The barefoot soldierEthical Arts & Fashion News & Features
This article first appeared in our Consumer Revolution issue of My Green Pod Magazine, released on 19 Dec 2019. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
A shoe company that’s singing the praises of a barefoot experience: it sounds like a cannibalistic idea from a business point of view, but Galahad Clark is no novice in the footwear market.
Clarks, one of the UK’s most recognisable high street names, was founded in Somerset in 1825. Seven generations later Galahad Clark, together with his cousin Asher Clark, is combining his knowledge and instincts with insights from his family treasure chest to devise revolutionary footwear.
‘I associate my happiest moments of youth with barefoot times in Devon and Somerset where I grew up’, Galahad tells us. A childhood friend, Tim, helped to kick-start Galahad’s interest in shoes that recreate a barefoot experience. ‘He came to me with a pair of Nike Huaraches that he had sliced the sole off’, Galahad remembers. ‘He’d stitched on a tennis racquet cover to create a modern-looking moccasin, and said ‘this is the way shoes should be made.’ I instinctively loved the idea.’
As humans don’t have hooves or pads, our feet need shoes with thermal and puncture protection – but as far as Galahad’s concerned, that’s it. From the eland-skin hunting sandals made by Kalahari bushmen to the buffalo sandals made in India, the reindeer moccasins made by the Sami people in the Arctic Circle and even the Roman soldiers’ sandals made a couple of centuries ago, humans have been making perfect shoes from local materials for thousands of generations. We roamed all over the globe without any air, gel, arch support or torsion controls – and without a chiropractor in sight.
‘All indigenous shoe-making is barefoot’, Galahad explains, ‘and in fact the populations wearing little or no shoes have near-perfect feet compared with modern Americans, who now spend more of their money on corrective foot surgery and orthotics than they do on their shoes!’
‘A public health scandal’
For Galahad, the whole shoe industry lost its way in the 20th century during a broader drive to emancipate ourselves from nature. ‘It is a public health scandal that the modern shoe industry leaves nearly every young adult with weak and deformed feet’, he says. ‘From the age of four we put children’s feet into non-foot-shaped shoes with heels or big wedges of padding that literally deform the feet and render most foot muscles redundant.’
‘Underfoot cushioning or thick, rigid soles lead kids to develop unnatural movement habits, and most people in the modern world end up with some sort of chronic pain later in life’, Galahad continues. ‘Depending on which study you read, up to 79% of people get injured when they run and 60% of people over 55 are in pain – in my opinion due to compromised footwear that results in weak feet and a series of bad movement habits that play out in sore knees, stiff ankles and hips and back and neck pain.’
The barefoot revival
Barefoot shoes are experiencing a revival thanks to the support of a growing legion of medics, scientists and coaches who agree shoes play a critical role in our overall health.
‘So much of our brain is dedicated to movement and the sensory feedback from the body – in particular the feet’, Galahad tells us. ‘If we take away that sensory feedback, the brain gets confused and starts to make bad movement decisions. Research now shows that walking around in cushioned shoes in a concrete world literally atrophies the brain, leading to brain degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimers.’
For Galahad, the ability to move naturally, regularly and (most importantly) enjoyably into old age is still the best anti-ageing programme known to humans. A brain in full vitality also provides a lot more emotional wellbeing than one that is being understimulated.
‘Sensory deprivation disorder is a growing problem for young people growing up in cities in padded shoes’, Galahad adds. ‘The sooner we change that, the better and happier they will be – and there’s plenty of science to back that up.’
Reinventing the shoe
Science, biomechanics and sustainability concerns led Galahad to launch Vivobarefoot as a stand-alone brand in 2012. Today Vivobarefoot offers a wide variety of shoes, from hiking boots to trail running shoes (including swim-run shoes) and aqua shoes, with everyday, simple and luxury styles for men, women and kids.
‘The Tracker is our best-selling hiking boot and the lightest, most flexible waterproof hiking boot on the market’, Galahad tells us.
The Primus Bio is Vivobarefoot’s everyday sneaker; it’s made from bio-polymers (plants) and is a great lightweight modern-looking sneaker.
‘The Ababa, made in our factory in Ethiopia through a joint venture with our lead tannery Pittards, is a basic slip-on that’s socially innovative, simple to make and beautifully hand-stitched’, Galahad tells us. ‘It creates an amazing barefoot feel – and is damned good-looking to boot!’
