“Life is Good When You’re Barefoot”
VIVOBAREFOOT Shoes Designed for a Better Life
An interview with Asher Clark, Head Designer of VIVOBAREFOOT and Terra Plana
By Ahmad Alammary
Issue 9 Fall 2011
Well, quite literally, shoes create a footprint. We all love the shoes we own, whether for their level of comfort, or the way we feel walking in them. Some will even sacrifice their comfort for the aesthetic. Unfortunately, shoes help create one of the bigger footprints on our planet. Eco fashion is a rapidly growing industry and the footwear industry is evolving with it.
Have you ever thought about how sustainable your shoes are? When they are out of fashion, or a little scuffed, do you simply discard them just because you like them a bit less? Think about it.
Manufacturing shoes creates hazards with harmful glues and synthetic materials even before they arrive at the stores we buy them in.
But, we do have options. Many eco-friendly shoe brands make their shoes from natural biodegradable materials like canvas, hemp and organic cork and are sewn, rather than glued with toxic chemicals.
VIVOBAREFOOT shoes were designed for a better life-a good one. This revolutionary footwear was created in collaboration with podiatrist and footwear specialists to help awaken the senses and encourage us to move as millions of years of evolution intended. The shoes come with ultra-thin soles and extra room for toes to control balance and grip.
VIVOBAREFOOT was introduced into the market in 2004 as a collection of the Terra Plana brand. As the support for minimalist footwear grew, so has demand. VIVOBAREFOOT is now a stand-alone brand in the footwear industry yet still embodies and expands upon Terra Plana’s eco-friendly core values.
Walking in them is designed to approximate the way we stand and walk in bare feet. They use recycled materials from plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and vegetable dyes. But they do not sacrifice style or comfort.
CATALYST: How does the design of a shoe contribute to living a good life?
Asher Clark: We believe that traditional thick-cushioned soled shoes do limit your life; when actually they should enhance it. VIVOBAREFOOT shoes are designed to “take you further,” in three ways. First, VIVOBAREFOOT (VB) shoes are versatile; they will not limit you to a single environment. Waterproofing, breathability, style, and sole traction are carefully considered and brought together to complete a suite of barefoot shoes designed to excel in any chosen activity and environment.
Second, the “barefoot” sole is engineered to mimic and encourage natural barefoot movement while providing puncture resistance and thermal protection. Barefoot movement is natural movement, and when your body is able to move in its natural way, it not only feels good it also significantly reduces the chance of injuries.
Third, it is amazing how a simple concept like minimizing the material between you and the ground makes all the difference in increasing awareness and enjoyment of your everyday surroundings.
Quite often we hear that people choose to walk on the gravel or the cobblestone or the cracks in the pavement when they see them, just because it “feels good.”
CATALYST: How did your design philosophy come about and how did it continue to develop?
AC: At Terra Plana, we began with the question,
“What is a sustainable shoe?” We racked up the sustainability credentials. Design for disassembly, use of recycled and recyclable materials, local sourcing/production, use of natural materials, hand-stitched constructions and many more.
So our current design philosophy evolved as we realized that we needed to make sustainability sustainable, and we looked at ecological fitness as our inspiration. A product has to fit in its environment, the marketplace, to survive, just like an animal, so function became our primary focus. Good design is functional design, so design at VB attempts to make sustainability inextricable from, even central to, the purpose of the shoe. We will not make a product unless it connects the consumer with the natural world, to other people, and to him/herself (by prompting consideration of lifestyle and choices).
CATALYST: What are your success criteria for a single pair?
AC: Each pair of shoes needs to provide maximum protection and maximum sensation, without sacrificing function at all. We start with function: will the shoe perform exceptionally for its intended use? From there, is there a way to put any less material between the foot and the ground without sacrificing that performance or protection? Also, each product is successful when it moves the business processes in the right direction. “Maximums” are important above, but gradual progress toward absolute minimums in production processes, component parts, and materials help VB to usher in true sustainability; when waste is perhaps redefined altogether.
CATALYST: How does sustainability factor into the design of your footwear?
AC: The core of our sustainability strategy is to continuously look to minimize components and production processes. This is not an end in itself; it is a necessary step toward focusing on the ideal of eliminating waste from our production process and avoiding harmful substances. For example, we designed a glueless “Pop” line of shoes for the Terra Plana line a few years ago that featured removable/ replaceable soles that pop into a frame. Inspired by this learning, a lot of our innovation focus is in creating mono-material shoes and further developing dual density injection molding (like the VIVOBAREFOOT Ultra: a running shoe which plugs together with almost no glue or production line process and is the lightest running shoe in the world; an especially necessary step toward streamlined and proper recycling.)
CATALYST: Tell us about how you source the materials you use to construct your shoes.
AC: We source our materials as locally to the production of the shoes as possible. Where possible we work a core group of our high level regular suppliers and are constantly pushing them on performance, lightness, durability and eco credentials so we can be sure that we are doing our complete best.
CATALYST: You’ve developed your own eco-matrix system; could you tell us more about it?
AC: The eco-matrix itself has gone through a particularly relevant evolution. In its first form, we judged the shoe in five categories: efficiency, sole, upper, comfort, and looks. Scores in each category were based on “fit” and environmental impact throughout a product’s lifecycle, from sourcing and processing to manufacturing, consumption, and end-of-life. We are developing a new eco-matrix, both as a qualitative and quantitative metric, but also as a tool to influence and emphasize aspects of design. It will be a proactive assessment, one in which marginal improvements are not the end game; it will keep our eye on actual solutions and the cycles required for true sustainability.
CATALYST: Where can I take my pair of VIVOBAREFOOT’s or Terra Plana’s when I want to discard them? Is there a recycling system in place?
