Helm Xander: Can Helm Make a Soft Shoe?
The Helm Xander offers excellent materials at an excellent price.
The Helm Xander is stiffer out of the box, and will take more time than a typical sneaker to break in.
|Materials||Leather / Rubber|
|Weight||545 g / 1 lb 3.22 oz|
|Construction||Cemented and Stitched Cup Sole|
|Country of Origin||Brazil|
The Helm Xander probably isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of Helm. Most of their other offerings make their name from being thick – thick leather, thick outsole, thick stitching. In fact, their Zind took longer to break in for me than my White’s MPs did.
No, the Xander isn’t meant to be that at all. The goal here was something casual and comfortable, right out of the box. It isn’t a coincidence that this sneaker came out in a post-COVID world.
However, the minimalist sneaker market isn’t a blue ocean opportunity anymore. Indeed, the official business term is “red ocean.” A partly tongue-in-cheek way of saying both the opposite of blue, but also reference to the blood in the water from the cut throat business strategies needed to survive.
The brands they are going up against are not small either.
Can Helm stand out in the minimalist sneaker world? Let’s dive in.
Being a minimalist sneaker the Helm Xander upper is, well, minimalist. In fact, if you really want a sneaker that is laser focused on this aesthetic nobody does it as well as Helm. The upper of the Helm is really just made up of 4 pieces of leather – the two quarters, tongue, toe, and a small panel on the back to hide some stitching.
Speaking of the stitching, it really is just the essentials here. A single line along the laces that goes double wide near the sole. That’s it. There is no visible stitching along the throat, and two simple lines in the back. (Quick note, I should point out the lace holes are reinforced from the back. They are not just relying on a single piece of leather to keep the lace from pulling through).
Inside, the upper is lined with a tan glove leather, with a small piece of suede along the heel. Underfoot, a cloth lining covers the plush insole. Speaking of the lining, the Xander does get the seasonally upgraded quote.
I opted for the “Bone” colorway. This is a slightly darker-than-typical-bone upper that I think does a good job being different enough from your normal all-white minimalist sneaker. One thing you should be aware of – unlike the other options, the Bone colorway does have a thin coating on the leather. You’re not going to get the color variations and patina that are common in other Helm products.
Of course, this isn’t bad – or good. It’s just a personal preference. Different materials have different properties.
Mid- and Outsole
For the Xander, Helm uses a proprietary all-rubber single piece cup sole. On this bone colorway, it’s in a nice dark gum color. If you choose a different colored leather, you will get a white one. Holding this cup sole on is matching gum colored stitching.
I don’t know if stitching quality on an outsole matters to most on a sneaker, but it is done impeccably on this pair.
Flipping the sneaker over, you’ll find a wave pattern I’ve not seen anywhere else.
If you’re looking for a sneaker that really fits the minimalist design, it’s hard to go wrong with the Helm Xander. I know that some might scoff at the coating on the leather, but I would strongly recommend the Bone colorway. It really plays into the more minimalistic build of the sneaker. Plus, who doesn’t love a gum sole!
Personally, I found the larger toe puff meant these go a bit better with slightly looser fits. Maybe not J Crew “giant chino” big, but definitely on the wider side. This is going to be a bit different than the “Common Projects-Style” sneakers out there, which need a thin pant to avoid looking like doll shoes.
The heavier leather also lends itself to the casual end of the spectrum. Even with the coating, these shoes will develop creases.
Fit & Comfort
If you’re coming from other Helm products, you’ll find that the Xander (built on their 512 last) fits on the smaller side. Maybe not quite a full half size smaller, but close. On the other hand, if you’re used to sneakers from Nike and Adidas, you should know the Xander fits a half size or so larger than you might be expecting.
I wear a size 12 in other Helm products, with thinner socks being slightly loose and thicker socks being slightly tight. In other sneakers I typically wear a 13, though I can take a 12.5 in the Adidas offering in this category – the Stan Smith – depending on which model.
This pair of Xanders came in a size 12, and are slightly tight with thinner socks.
As for the overall shape, the Xander isn’t particularly narrow or wide. In fact, other than it running slightly smaller than you might expect, this might be the prototypical “true to size” in relation to length vs. width.
All that being said, exchanges (and returns) are free. If you get a pair and find it doesn’t work for you, Helm can turn it around in just a few days.
Let’s start off with the bad when it comes to comfort in the Helm Xander. The upper leather is stiff – and will likely take a while to break in. If it’s anything like my Helm Zinds, it might take as many as 25 wears (or more) to really soften up.
