Try as I might, it’s difficult for me to think of Vivo Barefoot as a small startup company.
That’s because the story of the brand is more accurately the story of Galahad Clark, a 7th-generation shoemaker and scion of England’s Clark Shoe Company empire. The family business was founded by brothers Cyrus and James Clark – thus the company’s formal title of C&J Clark, or the more informal moniker Clarks – in 1825, and has steadily expanded to become one of the most recognized (and profitable) brands of footwear in the world. It's one of the largest private companies in the UK, and remains predominantly under family ownership.
So Galahad wasn’t exactly an underdog when he branched out to create another line of footwear – but what distinguished his cause from the very beginning was a mission for eco-friendly manufacturing processes and socially conscious business practices. When Clark’s family purchased the Terra Plana company, Galahad focused his efforts on that label to become prime innovators in design, sustainability, and responsibility.
Terra Plana has gone on to develop numerous environmentally friendly methods of production, such as chrome free leathers, vegetable tanned leathers, and using recycled materials for soles and foot beds. Another chief goal is to minimize waste and toxins from the production process, and Terra Plana has been an industry leader in this regard as well. The company’s reputation for eco-friendliness is so strong that when you Google "Galahad Clark", you quickly find a variety of articles proclaiming him one of the UK’s most beneficial environmental and social crusaders.
Galahad Clark: notice what he's wearing ... or NOT wearing?
Clark has still another passion: developing shoe designs that support the natural structure and function of the human body. He’s actually on record describing traditional footwear – such as the kind his own family created for six generations – as “little foot coffins” that prevent the foot from working the way it’s intended to. Given his background, that’s not a minor statement – but Clark believes in it to the extent that he developed a whole new line of footwear specifically intended to preserve a barefoot feel and natural biomechanics as much as possible.
And that’s where the Vivo Barefoot story really begins.
The first Vivo Barefoot line was launched as a subdivision of Terra Plana in 2004, and the offshoot company has steadily expanded its catalog with each passing year – fine tuning and improving the models that its customers love, and introducing new styles to attract a wider consumer base. Among minimalist shoe manufacturers, they have far and away the largest selection of both men’s and women’s footwear styles.
Another distinguishing trait of the brand is that many of their styles are formal-looking enough to pass in a business or professional setting. And while I love going barefoot (or wearing Vibrams), there are times – a lot of them, frankly – when a more traditional look is in order; that’s exactly what I was looking for in choosing the Dharma model.
(That, plus I’m a huge Lost fan … so I enjoyed saying, “I’m in Dharma again today!” to my wife as I headed out the door each morning. But that’s neither here nor there.)
Like all shoes in the Vivo Barefoot line, the Dharma (the shoe this time, not the cult) has an outsole measuring a mere 3mm thick; there is a thin antibacterial lining on top of a Duratex puncture-resistant layer, sitting on a TPU abrasion resistant sole that is molded with a honeycomb pattern for traction. The enitre outsole is actually thinner than that of the Vibram FiveFingers, and more flexible to allow an even better “ground feel” than the VFFs.
When you slip your feet into Vivo Barefoots, there’s really no noticeable difference from your barefoot height, which admittedly seems a little strange at first. More than one person at work has commented than I seem shorter than usual, because I’m no longer propped on the 1-inch platforms that my standard dress shoes provide. (On a related note: if you happen to have a Napoleonic complex, perhaps if these aren't the shoes for you.)
The other design aspect you notice right off the bat is how much space there is in the forefoot area. My Dharmas initially felt like clown shoes – so much that I wrote to the rep because I thought I mistakenly ordered the wrong size. She explained that the fit is supposed to be snug through the heel and rearfoot, but very roomy in the forefoot area, with up to a full thumb’s width of space between the big toe and the end of the shoe. Despite this feeling, when I place the Dharma alongside my customary Rockport work shoe, the length of the two models is the same.
Size 12 Dharma on top, size 11 Rockport below
(One final quirk as to the fit of most Vivo Barefoot shoes: the sizing typically runs a full number short. I usually wear size 11 shoes, but my Dharmas are size 12. And there aren’t any half-sizes available, so if you’re in between sizes you’ll have to make an estimate. There's a sizing guide on the website; BE SURE to use it before you buy.)
The fit took some getting used to, as did routine walking in the shoes. Truthfully, I found this process to be more difficult than the barefoot running routine I’ve been working on. It’s one thing to devote 20 to 30 minutes of focused attention to your form while exercising; it’s an altogether different challenge to adjust your walking pattern every time you walk from the house to the car, get up from your desk for a cup of coffee, or quicken your pace a little bit because you’re late to a meeting. Like nearly everyone, my previous heel-strike gait was so ingrained as to be subconscious; during my first few weeks in the Dharmas, I had to remind myself of just how I was supposed to be walking from now on.
The upper of the shoe is extremely comfortable, with thin leather above the forefoot, soft suede cut low around the ankle and heel, and a cushioned collar on the back and sides of the foot opening. The upper provides minor water resistance, but isn’t waterproof. For a leather shoe, the Dharma seems fairly breathable, and the lightweight construction (the entire shoe weighs only 9oz) is a stark contrast to traditional dress shoes.
Can your dress shoes do this?
I’ve been wearing the Dharmas for about one month, and I absolutely love them. They’re convenient, comfortable, and a perfect extension of the barefoot running experiment I’m conducting. In fact, as part of an overall natural foot philosophy, I’d say there’s as much – if not more – to be gained by wearing Vivo Barefoots for 8 to 10 hours per day than by doing a short barefoot run before schlepping off to work in a pair of traditional dress shoes. In my case, I’ve also found them somewhat addicting; it’s become very difficult for me to put on a pair of normal shoes anymore now that I have a “barefoot” alternative.
The Vivo Barefoot Dharma is part of a just-released Fall 2009 line, and retails for $140 from the Terra Plana website. The price is a bit steep, but it’s not really out of line with traditional dress shoe offerings. (And, as I mentioned in a previous post, all those responsible business decisions and manufacturing processes don’t happen on the cheap – and our individual buying habits do influence company practices. Terra Plana is another perfect case study of this lesson.) With my previous Rockports, I usually didn’t mind paying a high retail price since I knew I’d get a couple of years of dependable Monday-to-Friday use out of them. That’s the only question mark I’d mention about the Dharmas I’m wearing: whether they’ll be as durable and comfortable one year (or more) from now as they are today. Terra Plana has a reputation for superior craftsmanship, so I like my chances.
Vivo Barefoot is also offering a great deal in conjunction with this product review: a 20% discount on any model from their men’s or women’s collection. Between now and October 1st, if you enter coupon code R&R20 at checkout, the discount will automatically be deducted from your purchase price. It’s an ideal opportunity to support an innovative, forward-thinking company and test out the world of natural footwear.