Trainerspotting

Minute shifts in the footsie index of cool mean your trainers could be unwearable next week. Play safe with Matthew Sweet's guide to infra dig and ultra hip - plus we challenge you to match up our four archetypal sneaker wearers (below) with their missing footwear

Not All trainers are trendy trainers: Alan Bennett wears them with tweed suits, Sporty Spice wears them with leather karate gear, and dykey PE teachers wear them with, well, everything. They also go very nicely with shell suits, now only worn by Slovak bus drivers and Sir Jimmy Savile. So, how do you tell the difference between the groovy strain of sneaker that will endear you to the most Stasi-inspired, club-door fashion policeman, and the nasty kind Princess Diana sports in those secret photos taken in the gym? There's no easy answer: it's a minefield of fashion faux-pas, and all the more dangerous because the differences are virtually invisible to the untrained eye.

Should one lace, unlace, or chuck away the laces? Should one keep one's tongue tucked tidily away or let it loll about drunkenly? Should one go retro with old skool Adidas or plump for the hi-tech joys of flexible Torsion systems, anti-pronation devices and Hexalite windows? It's enough to make you long for the return of the formal purity of the Jesus sandal. Maybe not, but one thing's certain: last year's stripe or one dodgy decal can mean the difference between dancing till you drop or crying all night on the stairs.

So, could you infiltrate the Ministry Of Sound in a pair of skater's Van Razors? Would a couple of Converse Doctor J's get you muscled out of the Hacienda? Would some Travel Fox Jungles be your passport to the pavement outside Miss Moneypenny's? In an attempt to answer some of these questions, Puma has just surveyed 120 UK clubs and discovered that 30 per cent of trainer-friendly venues enforce a selection policy. Perhaps Puma discovered something it didn't like, because it doesn't reveal which brands fail to make the grade.

The clubs won't name names either, reluctant to create any guarantee of entry. The Ministry Of Sound - who once turned away Ralph Lauren because they disapproved of his tie - gets a couple of hundred calls a week from those who have been refused, eager to find out what went wrong. They'll get no decisive answer out of the man from the Ministry, Mark Rodol. "It's all about attitude," he says. "Someone could come wearing Pumas and a horrible checked shirt and be turned away, but if he's got Pumas and a nice pair of Gaultier trousers, we might let him in, if he's got the right attitude". And you'll not buy that on Oxford Street.

Getting a consensus is almost impossible, especially when some groovier trainer emporiums admit to deliberately misleading fashion journalists to keep their hot trainer ticket a street secret. According to those behind the counter at cooler-than-cool Slam City Skates, anything you can buy in this country has already gone out of fashion: a weekend shopping in New York is the only way you will tickle their tongue studs. Plus, there are other factors that might distort field experiments. Ardent clubber Catherine, 23, says: "If you're showing a lot of tit, bouncers won't even bother looking at your feet."

The glam factor is the really important one: while jungly, drum 'n' bass venues are cool about footwear, smart, house-oriented clubs, such as the Hanover Grand, will only give the nod to trainers that are so designer they've stopped being trainers at all. It would be suicide to attempt the triathlon in a pair of the Chanel high-heeled variety or balanced on Buffalo Boots' platform monsters. At venues where the bouncers' instinct is anti-trainer, combine the wackiest possible sneaker with some distractingly glamorous dancing pants.

Ghassan, manager of Offspring, a one-off sports-shoe emporium in Covent Garden, is used to spies from high-street chain stores snooping around his shop. His customers are in search of "something you wouldn't believe, something unique and different", and his job is to guess what's going to please them six months ahead. His sage insights into the socio-anthropology of trainer semiotics help explain the unequal status of shoe designs. "You can usually categorise someone by their trainers," he says. "I live in Harrow and your average Harrow bloke wears fake Armani jeans and Reebok Classics - it's what they wear down the pub, but they'd never get into cool places in central London with those. Bouncers are usually arseholes, but they're good at judging someone by what they're wearing."

With Offspring alone stocking more than 350 brands, choosing trainers can be intimidating. Just do your research and keep your nerve - don't go asking for Twyla Tharps when you mean Fila Tarps. Alternatively, you could ask trainerspotter Colin Davis, 24, who predicts that "trainers will carry on getting bigger. The small shoe with a flat sole that was associated with Britpop is on the way out. And, in the past year, they've got fatter and chunkier." He hasn't much time for market-leader Nike: "They make some of the ugliest shoes that I've seen - one of their new ones looks like a big white welly." He also advises steering clear of Pumas: "They are the sort your mum would like you to buy - most of them look hideous."

But it's not hard to side-step the issue altogether. Natalie of laid- back Hoxton Square joint The Blue Note is scornful of clubs attempting to police its punters' footwear, and proud of her venue's lack of a dress code: "We don't look at your feet and say 'you've got Reeboks on, come to the front of the queue' - you'd have to be a complete fashion victim to think like that."

If you've got no furry bra to burn, then you can rest easy in your Reeboks.

THREE TO GET YOU REFUSED

Reebok Classics, pounds 49.99

Top choice of the suburban geezer, with all the glamour and sophistication of a pub in Colchester.

Travel Fox Jungle pounds 44.99

Do you still feel like a 16-year-old? With a pair of these you'll look like one, too.

Van Razors, pounds 62

What yesterday's skateboarders are wearing. The cool shoe that sold out and lost its drop-out charm.

THREE TO GET YOU PAST THE BOUNCER

Fila Tarps, pounds 34.99

Chunky, funky, rude gear for the discerning trip-hopper.

Buffalo 1340 platforms, pounds 79.90

They'll get you in - the trouble starts on the dance-floor. A must if you fancy yourself as queen of the pop tarts.

Nike Air Rifts, pounds 150

Pug-ugly US cloven-hoofed horrors: scarcity in the UK makes them obscure objects of desire.

Whose trainers are whose?

When reunited with their footwear, Colin Davis claimed the Fila Lo-Tops (they cost him pounds 54); Matt Lloyd Davies, the Asics (pounds 80); Anthony King, the Nike Classics (pounds 50); and Emma E Forrest, the Buffalos (pounds 79.99)

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