This update is going to be all about the boots, 'bout the boots (no treble?). Namely, why I decided to use a flat outsole, rather than the patented hollow heel outsole that we use for the Oxfords. As I tell the story, we'll also be exploring various types of shoe construction, outsole materials, and upper leather, comparing each one's pros and cons. Excited to learn? Let’s go!
...with an email from a customer named David. David is the quintessential Primal Professional. He's an American lawyer, now living in Europe, who grew up wearing Alden and Allen Edmonds, and then discovered the joy of barefoot shoes via FiveFingers. We've written regularly to each other as he knew knew so much about good shoes. In fact, he probably knew more about the history of our manufacturer, Weinbrenner / Thorogood, than I did!
In February 2013, David writes to me suggesting that we consider a high-top design next. Not only was it a popular style right now, but it's practical too for inclement weather. Style and function? I had to look into this more.
As a California kid, the only boots I ever wore were ski boots maybe once a year, so I was starting from scratch. The first thing I did was research what all the different styles of boots were. We'll cover a select few here, as we explain how we chose our first style to develop.
First, we looked at the Chukka. It's probably the most common style of boots for men today. We actually made a prototype of these. They were okay. I didn't feel like they offered enough beyond the Vivobarefoot Gobi.
Not that inspiring, right?
Quite a few brands are making leather minimalist shoes now. I've found that our niche, our specialty, is in making the styles that are more detailed. This is where I get excited. Where I feel like I'm making the most impact. While everyone else is using the open-lace Derby Blucher design, we made a closed-lace Balmoral Oxford. And rather than the simple chukka, we're going with a more detailed 6-inch lace-up boot. We're not afraid to tackle the more difficult designs, because we know they're worth extra effort.
Next style, the Chelsea boot. GQ calls it "the dressiest boot in the game." Well, we already have an Oxford, which is considered the dressiest of shoe styles. Oxfords can look good with either trousers or denim, but better with trousers. I wanted our first style of boots to also look good with either, but better with denim instead. I wanted something a bit less dress-boot than the Chelsea.
Then, the roofer boot. This is the style that Weinbrenner / Thorogood is best known for, and it perfectly captures the the concept of Form following Function. A roofer spends a lot of time crouched down at his job. The double-thick leather paneling on the side is there because this part of the boot is constantly rubbed. The ankle-to-toe lacing allows such thick leather to flex easily. The selvedge denim crowd, particularly in Europe and Asia, are in love with the roofer. However, the look is a bit too work-boot for our first style of boots.
Finally, I arrived upon the style we have today. I don't know what to call it specifically, but here's a nice round-up of the style from various brands. This style originated as work boots in the late 20th century, but it sits much higher in the dressy scale today. (It's kind of like how brogue shoes were once utilitarian footwear, made for walking in the bogs of Scotland. The perforations allowed water to drain, but now they are mainly just for decoration). I think this is because these boots, with a sleeker toe, look just like dress shoes with a high-top. This was just the style I was looking for: comfortable with both trousers and denim, but a bit better with denim. It was the perfect intermediary between the dress-boot Chelsea and the work-boot roofer.
In September 2013, I received our first prototype of this style, made just like our Oxfords: Black Trek full-grain leather, Cement construction, and our patented hollow-heel Primal outsole. I immediately liked them more than our Oxfords. When you make the forefoot of a shoe wider, the midfoot and especially the rearfoot needs to be snug to keep the shoe from moving around too much. These boots were better than the Oxfords at hugging the rearfoot, making the shoes more responsive. I ended up wearing these ALL the damn time. I wore them to Coachella, a 3-day music festival in the Southern Californian desert. I put them through a good amount of stress: dust, drinks (spilled), and dancing (both my own dancing and getting stepped on by other people, haha). At the end of it, they looked even cooler for it.
Dirty boots look cool.
Then the weekend after, I wore them again to a wedding! I took them into a shoe repair shop for a clean, condition, and shine 10 bucks, and they were ready to go with a suit! Really speaks to the versatility of this product.
I'm also excited that this is a unisex style. My wife, my mom, and all the women I love can finally have stylish, comfortable, and healthy footwear =D
In December 2013, I saw the release of Vivobarefoot's hand-cut line. Of course, the first one I lasered in on was the Lisbon. It was definitely an improvement over the Rathanks to the shinier, more structured leather. However, it still had the Shrek-like toe box characteristic of Vivo. The upper design is also too simple for my taste. And I still think a dress shoe needs a heel, at least the look of one.
However, the Porto doesn't look so bad! Hm...Why is that?
Seth Godin recently wrote about the Apple Watch in an article titled "Functional Jewelry":
What does this remind me of? is a key question people ask. Certain glasses make people look smart, because they remind us of librarians and scholars. Some cars remind us of movie chase scenes or funerals... If you're going to put something on my wrist, it's going to remind me of a watch. What sort of watch? The Pulsar my grandfather wore in 1973? A 175,000 euro Franck Muller Tourbillion, with complications?
Marketers rarely get the chance to start completely fresh, to say, "this reminds you of nothing, start here."
For Oxfords, the presence of a fake heel is still a plus--if not a necessity---to look good with a proper suit or trousers.
But for boots, an outsole that is clearly flat doesn't look too bad. It's probably because there are a good number of wedge sole boots, where it isn't immediately obvious that the heel is raised. Flat sole boots remind us of something familiar, in a way that flat sole dress shoes do not.
No longer needing the hollow heel outsole also means we can try different construction methods too. We'd be able to use Goodyear welt construction, and provide you with all the benefits that come with that!
Back in June 2013, I asked if we could use Chromexcel leather for our boots. Chromexcel is made with a century-old recipe by Horween Leather Co in Chicago, USA. It's a prized leather among craftsmen of the finest goods, found in products such as Alden Indy Boot, Red Wing Iron Rangers, and Wolverine 1000 Mile. The oil content of Chromexcel is very high, over 30%. This is what gives Chromexcel its trademark look of depth and variation, as well as it's softness despite thickness. Unfortunately, the oil also made it impossible to make with our outsole, because the cement can't stick to it. And, Cement is the only viable construction method that we're aware of for attaching our hollow-heel outsole.
However, if we don't need the look of a heel for our boots, we're no longer tied to Cement, and we could use other construction methods. Namely, the timeless Goodyear welt.
(For those who want to learn more about how these work, check out Tanner Guzy'sarticle on Primer Magazine: Understanding Shoe Construction. In addition to Cement and Goodyear welt, he also covers Blake construction, which is what the Vivobarefoot Lisbon uses).
The goodyear welt comes with a number of advantages:
However, it's not completely one-sided. Goodyear welt does lose to Cement in the following:
As you can see, this was not an easy decision to make one way or the other. It's not even a clear-cut matter of Form versus Function, because both construction methods have their fair share of advantages in both courts. Our shoes are the highest intersection of style and comfort, and it is our mission to stay that way by continuously push the envelope in both directions.
In the end, after all things considered, I decided to develop our first boots as a Goodyear welt because I feel it makes the best boots for you.
Prototype 4: Chromexcel No. 8 Leather, Goodyear Welt, Vibram Outsoles
In next month's newsletter, I'll be continuing our story as we walk through further prototypes. There will be another controversial discussion, this time on leather versus synthetic outsoles.
But for now, Happy Halloween! You can bet I'm gonna be "stress testing" (i.e. dancing in) some boot prototypes this weekend ;)
Mountain Evan Chang
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