Feet First Into the History of the Vibram FiveFingers
Vibram’s conspicuous FiveFingers toe shoes have been the bastion of the barefoot shoe movement for over 15 years. While it remains a phalangeal curiosity for many, the story of the inimitable model’s uncompromising adherence to function over form is definitely admirable. Dipping a toe into the FiveFingers is not an option – you gotta enter its world feet first!
Robert Fliri’s dreams were as big as his feet. The young mountaineer spent a lot of time scrambling up and down northern Italy’s alpine region and would frequently would yank off his boots to attempt trekking barefoot. However, he only covered a few metres at a time as he feared hurting his feet. As he put his shoes back on, he noticed that his toes readily wriggled and splayed out when unbound by enclosed footwear.
‘I wanted to go barefoot in a protected way – because when you can really sense the surface under your feet, your body is able to do what it is designed for by nature,’ says Fliri.
In 1999 while studying industrial design, Fliri developed a prototype shoe called the ‘Tatto’ (Italian for ‘touch’). This sample was little more than a pair of toe socks with rubber pads attached to the underside, but it demonstrated the toes moving independently of each other, maximising proprioceptive feedback without the need for cushioning.
A few years later, a chance meeting with Marco Bramani from Vibram – grandson of founder Vitale Bramani – allowed Fliri to share his radical project. Channelling the pioneering spirit of his forebear, who had himself made ‘soleful’ innovations, Bramani saw the potential of this new design and green-lit development of what would soon become the FiveFingers.
The original iteration (later renamed the Classic) was, in essence, a refined version of the ‘Tatto’, retaining the low-profile slip-on design, now cinched via an integrated draw cord and toggle located behind the Achilles tendon. Fused with Vibram’s durable and grippy rubber outsoles – something the company had been doing since 1937 – to follow the curves of the foot and resemble a footprint, the FiveFingers hit the ground running in 2006.
The Vibram FiveFingers quickly found success. Time Magazine named the shoe as one of the best inventions of 2007. Christopher McDougall’s 2009 evangelical book Born To Run catapulted barefoot running and minimalist footwear into broader consciousness, entranced by the zany adventures of ‘Barefoot Ted’, an early adopter of the design.
Overnight, Vibram FiveFingers were suddenly spotted everywhere, from local 5K runs all the way to the New York Marathon. In fact, demand spiked so much for FiveFingers in the late 2000s that Vibram actually struggled to keep up with production. A barefoot revolution was underway, and the Vibram FiveFingers was leading the charge.
Beyond the Pavement
The VFF quickly expanded its assortment for various activities and spawned models like the Sprint and KSO (Keep Stuff Out), which were quickly embraced by athlete types and alternative thinkers. Still, the wacky design remained a little too aesthetically out there for the mass market.
However, Vibram perhaps found unexpected allies in Hollywood. Celebrities were papped down the boulevard and on the red carpet sporting FiveFingers, generating column inches money couldn’t buy. Frequent VFF appearances on the reality show Survivor also gave the shoes plenty of screen time and, more importantly, mainstream credentials.
Recently, high-end brands have turned the VFF into an alternative fashion piece, introducing barefoot to a new audience. While those designs are perhaps antithetical to the original modus operandi, it’s undoubtedly put Vibram on a different map – even if it was via memes.
Having bridged the fashion and performance worlds, it’s now an opportunity for Vibram to promote the fact that FiveFingers allows its wearers to ‘Move Freely’. Fabrizio Gamberini, Vibram’s global chief brand officer and president, offers some advice for newcomers to the design.
‘It’s really a learning process running with FiveFingers,’ he says. ‘Of course, you need to go very slowly; you need to go for a walk; go for a couple of miles walk and start to see how the product is working. Then go for a small run and see how it feels the day after. You really change the way in which you can run, and you need to start using different pieces of your foot.’
Furthermore, Alberto Monti, the brand’s global creative art director, has been tasked with bringing this liberating story to life.
‘The message “Move Freely” is intended to highlight the contact between body gesture and nature. The product allows you to express yourself at your best in this environment. Returning to nature is a social behaviour that is changing the way of living for many people. It must be an inspiration to the new generations and customers. It’s where it all started and where the Vibram brand was born,’ Monti says.,
Variations on a Theme
FiveFingers may be largely characterised by their free-moving toes and separate digits, but Vibram have offered dozen of variations tailored to ’Move Freely’ in every situation. Here are just three important models in the current range.
One of the VFF’s longest-running variants, the KSO revisits Fliri’s original trail playground in a minimalist package designed to ‘Keep Stuff Out’. Its current iteration comes with Vibram’s XS TREK compound that’s specifically tuned for multi-surface use. There’s also an ECO version for urban use that debuted the N-Oil rubber compound, whereby over 90 per cent of its composition is free of petrol-based products.
As the name suggests, the V-Aqua is optimised for wet conditions. It features a more defined tread pattern than the standard VFF sole and is made from super clingy Megagrip rubber. Furthermore, the outsole is heavily perforated to aid with drainage. Like its progenitor, the V-Aqua was awarded for its innovation; this time, it took home the ‘Best For Water Sports’ title in the 2018 Men’s Health Fitness awards.
An updated take on early VFF models but with modern XS TREK compounds and a finer tread pattern. There’s also a bit of extra padding for barefooters seeking something a little plusher.
Despite their alternative aesthetic and performance-focused ethos, the Vibram FiveFingers has left its footprint on the world in just over 15 years. As it continues gradually wriggling its way into sneakerhead consciousness, perhaps the idea of wearing toe shoes isn’t as crazy as it used to be!
Learn more about the FiveFingers by visiting the Vibram website.