A few months ago, I asked for feedback in the form of a survey. Several people suggested I start tapping my contacts in the running industry for some interviews. It’s been a slow process, but here’s the first- an interview with Vibram USA president Tony Post.
Vibram, as many of you know, has been at the forefront of the barefoot and minimalist shoe movement. Tony has a fascinating vision for the future of minimalism, which he discusses here. Enjoy!
Jason: There seems to be many different stories circulating about the history of Five Fingers. Were they originally designed as boat shoes or more fitness oriented?
Tony: FiveFingers were designed in Italy by a young industrial design student named Robert Fliri. Robert lived around Bolzano near the Dolomite mountains. He loved walking and hiking in the mountains, but never liked his boots; to him they felt big and bulky, almost clumsy. Inspired by animals in nature, Robert tried trekking and hiking barefoot, but soon discovered the terrain was too rugged, and that he needed some protection. He created his first prototype designs as part of his senior design thesis. They were a slipper-like toe shoe with thin rubber soles that followed the shape of the foot, not that far from what the “Classic” shoe is today, but more home-made and very rudimentary.
Our Chairman, Marco Bramani, who is the grandson of our founder Vitale Bramani, was introduced to Robert. Marco had opened a small creative lab in Milan where he was working on a variety of footwear concepts under the brand name “just for me”. Marco liked the toe shoe concept Robert had developed and asked he if he wanted to work with Vibram to develop the idea by working with Vibram’s footwear professionals. The concept was evolved and eventually brought to market. The first shoes were sold to a handful of stores in Italy, but positioned more as a street fashion casual they didn’t sell very well.
In August 2005 Vibram USA was given the opportunity to market and sell FiveFingers in North America and developed a different positioning based on personal experiences with the product. We found that FiveFingers allowed the foot and body to move naturally during some outdoor activities, fitness training, and running — I had been a runner for many years, and while recovering from knee surgery I discovered FiveFingers were the only product that allowed me to run pain free. I began using them almost exclusively for running and fitness training. A few months later, the brand was launched in North America at the 2006 Boston Marathon targeting the outdoor, fitness, and running.
Jason: How has the success of 5 Fingers influenced Vibram as a whole?
Tony: It was really a break though in the industry. When we first showed the product to many of our sole business customers, they thought it was interesting, but had no commercial appeal — they thought we were crazy. Seeing no conflict with our customers then, we decided to launch it ourselves. Launching a new business is hard, we had never sold a finished product so this launch affected everything we do — from design and development, to logistics, to marketing, sales, customer service, sourcing and manufacturing, credit and collection… The list goes on and on. The success we had really forced us to reshape our whole company.
Jason: Which spring 2012 model are you most excited about and why?
Tony: We have two new models in running that I’m very excited about. The Spyridon LS and the SeeYa are hugely anticipated shoes, designed for very different end uses. The Spyridon LS will give our consumers a great new product designed for trail running. It uses a new technology on the bottom that provides more plating protection while still allowing the necessary “foot feel” of a genuine FiveFingers product. The other product is the SeeYa, a new road racing flat that’s light, fast, and super breathable. The upper feels like nothing at all is against the foot, and the platform works like a faster version of the Bikila. We are very excited about both offerings — especially because they help round out our running category offering.
Jason: Do you think minimalist shoes will replace the current motion controlled/stability/neutral shoe paradigm?
Tony: If we learned anything in the last 10 years, we learned that not everyone wants the same thing. When we told folks VFF were for running and fitness training, people thought we were crazy — how can that be, there is no midsole, and where’s the cushioning? There’s no pronation control? They were completely unconventional.
Funny thing is, we discovered some people liked that feeling, they liked the sensation of being barefoot with a small amount of protection. We found that there were a lot of people who didn’t like using traditional running shoes all the time. But will barefoot/minimalist shoes replace the rest of the market? Not likely — because we learned that we are not all the same, we have different tastes, different needs. Lots of folks still love their motion control shoes, or thick cushioning, or pocketing all the toes together. As an industry, our challenge is to serve all these different requests, to make products that serve different needs and give consumers more choices.
Jason: Do you think minimalist shoes will experience growth on the international market much like they have here in the U.S.?
Tony: I can’t see why not, we have seen increasing interest in the International market with minimalist shoes.
Jason: What activities do you use 5 Fingers for?
Tony: We produce an entire line of FiveFingers for many applications. Personally, I use mine for running and fitness nearly every day — if I go more than 3 days without wearing Vibram FiveFingers, my feet start to go crazy. They crave that sensation, getting feedback from the environment, using the muscles in the feet. I’m like a 10 year-old who broke his arm and can’t wait to get out of his cast.
Jason: What is your biggest worry related to the growth of the minimalist shoe market?
Tony: Our biggest focus is to make sure that our consumer is educated about the benefits of barefoot training and how to transition to minimalist footwear safetly. We hope that this message is starting to penetrate the consumer base and spread throughout — consumers are great about sharing information with each other, turning one another on to educational sites and information — but as a whole, we (the footwear industry) have an obligation to offer more information and make it easier for consumers to learn.
Thanks to Tony Post, PJ Antonik, and Georgia Shaw for making this happen!