Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010

The Cobbler's Child

Correction Appended: March 2, 2010

Like family members before him, young Galahad Clark, a seventh-generation scion of the $1.6 billion Clarks shoe dynasty, spent school vacations in his native England learning the business hands-on at the local factory. Academically, his interests leaned toward the exotic — he studied Chinese and medical anthropology at the University of North Carolina — but by the time he was 27, his cobbler gene had kicked in.

In 2002, Clark took over a floundering men's shoe company in Holland called Terra Plana, whose use of eco-friendly materials and sustainable techniques he found appealing, and relocated it to London. The following year, a friend suggested that Clark create a shoe that would simulate being barefoot. Smitten with the idea, Clark partnered with a podiatrist to design a shoe with a distinctive footlike shape that would allow unrestricted natural motion of the foot. In 2005, after two years of research costing about $150,000, Clark launched Terra Plana's VivoBarefoot line.

The hallmark of the VivoBarefoot shoes is an ultra-thin sole, a configuration of honeycomb-like hexagons made from abrasion-resistant thermoplastic urethane (TPU). At first, not many of the shoes sold. "Store buyers weren't ready for them," says Clark. But in 2008, thanks to what he calls a perfect storm of better design, quality, pricing and an improved supply chain, sales picked up. In 2009 Terra Plana's revenue was $12 million — an increase of 40% over the previous year — with the VivoBarefoot line accounting for 40% of sales. Clark expects 50% revenue growth in 2010.

Clark isn't alone in the barefoot-shoe business — Vibram's Five Fingers shoe is also a popular brand — but the shoe's concept is gaining attention, through books such as ChiRunning by Danny Dreyer and Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. And barefoot may be better. A study in Nature found that most habitual barefoot runners land on the middle or front part of the foot, which produces less impact than heel striking. That means there's no need for shoes with elevated cushioned heels to cope with the strike force, says Daniel E. Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and the study's lead author.

That's the idea behind VivoBarefoot's debut running shoe: the Evo, short for evolution. Evos weigh in at 17 oz. (480 g) a pair, carry a $160 price tag and are svelter and lighter than the original VivoBarefoots. A sucked-in arch area grabs the underfoot "like a second skin," says Clark, and a lightweight TPU-and-mesh upper provides increased breathability and support. "With the Evo, we've gotten even closer to mimicking the foot in a performance way," he says.

Dreyer, president of ChiRunning, a company in Asheville, N.C., that teaches a barefoot-like, injury-free style of running, notices more people wearing flat, thin-soled shoes, which he defines as "minimal shoes that help the feet educate the body how to move." He sees a huge market for these shoes, as does Michael Atmore, editorial director of the trade publication Footwear News. "There's enormous interest in this niche from commercial brands and manufacturers, most of whom are very aware of the success of the Vibram Five Fingers shoe," Atmore says.

Clark, who wants VivoBarefoot shoes to lead the "barefoot revolution," believes the tipping point of barefoot running is still to come. This year, he'll add children's footwear to the line, open a West Coast Terra Plana store and add five new franchises to the 12 stores in Europe, Asia and Australia. "The biomechanical masterpiece is the foot, and the technology we've been using has been developed over the past 6 million years," says Clark. His family has been covering those feet since the 1800s. Now it's his turn.

The original version of this article misstated that Vibram's Five Fingers shoe beat VivoBarefoot to the market.