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Canada’s MPs embrace comfort, style in office footwear trend

‘I like the idea of making connections that aren’t political and seeing each other as human beings’
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra holds up a pair of his Adidas shoes as he poses for a photo in Ottawa on Thursday, June 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

You won’t catch Omar Alghabra in a pair of Jordans.

The federal transport minister has been loyal to the Adidas brand ever since he was a kid playing soccer in Saudi Arabia.

“Adidas was the shoe of choice for kids in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Alghabra said. The ones known as the “originals” — black with three thick white stripes down the sides — were “a big deal.”

That nostalgia is what drives his current sneaker collection, which often turns heads when strolls through the corridors on Parliament Hill, or attends a G7 meeting, where his counterparts comment on his kicks.

“Positively of course,” he said.

He also wants to make one thing clear: he’s not a sneakerhead, but an “Adidas-head,” which is the kind of thing only a sneakerhead would say.

This fascination with the history and specific models of sneakers has driven what is now a multibillion-dollar reselling industry, and created a sneaker culture that has now made its way into the workplace, normalizing a less formal, and less painful, kind of footwear in the office. Even the highest office.

During a Liberal caucus retreat in January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wore the Nike Dunk Low SB ‘Los Angeles Dodgers’ shoe, with pink on the outsole that represents chewed up bubble gum that players bite.

At the time, he said they were a gift from his son who, “like his mother, is much cooler than I am.”

And no, he doesn’t have the Montreal Sesame Bagel Dunk, a Nike shoe styled after the food famous in the city that elected him to the House of Commons.

Some credit the rise of sneakers on the Hill to Alghabra. He said he started wearing them as a comfortable alternative during the COVID-19 pandemic, while at the same time realizing he’s breaking the norm.

But that’s the point.

“Wearing of sneakers is more about breaking tradition than perpetuating it,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, director and senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

Throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th, men with white-collar jobs were all expected to wear the same outfit, said Semmelhack.

Then came the concept of “casual Fridays,” she said, where men, for just one day a week, would reveal a little bit more about who they were in their private lives.

Next up was the emergence of the tech sector, she said, where innovators could basically wear “playground attire and be the most powerful men in the room.”

“Sneakers allow both men and women to participate in fashion,” she said. “They aren’t hyper-sexualized and can appear cutting-edge and fashionable.”

Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantman said she’s always worn sneakers to work, and that includes the House of Commons.

Lantsman’s favourite sneakers are Jordan 1 Mids, which she said she gets for a cheaper price because she fits into kids’ sizes.

She said the wardrobe of female politicians is always subject to scrutiny.

But she said clothes have the power to give people confidence.

More so when they’re comfortable, she added.

Plus, she said, it makes her more approachable.

“There’s a new kind of politician. People wear sneakers in their lives, and showing up in the riding in a park in a suit doesn’t work,” said Lantsman.

For women politicians, sneakers, unlike heels, can carry an added symbolic meaning, Semmelhack said, in that it shows they’re hitting the ground running, or ready for action.

“It’s the equivalent of a man who had removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves,” said Semmelhack, noting U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris portrays that image when she wears her Converse sneakers.

Back in Ottawa, women MPs, including Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, are often seen wearing sneakers while scurrying from one meeting to another, but then switch them out for a pair of heels when the cameras are rolling.

That doesn’t work for Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner, who gave up heels after spending years wearing them as a broadcaster in Hamilton.

“I can’t even wear them for a few minutes,” she said.

Hepfner seeks out comfortable, inexpensive and sparkly sneakers. For that extra comfort, she puts Birkenstock insoles into everything she wears.

Security guards on Parliament Hill have told her they can identify her by her shoes, she said, even before they see the pin that MPs wear on their lapels.

For government House leader Mark Holland, sneakers are a form of expression.

“They just feel like me,” Holland said.

“We’re in Parliament, we’re appropriately wearing suits and dressing for the business that is to be done,” he said.

“But there’s not a lot of ways to express yourself in terms of clothing, particularly as a man. And so it’s a small way of expressing myself.”

His first pair were from former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who had gifted Holland a pair of red “Chucks” (Chuck Taylor Converse) during the 2011 campaign, to represent a race to the finish line.

Red sneakers were a common prop at Liberal events in the final days of that election, which ended with the Harper Conservatives securing a majority, the NDP forming the official Opposition and Ignatieff stepping down as leader.

Holland also lost his seat that year.

“You would think that it was bad luck because I lost that election, but it then became a thing to wear red Chucks in election campaigns,” said Holland, who returned to the House of Commons in 2015.

“Omar (Alghabra) and I actually had a thing: 100 days out before a campaign, we go and get a new pair of red shoes.”

Holland now has about 10 pairs of Chucks in different colours. And they’re all low-tops, which he has strong feelings about.

While the MPs agree sneakers are a respectable form of fashion, most don’t see it leading to where things are in the United States, where a Congressional Sneaker Caucus exists to foster bipartisan relationships.

Holland, however, suggested he could be swayed.

“I like the idea of making connections that aren’t political and seeing each other as human beings,” Holland said.

“We live in a time that’s very divided and pointy and partisan,” he said. “So it’s a way of maybe not taking ourselves so seriously and reminding ourselves that despite our differences, we have a lot more in common than not and to kind of reduce rancour. So on that basis, sure.”

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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