A new shoe promises grip (and guffaws)
I am a robot Hobbit from the year 3000. Or at least that’s what I look like wearing these, the weirdest shoes on planet Earth. They’re called Vibram Fivefingers; they’re made of bright orange elasticized nylon and have articulated toes and white rubber soles. They were created for boating, and I am sitting on a red velvet couch in a carpeted room in Brooklyn testing them.
Where did this odd footwear come from? The legend of Fivefingers goes that Marco Bramani, grandson of the founder of Vibram—the Italian shoe-sole company responsible for that elongated yellow octagon on the bottom of your hiking boots—asked his grandfather’s successors to design shoes that would allow him to retain the sensation of traipsing barefoot on his sailboat while boosting his traction and protecting his toes from deckside hazards. Eighteen months later, Fivefingers was born.
My Italian yacht is in the shop, so I’m in the shower now, testing wet traction. There are not many better laboratories for this particular experiment—like a typical boat deck, my shower’s floor is made of fiberglass with a texture that helps prevent slipping.
Fivefingers’ soles are also designed to keep you from biting it: They’re made of a rubber called TC4 (an abbreviation for "traction control," uhm, "four"), which is common on the bottoms of trail-running shoes and outdoor sandals. However, according to Tony Post, president and CEO of Vibram’s U.S. division, TC4 isn’t the best rubber Vibram has in its arsenal for wet traction. "Choosing a material is an exercise in compromise," he said. "Unfortunately, grip and abrasion-resistance tend to cancel each other out."
The technique used by Italian footwear masters to boost wet traction is to increase the sole’s porosity. When a porous rubber sole presses down on a wet surface, the pressure forces water into the tiny holes that are, Swiss cheese–like, endemic to that kind of material. With this water diverted, the sole is essentially in contact with dry ground. The downside is that a porous rubber is not very durable. TC4 is a pretty good compromise, but not good enough for Vibram’s designers—they were, after all, designing a shoe for the founder’s grandson.
In order to give the Fivefingers extra traction beyond TC4’s capabilities, Vibram borrowed from the tire industry, which faces similar hurdles when engineering winter tires: These need to be grippy on ice but also can’t wear away after a couple thousand miles on dry pavement or plowed-and-sanded roads. The solution: sipes! No, that’s not a yelp of pain or surprise; it’s a noun (plural) that refers to the tiny cuts you’ll find along the surface of a winter tire. You’ll also find sipes—1.5-millimeter-deep zigzaggy cuts—across the ball and heel of Fivefingers’ soles.
When the shoe is in flat contact with the ground, it behaves just as it would without the tiny cuts. But when the sole flexes—as it would when when one is running across the deck in a desperate effort to save an overboard-bound Campari and soda—the sipes slide apart like the steps on an escalator, pulling water into the spaces in between, increasing traction. It’s kind of like porosity on demand, and it worked in the shower.
I’m out of the shower now and ready for phase two of my test: walking around the port city of Brooklyn.
Walking in Fivefingers is not like throwing on a pair of Top-Siders, or even flip-flops. The shoes force your foot muscles to provide a lot of the stability they’d normally get from the sole and upper of your shoes. So I’ve worked up to this maiden voyage by wearing these bad boys around the apartment for the past week to build up strength. And also to build up the courage to appear in public looking like I stole George Hamilton’s feet.
Once you stop thinking about the texture of the ground, it’s almost possible to forget that you’re wearing neon-orange footgloves—except that everyone you pass is looking at your feet. The stretchy nylon uppers dried out from the shower in about five minutes, and the suede-ish material that lines the insole and surrounds your Achilles tendon does an admirable job of preventing chafe.
The only truly uncomfortable part of wearing Fivefingers is all the loudmouthed landlubbers. Even the guy handing out the flyers for the custom-aquarium store had an editorial: "Where’s the rest of your wet suit, man?" Ahahaha. Wet suits don’t have feet, genius, but I’ll bet you a bespoke fish tank that all your buddies are going to be sporting these while poaching exotic fish from tropical oceans. Neon or not, these shoes rock.
Joe Brown is an associate editor at Popular Science. His review of Mitsubishi’s 2006 Eclipse car appeared in the November 2005 I.D.