Perhaps the most impressive of all is the San-Dal, innovated 100,000 years ago by the San Bushmen of the Kalahari desert. It was designed for running eight hours in 40-degree heat to track down antelopes.
‘The San-Dal provides perfect protection from the thorns and porcupines whilst allowing humans to run for hours on end’, Galahad tells us. ‘In collaboration with the Future Footwear Foundation, we make a limited run of these shoes every year with the San people, in a little workshop we helped build deep in the Nyae Nyae conservation area. These shoes were among the first ‘tools’ ever innovated by humans – and there’s no underfoot technology in sight.’
Repair and recycle
Vivobarefoot has pledged to eradicate virgin plastic from its supply chain in 2020 and will instead focus on three ‘buckets’ of materials: biosynthesised (polymers made from plant oils but also foams made from algae); natural (wool, cotton, hemp, leather and wild rubber) and recycled (yarns and soling materials). Materials are rarely 100% bio, natural or recycled, so it’s a constant challenge to purify designs so they’re more recyclable – or at least repairable or designed for disassembly.
‘We’re going to launch a full repair and refurbish programme with a re-commerce platform and secondhand market’, Galahad tells us. ‘It will be particularly useful for kids’ shoes and expensive hiking boots! Barefoot shoes lend themselves to being worn by multiple people because they don’t really change shape in wear: the ultra-thin sole contours the foot without any obvious wear patterns you might get in a heeled or cushioned shoe.’
Innovations in the pipeline at Vivobarefoot include 3D printed shoes and a modular pod shoe, made bespoke for every foot. Galahad is also looking forward to launching the first barefoot smart shoes, with a digital insole and built-in AI coach.
‘We regularly get mail from customers who say they find it weird and painful to go back to normal shoes, and have to throw their ‘normal’ shoe away’, Galahad reveals. ‘We’re in the final throes of figuring out how to ‘barefoot’ your favourite shoes, so all the nostalgia wrapped up in that pair of shoes that you had your first kiss or last dance in will remain – but with a barefoot feeling!’
Countless shoe store owners, podiatrists, orthotic manufacturers and shoe brands are deeply invested in underfoot technology, so the barefoot revolution will be resisted on many levels.
‘It took a long time for the world to accept the harms of smoking and for governments to actually do anything about it’, Galahad says, ‘but just as you wouldn’t give your children cigarettes, why would you actively weaken and deform their feet? It is that stark and that real for me – so I’m afraid along with cigarette advertising the shoe industry is going to have to change. The sooner the better.’
Galahad believes that the revolution must be led by the people – because ‘governments will, as always, be very slow to act – and some big powerful, swooshy forces aren’t going to like it’.
Thanks to a growing network of coaches and online education tools, the barefoot movement is growing. Educators from other barefoot shoe brands – particularly in Germany – are all contributing, and Galahad’s goal is to coordinate the barefoot community to create an educational movement that will be more powerful than the sum of its parts.
‘Our brand mission is to reconnect people and the planet’, Galahad explains. ‘We believe the closer you are to nature, the healthier you will be and the more sustainable your choices will be. We make shoes for people to enjoy the most beautiful places in the world as well as making shoes that bring you as close to nature as possible in the concrete jungle.’
A full circle for shoes
Clarks was a pioneer in many things and, funnily enough, more or less on the barefoot concept in the 1880s; text from an advert for ‘hygienic boots and shoes’ is very similar to what Vivobarefoot
‘These boots do not deform the feet or cause corns or bunions but are comfortable to wear and make walking a pleasure. At the same time the shapes are not carried to such an extreme as to appear conspicuous or unsightly…
‘Most eminent medical men fully recognise the importance that proper shapes of boots and shoes have on the health of the wearer.
‘Those whose feet have been deformed in childhood will find greater ease in these boots than in ordinary shapes with small high heels.
‘Those who are less deformed may by wearing these boots avoid further injury and may gradually recover the natural form of the feet.
‘The greatest advantage will be found by those who wear hygienic shapes from childhood and all parents should feel it a duty to preserve the feet of their children in the shape that nature intended them to grow.’
Galahad is perfectly placed to retrace the history of shoe design and identify where things went wrong in the mainstream industry. His alternative offers a way for people to reconnect with the planet, and create a world with less padding and more feeling.
‘Our sustainability goals are to make circular shoes that are also regenerative’, he tells us, ‘to enhance personal and planetary health and, perhaps most importantly, activate a community to reconnect to nature and fight for a more sustainable planet.’