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How Vibram is relaunching barefoot shoes

Vibram FiveFingers could become the next cult shoe

How Vibram is relaunching barefoot shoes Vibram FiveFingers could become the next cult shoe

In the summer of 1999, a South Tyrolean design student named Robert Fliri spent his holidays in the mountains where he also worked as a lumberjack. Fliri was a lover of nature and hiking and often felt the desire to walk barefoot on mountain trails, but the steep, stony terrain prevented him from doing so. It was then that he began to conceive of a type of shoe that gave the feeling and freedom to walk barefoot but at the same time protect the foot. This is how the idea of barefoot shoes was born that, about six years later, the Italian company Vibram, specializing in technical footwear for mountaineers, developed, creating the now famous Vibram FiveFingers. The new shoe allowed perfect freedom of movement at the feet and found almost immediately application not in the mountains but at sea, as an ideal shoe for sailing sports, thanks to the grip and mobility it allowed.

For years the barefoot shoe, whose original model is the now famous Vibram FiveFingers, has been considered to be the preserve of individuals more interested in barefooting or athletics than fashion. The FiveFingers was actually designed with in mind the outdoors sports fans and nature lovers and certainly not the audience of fashion weeks. Fashion insiders have for years branded it the ultimate anti-fashion item, the purest form of cringe translated in terms of footwear. At least until Demna Gvasalia arrived, who, since his debut at the helm of Balenciaga, has transformed anti-fashion and cringe into his spearheads, opening the eyes of the fashion industry to a world of unexplored possibilities. 

Since then the reputation of the FiveFingers has gradually improved even outside its original circles coming to the official consecration just in the last year: last June Cristiano Ronaldo wore them for his athletic preparation, while in recent months barefoot shoes have made an appearance first in Suicoke's SS20 lookbook, which officially collaborated with Vibram, and finally in Balenciaga's apocalyptic FW20 show on whose catwalk have appeared shoes very similar to the Vibram FiveFingers. The barefoot shoes seen at the Balenciaga show are the latest stage in a long journey that has led Vibram's technical products, designed for the high mountains and high-performing to get closer and closer to the world of fashion.

The recent rediscovery of Vibram was due to the recent trend of techwear that placed an emphasis on the performance of clothing, elevating to aesthetics that technical component that until then had not received the recognition it deserved. In this sense, the Vibram FiveFingers is the most technical of all shoes, as it is thought of as a real extension of human physiology. In a 2006 interview with Body Conscious Design, the inventor of the shoe, Robert Fliri, tried to explain the technical advantages of his project:

“If you walk in the mountains on heavy boots,you loose around 20% of your energy to the shoes, because of their weight, their stiffness and the impossibility to move your feet. On the FiveFingers that doesn’t happen.  […] With a rigid, hard sole your feet cannot adjust to the uneven surface and you can sprain your ankle. With a thick sole, you’re suspended from the ground and when there is an unevenness and you go out over the side, you’re not warned by your senses in the forefeet. Barefoot, that never happens. Your body is too smart. Whenever you risk loosing your balance, the senses in the forefoot will register it and your muscles will adjust”.

Technological aspects aside, it's the aesthetics of FiveFingers that has yet to enter the cultural and fashion mainstream. But the conditions for this to happen already exist: firstly, the Vibram brand has become an increasingly fixed element in the world of luxury footwear for ten years now; secondly, Balenciaga's adoption of the brand's aesthetic can serve as a trailblazer for its more widespread acceptance in the fashion industry – let's remember that it was Balenciaga who launched the ugly sneakers trend, another category that, before Demna, it would have been inconceivable to see on the catwalks. The time will come for barefoot shoes, too. Balenciaga only anticipated it.