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Why Vibram Took A Flyer On Those Crazy FiveFingers Barefoot Shoes

Before Vibram's FiveFingers shoe set off a widespread craze for "barefoot" running, Vibram was an unknown brand, albeit a giant in the shoe world. Today, Nike and others are vying to get in on the minimalist craze, and Vibram's big bet has paid off.

Even if you have never owned a pair of FiveFingers—the shoe that kicked off the "barefoot" running craze—the chances are pretty good that Vibram had a role in making the shoes that are currently on your feet.

Developed in 1937 by a team of Italian mountaineers looking to create safer climbing gear, the Vibram rubber sole has been the gold standard in outdoor footwear for decades. The company manufactures shoe soles for nearly every boot used by the United States military and a wide range of shoe products for more than 1,200 other distributors. But until FiveFingers, the brand was more or less unknown by consumers.

When designer Robert Fliri first approached Vibram with the ultra-minimal FiveFingers prototype in 2005, the barefoot running craze was still five years away and not a single partner company was interested in developing the idea into a new product line.

Instead of shelving the concept, the company tried something it had never done before—market the untested new idea under the relatively obscure Vibram name.

"One catchword we always use inside the company is ‘try,’ even if the problem seems insurmountable," says Vibram USA Vice President of Product Design, Peter von Conta. "We always try."

Starting with just 25 stores nationwide, sales of the revolutionary new product were slow. But as outdoor enthusiasts began to embrace new research into the benefits of minimal shoe designs, popularity grew into a healthy niche market. The 2011 book Born to Run pushed the barefoot running movement to center stage, and Vibram suddenly found itself at the leading edge of a multi-million-dollar idea. Today, Nike, New Balance, and a number of design-focused startups are all trying to get a, uh, toehold on the market.

Bottom Line: Risk is always worth it, because you can always go back.

[Video Producer: Shalini Sharma, Camera/Editor: Tony Ditata]

[Image: Flickr user Drew Brayshaw]

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  • five finger fan

    I did the grand canyon rim to rim 2012 as a day hike just under 25miles zero foot problems. I have been wearing five fingers since 2006

  • Giovanni Sanchez

    Matt Fitzgerald referenced them in "Brain Training for Runners" in 2007 way before anyone was actually running in them. Apparently they were also for sailing as the originals had traction similar to Sperry boatshoes.

    Also, "Born to Run" was released in 2009... perhaps the paperback came out in 2011. For better or worse, it really propelled this movement more than anything else did. (worse being the multitude of people who got injured running in FiveFingers)

  • Chris Reich

    This is the best thing I've read in months! This is beautiful. I scream this message from the mountaintops but the valleys are inhabited mostly by the deaf.


    Great job Colin.

  • Renato Murakami

    I've known about Vibram for a long time before fivefingers... but then again, so did most climbers and trekkers, among other adventure sports.

    I guess it wasn't exactly "mainstream", but it's been out for quite a while. Back some 10+ years ago even a brazilian brand had several products that used it (still does actually, a brand called Snake), Vibram advertised for it's durability and all.
    Basically, everyone who ever owned a climbing shoe probably heard about it. Lots of specialized running shoes and other shoes for outdoor activities has it. And as all of them comes with the big yellow brand engraved in the sole, it's hard to miss...
    Anyways, I can attest for it... while tons of other shoes I had just fell apart, rot or teared at some point, the ones with Vibram soles where the ones that lasted way longer than average.

  • Cory Boatright

    Love how Vibram used crowd funding to test out the market. You build community and capital from supporters.