brown polka dots? Sure! Fluorescent green tiger stripes? Why not! "WE ARE SOCKS," they seemed to shout, "LOOK HOW PLAYFUL WE CAN BE!" From fashionable college kids to straight-laced bankers looking to have a bit of fun below their trouser cuffs, the statement sock became ubiquitous.
As with all such gimmicks, however, the novelty of novelty socks was bound to wear off. In hindsight it seems a bit much now, all those clashing colours and loud patterns; ideally no element of your clothing should speak in all caps. As the trend loses steam, these brash and brazen styles are being pushed to the back of the drawer, replaced by an array of more sophisticated contemporaries. The men's fashion sock has officially come of age.
"A few years ago you would have seen colour and pattern and novelty, but that's not happening right now," says Eric Jennings, vice-president and fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, which opened its first Canadian location in Toronto last month. "There's still colour out there," he adds, "but it's tonal, it's textured and it's more understated." As with the rest of Saks's selection of high-end men's wear, the socks it carries – from brands like Fendi, Givenchy and Dior Homme – reflect fashion's move toward clean lines and monochromatic hues. These socks still make a statement, but they're not shouting it.
The Great Sock Boom also brought with it a revolution in quality, and this is something that continues even as the new look of men's hosiery turns from campy to classy: Socks are no longer a disposable commodity.
No brand has distinguished itself more in this department than Californiabased Instance. Launched in 2009 by a group of tech-industry veterans, Instance has done for plain white athletic socks what Apple did for MP3 players. Woven from moisture-wicking, breathable fibres and offering elastic arch support and engineered compression, their socks have become a favourite of skaters, runners and, most recently, the NBA, which adopted the brand as its official on-court supplier. They're quite simply some of the most comfortable socks you've ever worn.
Their aesthetics are just as revolutionary. Thanks to a proprietary printing method Instance can transfer reproductions of photographs onto their fabrics with remarkable crispness and durability. Like the idea of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier duking it out across your shins? That's a thing. It's also about as far from a tube sock multipack as you can get.
And, of course, there's the Japanese orgy. Vancouver-based Strathcona Stockings provides a perfect midpoint between the refinement of the department store's offerings and the athletic exuberance of Instance. Founder Ryley O'Byrne's aesthetic is decidedly West Coast, a mix of natural motifs, quirky doodles and cheeky collage. "I make every print," says O'Byrne, an art-school grad who approaches her business as a combination of art project and commercial venture. Among Strathcona's bestsellers are a whimsical botanical print of wild mushrooms ("both magic and otherwise") and something O'Byrne calls her "Vintage Porn Socks." They look pretty much like what you'd expect, but tasteful.
The "Japanese Lover Socks" I'm wearing are Strathcona's newest creation and it's apparent that she's as excited about them as I am. For a moment I become aware of how strange it is for two adults to be excitedly discussing their favourite socks, but the moment passes. Socks may have once been a boring utilitarian afterthought, but that is clearly no longer the case. Instead, the space between our feet and our shoes is now a showcase for style, technology and the occasional sex party. What's not to be excited about?