Invisible Shoes: VFF Killers

If you’ve spent any time around me in the last few months, you know I am obsessed with my Vibram Five Fingers. Ever since the weather warmed up just slightly, I’ve warn them constantly: walking the dog, out to dinner, to teach, in the rain. Then Invisible Shoes shipped me two free pairs of their huaraches last week, and I haven’t put on my Vibrams since.

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This post is pretty exciting for me, because I have to start with the legal disclaimer that Invisible Shoes sent me their sandals free of charge for purposes of reviewing. I’ve gotten stuff for free before, but that was all from winning contests – this is the first time I’ve been giving something free, by a company, because I have a blog. I’d like to think its because I have a rabid and rapidly growing following of adoring fans, and that the few elegantly written reviews I’ve published have garnered me a critical respect amongst footwear manufacturers, but really its because I know people who actually have fans and connections. Some members of the Run Smiley Collective get sent stuff to review all the time (some of them are even sponsored by companies!), and Invisible Shoes offered to send all the members of the collective their product to test out. But I’ll take the secondary fame if I can get it, especially if it means I get some free shoes. Now onto the review.

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If you want your footwear minimal, Invisible Shoes are as minimal as it gets: a thin piece of rubber and a string to tie it to your foot. That’s it. I actually love that the minimal experience starts the moment you receive them, since what I got in the mail was a envelope containing 4 pieces of rubber, 4 strings, 2 bobby-pins, and a packing-slip. I was expecting each pair to be in its own box or bag stamped with pseudo-tribal designs and faux-native aphorisms, some excessive packaging to play into the whole barefoot, Tarahumara-zeitgeist that Christopher McDougal unwittingly kicked off, but instead it was just the parts of the sandals dumped in a bag. Some people might call it tacky, I thought it was brilliant. “Minimal” means “only what is necessary, nothing more,” and that’s what you get.

Invisible Shoes offers a Custom-Made haurache ($39.95 – $4.95), where you send in a tracing of their foot and they make the sandal for you. I requested the Do-it-Yourself kit (normally $24.95 – 29.95), which means each pair of sandals came as a blank sheet of rubber roughly in the shape of a foot, with two holes near the ankles for threading the string, and you trim the sole to match the shape of your foot. As I suspected, my 3E wide feet took up the whole piece of rubber almost perfectly, so I didn’t have to do any trimming. The rubber does not come with a hole for between your toes: the pro is that this means it will be right where you need it, the con is you have to make a hole yourself. I love any footwear that requires a drill, a lighter, and a pair of pliers in order to assemble them. Like my praise for the packaging, this might sound sarcastic, but it’s not. Many companies talk the minimalist talk while over-packaging, over-advertising, and over-producing their product, but Invisible Shoes are foot-wear stripped to the barest essentials.

Anyway, assembling my sandals took all of ten minutes, including digging my drill out of the basement. Getting the string through the toe-hole was a bit tricky (that’s what the bobby-pin is for, to act a needle to thread the sting through), and then its simple a matter of looping it through the heel holes (the Invisible Shoes site has videos to walk you through the whole process).

Of course, then you have a pair of huaraches that are ready to put on, but you still need to tie them to your foot. That’s the big difference between huaraches and sandals that most people are used to: you don’t slip them on, like flip-flops, or buckle them, like Birkenstocks or Tevas; you literally lash hauraches to your foot. Again, I like it because it is as simple as it gets, and there is almost a philosophy of minimalism that goes with wearing them; tying them on for the first time, I felt as if I was rewinding time a few thousand years, as I was closely mimicking movements that have been repeated for eons. Of course, natives of previous eras most likely used leather, rather than Vibram soling for their huaraches, but whose actually keeping score? When I first put them on, I thought, “This make sense. This is all you need. Why have we built up all these ridiculous shoes?” (But then, I’m falling into the grips of the fantastical bare-foot cult, so perhaps that’s just the rantings of a cultist.)

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So how are they as sandals? In a word: amazing. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with sandals. I’ve wanted desperately to wear them, since I hate having anything on my feet if I don’t have to, but sandals have never worked for me. Flip-flops and other more open sandals always slide off my foot and force me to walk funny, and my wide feet don’t fit in the more structured sandals, like Teva’s. Hauraches are perfect, because they are open, so they don’t constrict my feet at all, but since they are tied on, my feet don’t slip off them. There are different ways to tie them, some more elaborate than others, but the super-simple tying style I found on the Invisible Shoes site takes no longer than tying a normal pair of shoes. It takes a little time when you first wear them to get them adjusted right, to get the right tension or looseness across the top of the foot and the back of the heel, but eventually you don’t feel them at all.