OK, with that out of the way, I need to talk about the insole. While helm uses the insole as it’s sole source of padding, it is incredibly thick. It’s also non-removable, so I can’t get an accurate measurement, but judging by feel alone there is probably at least 1/3rd an inch (or around 8 mm) of memory-foam like padding in there. At least under your heel.
We’ll get to the actual material of the insole in the next section, but it’s both softer and more supportive than what you might think of as a normal midsole.
I’m honestly not sure why Helm doesn’t use this insole in their boots, too. I’ve never had a major problem with the thinner padding they use in their blake rapid line, but this is undeniably better if you are going to use foam anyway.
Materials & Construction
When making the Helm Xander, it’s clear they wanted to not stray too far from their boots.
The upper of this sneaker is made of their Krumenauer leather, a full grain but slightly thinner/more flexible leather in their portfolio. As I mentioned above, the Bone colorway does have a thin coating on it to achieve the light color. Though, also said above, if you prefer something more natural, there are plenty of colors to pick from.
The interior of the upper is leather as well. The brand doesn’t specify where the lining comes from, though it feels great.
On the tongue and around the heel, Helm put a thin layer of padding. Though it isn’t really visible when you wear it. Instead, just holding your foot in a bit better. Also inside the leather are clastic heel and toe caps.
Under your foot, a thin terrycloth layer covers a thick polyurethane insole. Unlike most insoles, this is really, really dense. Something closer to the midsole of a 1990’s Jordan than a typical insole. Interestingly, it looks like the first run of these had a leather topper instead of terrycloth. I imagine the cloth is softer, and I don’t have any concerns with this change.
Rounding out the sneaker, the cup sole is made of a poured rubber. Somewhere in the middle on the soft-hard scale, you should get plenty of life out of them.
Like most minimalist style sneakers, the Helm Xander features a cemented and sewn construction. To make a sneaker this way, first the upper is sewn and lasted before being cemented (glued) in the cup sole. Once the glue has dried, the upper edge of the cup sole is then sewn through the upper and lining into the sneaker.
This is one of the oldest methods of making sneakers, and several classics such as the Jordan 1 and Adidas Stan Smith are made this way.
The benefits of this style are the durability. With both glue and stitching holding the outsole on, you need both to fail for the outsole to separate. As for draw backs, it isn’t as flexible as other sneaker construction methods, and is among the most expensive to produce. And that cost needs to be passed onto the customer.
Ease of Care
If you’re looking to keep your Helm Xander sneakers looking good, the Bone and non-Bone colorways are going to be treated slightly differently.
For the non-Bone colorways, you will want to make sure you condition and clean the leather like you would a boot or dress shoe. Helm recommends using Blackrock Leather ‘n Rich. Alternatively, I am a big fan of Bick 4, which comes in at a more affordable price point.
However, if you’re like me and got the Bone? I wouldn’t worry too much about conditioning. There is still some benefit, but since the coating will protect from most of the elements, you’ll probably have worn through the outsole before there is any real impact. If you want to use some in moderation, though, it won’t hurt anything.
In either case, you will want to use shoe trees when the sneakers are not on your feet. Helm themselves offer a nice branded pair that will look great if you want your closet to look it’s best. Alternatively, something wooden from Amazon will do the important part.
Helm has told me that they do build the Xander to be resoleable, though their partner doesn’t have the correct machines to do so.
The Helm Xander comes in at a price of $175. Amazingly, they actually cost $20 less than they did when they were initially released in January of 2022. How many things have you bought in 2023 where you can say that?
If this is the first thing you’ve ordered from Helm, they also have a 15% off your first pair link on their website. At least, as long as you sign up for their email list. If you use that, the sneakers come out to under $150.
When people think of these sort of more boutique minimalist sneakers, they often compare to more expensive brands like Common Projects or Greats. However, at that price, you’re really comparing places like Adidas or Nike. Neither of which are known for their high-end materials or build quality.
Are the Helm Xander Sneakers Worth It?
The Helm Xander sneaker certainly isn’t without its flaws. For example, the upper stitching on this pair isn’t perfect. Further, break-in is going to take significantly longer than other sneakers. Even compared to other brands using heritage leathers.
At the same time, it’s clear that Helm had a direction they wanted to take this sneaker, and they built towards that. High-quality boot leather? Check. The absolute minimal stitching without compromising durability? Check. Underfoot comfort? Check.
Perhaps most importantly, a price that undercuts others who are trying to do the same thing? Check. And I don’t just mean the various Made-in-Italy brands – there are models of the Stan Smith that cost more than these do.
In a world where there are countless options, knowing what you want to make and sticking to it is always the best course of action. Helm did that.