AC: We have a product take back system in our shops. We will take any customers old shoes and, through a partner company, recycle and or dispose of them as safely as possible. We also provide incentive for our customers to participate in this program by offering 10% off their next pair if you recycle a pair of VIVOBAREFOOT or Terra Plana shoes in the NYC store.
CATALYST: How did you see the economic value in using recycled material in creating your shoes?
AC: For now, on a sourcing level, honestly, it, more often than not, increases the component price and tends not to increase the performance, but only equal its non-recycled alternative. For sure in the future, using recycled will be a given, as I am sure virgin materials will be more sparingly used and it will be so expensive to throw things away. So economically it will not be viable to discard things.
CATALYST: Terra Plana and VIVOBAREFOOT are owned by Galahad Clark, a member of the Clark family, globally renowned for great footwear. It’s in the genes it seems. Do you share similar ideas with Clark Shoes in terms of material sourcing and design philosophy?
AC: Clarks was founded on innovation in shoe making. The famous desert boot was a product unlike any other footwear of its time. It is still the most successful shoe they make and because it was a true simple performance innovation, it will thrive for many more years to come. VIVOBAREFOOT can only hope to have a few desert boots of our generation
CATALYST: Your VIVOBAREFOOT brand is based on the idea that the most natural form of walking (movement) is on your bare feet. This idea conflicts with everything we know about running shoes with various types of cushioning support. Tell us about the ideas behind walking barefoot, and the VIVOBAREFOOT point of view on support and posture.
AC: Evidence is growing around the health and performance benefits of barefoot movement. It makes so much sense based on the design of our feet and body, but
somehow we “forgot” how to move skillfully, especially because we have been padding our shoes and barking up the wrong tree for the last 30 years.
Not only do we want to minimize imbalanced weight distribution and restriction of movement (which is why VIVOBAREFOOT features lightweight materials and wide toe boxes), but we need to provide for as much proprioception – nerve recognition of stimuli, the body’s ability to sense the forces acting upon it– as possible. Cushioning and “support” actually enable and encourage unhealthy habits, like heel striking, which puts a jolt of force (about twice your body weight) directly up through the leg and back. Jogging is actually an invention that came alongside padded shoes. Running on forefeet, encouraged by barefoot running, spreads out that pressure, and the short, elastic strides that follow from upright posture maximize efficiency.
CATALYST: How does running or cross-training in VIVOBAREFOOT shoes contribute to living a good life?
AC: Simply, barefoot shoes, combined with skillful movement prevent injury. Fewer injuries will equal more enjoyable, frequent, and effective activity.
CATALYST: You’ve launched the Neo Trail this August, tell us about this new model and what makes its design and function unique to its wearer?
AC: The Neo Trail is the best of barefoot with unparalleled grip for the toughest of terrains. The ultimate off road ready barefoot trail running shoe! The challenge with barefoot design is that proprioception is everything. The more grip you add to the outsole, you start to sacrifice the proprioception. The Neo Trail’s tread is tooth-like and multi-directional to provide the best proprioception with unparalleled grip. It works.
CATALYST: Terra Plana and VIVOBAREFOOT shoes run at a more expensive price than most shoe brands, what costs are factored into the pricing of a single pair and do you see this pricing strategy changing in the future of the brand?
We are always trying to make our shoes for less money while not sacrificing on the highest level of material and manufacture quality. We build our shoes to perform and last.
As a small brand it is a constant challenge for us to deliver this promise while staying competitive on price with the big brands that can make their shoes cheaper due to big production runs.
CATALYST: There are other brands that follow a similar philosophy to VIVOBAREFOOT and Terra Plana, what gives you strategic design advantage over those brands?
AC: Our patented VIVOBAREFOOT technology is the core of our barefoot shoe design.
It is an ultra-thin, puncture-resistant sole in every VIVOBAREFOOT shoe. It’s critical to minimizing material.
Usually, truly minimal shoes have a super thin sole that allows feeling, but they do not provide enough protection.
Other “barefoot” shoes are loaded with material on the sole, as that is an effective way to keep the foot “safe” from the elements, but it limits sensation. But we can do both. Who ever said the key to success was not trying to do too much?
Design a shoe that allows wearers to walk and run as if they were barefoot, enhancing posture and performance, while still protecting feet and the Earth beneath them.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Observe human posture with and without shoe cushioning/support
Correct a long-term belief that extra support for the heel is better
Design a shoe that emulates barefoot walking
Construct a shoe with sustainable materials including recycled plastic bottles
Gather results to incorporate into future shoe design
About the Author:
As member of the Clark shoe dynasty, Asher grew up in a world of shoemaking that merged tradition with design evolution. This unique upbringing resulted in a distinctive style that can best be described as 21st Century Artisan. He has won numerous design awards, including London College of Fashion’s prestigious award for Fashion Innovation, British fashion industry bible, Draper’s designer of the year’s award.
While in his mid-twenties, Asher launched his own design house and one of the agency’s first clients was VIVOBAREFOOT, which he is part owner along with majority owner and Managing Director, his cousin, Galahad Clark. Asher is now the creative force behind the revolutionary VIVOBAREFOOT, a patented, ultra thin, puncture-resistant shoe.
VIVOBAREFOOT launched the first minimalist shoe collection in 2004 with a patented, ultra-thin, puncture-resistant sole offering maximum proprioception with protection. VIVOBAREFOOT features a collection of multi-terrain barefoot performance shoes and the largest minimalist lifestyle shoe range on the market.
VIVOBAREFOOT encourages you to educate yourself as much as possible before transitioning to the barefoot movement. Check out the free eBook with training videos at:http://trainingclinic.vivobarefoot.com.