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Hauraches have taken off in the barefoot community, so how do they work as “barefoot shoes?” I normally think the term “barefoot shoes” is stupid, since if you’ve ever run or walked barefoot, nothing actually feels anything close to being barefoot, but the 4mm “Connect” FeelMax soles come as close as you can get. The soles are insanely light and flexible, so you not only feel the texture of the ground, but small sticks and pebbles, and even temperature change of the sidewalk surface when you walk from the shade into the sun. You actually get a lot of the stimulus and sensual feedback from the ground, but with just a bit of the “edge” taken off. Walking around the city, that can a good thing, though of course it also deadens a bit of the pure physicality of being barefoot, so there’s a trade off for the protection the sole offers.

They certainly feel a LOT more barefoot that Five Fingers. Once you run fully barefoot, you realize that Vibrams are actually quite built up and structured. Much less so than a regular shoe, and more mimicking the human foot, but there’s extra material under the ball and heel of the foot, a bit of arch support, and of course, each toe has its own little pocket. In huaraches, there is nothing on your foot – no toes, no arch, and the sole is perfectly flat and even at every point. I’ve only run once in them, but it definitely feel very much like running barefoot, and my feet certainly moved the same way they do when barefoot. It’s an odd distinction, but the only way I can think to describe the difference between VFFs and Invisible Shoes is that when I run in VFFs, it feels like there is a thin piece of rubber on my foot; when I run in Invisible Shoes, it feels like there is a thin piece of rubber on the ground – that I’m barefoot, and someone has coated the world in 4mm of Vibram.

The company did send me two pair, both the 4mm “Connect” and the 6mm “Contact,” and I actually love both. The 4mm is the closest thing I’ve felt to actually being barefoot. When I switch over to the thicker sole, its sort of shocking what a difference 2mm makes. They still actually give you enough sensitivity to feel the ground and the change in surface, but it is much more muted. If I’m going to be walking around all day, I prefer the 6mm, since it gives just a bit more padding, but the 4mm is great for a short run.

I also took them with me when Nat and I went to a water park downtown, and I was very impressed by the traction. I could sprint over wet, slippery rocks without any slipping at all, and even up a wet, metal slide without losing any grip, which is more than I can say for I think any shoe I own.

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Anything I didn’t like about Invisible Shoes? I don’t give a toss about fashion, standing out, or being tacky, but if you do, these might not be the sandal you grab when heading out to dinner. Mulzer dubbed them my “Jesus sandals,” and that’s about the best praise you can get from the things in terms of looks. Of course, I’m wearing them with cut-offs that I hacked off myself, a t-shirt I silk-screened myself, and sporting a Mohawk I shaved myself, so I’m all about the ready-made, slightly boot-leg look. One real drawback is the learning curve in getting the fit right. When I went out for my first run, I had to stop every two blocks to fiddle with the fit and get the toe-knot out from under my toes. Eventually it fit great, but it was a pain at first.  Also, today I did have the toe-knot on my left sandal break off (I think I melted the nylon rope a bit much when sealing the not, so its my own fault).  Your average shoe isn’t likely to come entirely undone into a piece of rubber that won’t stay to your foot, but that’s what happens with a broken haurache.  I eventually managed to get it to stay on by literally tying it to my foot, but it was more than a little awkward walking home.  Your Minimus or Trail Glove won’t do that.

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All in all, I don’t know if I’m really reviewing Invisible Shoes so much as huaraches in general, as this my first time wearing this style of shoe. However, I think the company pretty much gets everything I’d want out of a running sandal – super lightweight, super flexible, with as good of ground-feel as I think one can get while wearing anything one’s foot. If you don’t mind a bit of a DIY look (and, in-fact, a bit of DIY work!), $25 for a shoe that will pretty much last forever is a pretty good deal. If I had been sent them of a “try before you buy” deal, I would certainly pay the $25 to keep them, since they are simply my new favorite . . . well, not shoe. My new favorite Not Shoe.

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About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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4 Responses to Invisible Shoes: VFF Killers

  1. Hope says:

    So the string between your toes doesn’t hurt? That was always my problem with flip flops (that and the bike accident that sent me to the ER) – the strap irritated the area between my toes. And Jesus Sandals – ha ha ha! Perfect diagnosis, Mulzer!

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      The string between the toes doesn’t hurt, once you get the right tension and angle — like I said, you have to play with it for a while, but having the option to personalize it like that is actually an asset, because you can get the string to lie right.

  2. Hope says:

    Another thing I just thought of – will you still be wearing these in November or December? I mean, it is all very well and good to go barefoot year-round somewhere like Phoenix, but NYC gets pretty darn cold.

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      I do NOT think these will be my winter shoes — my cult-conversion has its limits, and closed toe shoes did develop for a reason. What I plan on doing is getting a pair of SoftStar RunAmocs, both for running and wearing when I need something to cover my foot fully — I also need a shoe to wear to school that doesn’t make me look like just escaped from the hippie commune.

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