Tip-Toeing into The Modern History of Barefoot Shoes

Vibram FiveFingers

Happy Go Barefoot Day! Yeah, really! While the concept of being completely sans footwear might sound like the complete antithesis of a publication like Sneaker Freaker, it’s impossible to ignore the growing alternative to wearing – in essence – strips of leather, foam and rubber. The chorus of footwear-free followers rings louder and louder, with various health benefits touted as the main reason to make the switch to a form of transitional footwear known as barefoot style shoes. This alternative type of footwear aims to replicate the feeling of walking with no shoes on at all. However, they’re still yet to achieve mainstream acceptance. As such, let’s indulge in the relatively taboo toe-wriggling world of barefoot shoes.

Footprint in sand

What’s the Point of Barefoot Shoes?

Barefoot shoe companies believe minimalist designs that amplify the feeling of being barefoot – essentially only offering feet protection from the ground beneath them and the elements around them – is the best type of footwear for humans. It’s like wearing nothing at all (nothing at all, nothing at all)! The theory is that over time, the muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments of the feet, legs and lower body will re-adapt and strengthen in a way that’s only possible through barefoot shoes.

Shoe Last
A last that shoes are constructed around

Bare Soles

The seemingly simple method of achieving this is just ripping the soles off and slapping on an ultra thin, flat piece of leather or rubber, right? Nope!

All modern shoes are designed and manufactured around a last, which is an ergonomically shaped form for the uppers and soles to connect. Lasts are often created with heel lift which, as the name suggests, places the heel on a higher plane relative to the forefoot. One reason for this is to have more cushioning beneath the heel, where the most force is distributed upon contact with the ground. So, a barefoot shoe needs to have no heel lift at all, which defines it as a ‘zero drop’ shoe – i.e. the heel and forefoot are on the same plane.,

This necessitates a different type of last required to be designed and, as such, it isn’t as simple as removing the soles from pre-existing sneaker designs. However, brands big and small have stepped into (and in some cases, stepped back out of) the world of barefoot shoes.

Nike Free 2009
Nike Free Curled

Nike Free

The world’s biggest sportswear company, Nike, gave the mainstream a taste of barefoot designs with Nike Free technology. These shoes simulated running barefoot by using midsoles with deep lateral and longitudinal grooves to maximise flexibility. Models were classified using a numerical scale from 1 to 10, with a higher number indicating more cushioning and support, and vice versa for lower numbers. However, most models available on the market were in the 5.0 category and, as such, were fairly well cushioned. By that admission, and the fact there is a considerable heel lift, Nike Free wasn’t truly barefoot.

Vibram Five Fingers
Balenciaga x Vibram
Balenciaga x Vibram | Balenciaga

Vibram FiveFingers

To the uninitiated, Vibram are not one of the world’s leading suppliers of shoe outsoles, but instead are responsible for some of the most aesthetically questionable designs ever: the FiveFingers. Vibram’s toe shoes notoriously introduced the barefoot concept to the mainstream in 2005 with their wacky individual toe design and very grippy soles. Barefoot running evangelists and fashionistas simultaneously thank Marco Bramani (grandson of Vibram founder Vitale) and Robert Fliri for inventing the FiveFingers. Balenciaga recently kept the FiveFingers flame burning with an official Vibram collaboration. This is the future... probably.

Vivobarefoot Geo Court
Vivobarefoot Geo Court | Vivobarefoot
Vivobarefoot Primus Lite
Vivobarefoot Primus Lite | Vivobarefoot


Vivobarefoot may be a relatively small player compared to the industry juggernauts that are Nike and Vibram, but the company’s mission statement is about as radical as they come. Quite literally ardent believers of removing the junk from the footwear trunk, Vivobarefoot’s designs espouse the key areas of ‘Thin, Wide, and Flexible’, which enable the feet to regain proprioceptive clarity, natural stability and maximum flexibility. Unlike their unconventional Vibram industry co-inhabitants, the designs aren’t totally outta this world either! However, supposed biomechanical efficiency and podiatric health isn’t hyped, so it might take a bit more work for barefoot footwear to break into the sneakersphere.

The Future of Barefoot Shoes

Brands like Vibram and Vivobarefoot, the New Balance Minimus line, plus a host of smaller companies like Xero and Altra, certainly make a compelling case for why barefoot and minimalist shoes are the best purchase people can make for their feet. However, considering the current shift towards ultra-cushioned sneakers, unless barefoot suddenly becomes ‘cool’, then this alternative genre of footwear will remain a nipping – yet fascinating – niche category.

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