The Perfect Boots for Light Hiking (or Heavy Dancing) in the Cold.Read More
I'd been talking a whole lot about the boots in the last few newsletters, but this issue we focus back on the Oxfords.
The bad news first: Our full production run will not arrive by May. I'm sorry =(
I'm back with another educational newsletter about our ongoing quest to make you the perfect pair of boots! I know my inbox has been blowing up with nonstop holiday ads from the select companies I follow, so I hope this is a welcome break for you too =)
If you missed the last newsletter, here's a link to a web version. If you read it, here's a one-paragraph recap:
One of my style-savvy customers told me to make a boot for our next product. I researched all the various boot styles, and decided that a 6-inch open-lace boot covered the most ground alongside our oxfords. We made our first sample using Cement Construction and our hollow-heel outsole, just like our oxfords. I immediately liked them more than our oxfords because of the versatility and performance. In Dec 2013, Vivobarefoot released their Porto, and I got a chance to see that an outsole that is clearly flat doesn't look too bad, because we've seen similar in wedge sole boots. So, we looked into Goodyear Welt construction, which offered many advantages (use of oily rich leathers, solid outsole attachment, easier resoles and more of them), as well as disadvantages (less flexible, less groundfeel, more expensive, loss of a dressy heel). In the end, I decided to develop our first boots as a Goodyear welt because I feel it makes the best boots for you.
Now, let's continue the story!
Since the GYW is a traditional construction method, I decided to pair it with the most traditional type of outsole: leather.
Scenic stop in Utah, on my way home from the factory
The first thing I said when they handed this pair to me at the factory was, "These look fucking cool!" Linda, the product development engineer at Weinbrenner, was quite happy with my response.
But looks can sometimes kill, right? I've tried on Goodyear Welted leather-soled shoes before, but just for a few steps indoors. This boot was my first time navigating the world in a pair of GYW and leather. I kept a journal of my thoughts during the break-in process. I can say straight-up that they were uncomfortable to walk in during the first 5 days.
I asked my friend Ivan, who loves his Red Wing Iron Rangers, if he experienced a break-in period:
" Yes. It's long, too. I actually don't think mine are fully broke in yet. They typically take 3-6 months to break in, depending on how much you wear them. They hurt like a bitch when they were new, but they're comfy now. "
Fortunately, it didn't take months. By the 8th day, after about a mile a day of combined walking and running, they were comfortable.
The stiffness went away and the boots met my standards for flexibility , but another issue never got to an acceptable level for me: slipperiness.
I read somewhere that once you start wearing a leather sole shoe outside, all the scuffing would created a textured surface, and it wouldn’t be as slippery anymore. There was an improvement over time, especially compared to how slippery it was brand-new, sure. But I would still experience slips here and there, on hardwood floors and metal stairs, just to name a few.
There are some folks who argue that before synthetic soles were prevalent, leather soles were fine for traction, often citing that leather soles had taken climbers to the top of Mt. Everest. To me, this is kind of like saying that biting a bullet is a viable form of anesthetic. It works... but is far inferior to what modern technology has to offer.
The slips I experienced were all on dry surfaces. With Prototype 2, I religiously avoided wet conditions. I had been warned from multiple sources how hazardous water was to leather soles.
#1, there is the slippage, which we already covered.
#2, wet leather soles become very prone to physical damage.
#3, if water penetrates deep enough and you aren’t able to properly dry them out, that could be the end of your leather soles. Water damaged leather soles become stiff, brittle, and can crack. Even if they were properly dried, salt and chemical residue dissolved in water could remain in the leather and ruin the sole too.
Water issues aside, here are some more drawbacks to leather soles.
#4, leather soles are heavy. Significantly heavier than synthetic.
#5, leather soles start off quite stiff and inflexible. They are made this way to be durable, but it ain’t comfy.
#6, leather soles have much less cushioning and therefore much less groundfeel than an equivalently thick synthetic sole. Leather is a fibrous structure that is good for providing strength, even as it’s being stretched. It makes sense, as that’s what it needs to do in its original form, as skin for the cow! However, the cellular structure of synthetics are made to compress, and it serves our underfoot needs better than leather.
I want to note that #4, 5, and 6 are specific to the stiffer vegetable-tanned leather that is traditionally used for soling. BirthdayShoes recently reviewed a pair of SoftStarShoes with Bullhide Soles and the author praised how much flexibility and groundfeel it afforded. Their leather sole appears to be more similar to upper leather than soling leather, so it makes sense. Still, it suffers from the same issues with water, and I can’t imagine soft upper leather lasting very long when you’re walking on it.
The only redeeming quality of leather soles is that they look nicer. It’s hard to argue against this. A leather sole is able to display much more vivid colors than any synthetic can. And it’s not just the colors, but the texture too. There is an elegance to the natural fibers that can be seen running horizontally. Maybe someday they’ll be able to reproduce the vivid color and natural texture of a leather sole with a synthetic, but right now they can’t.
As you can see though, it’s almost no contest! I’m not going to sacrifice all of the functional benefits of a synthetic sole just for a sliver of good looks at the very bottom of my boots.
Boots in particular are supposed to take on a wider range of weather and terrain conditions than dress shoes. A boot that can't be worn in wet conditions is like an Asian who can't do calculus (oh wait, that's me...).
For folks like us who prize both style AND utility, the clear winner is the synthetic sole.
We've been able to nail down what construction method we want (Goodyear Welt) as well as what outsole type we want (synthetic). However, we still have a number of questions to be answered.
First, even though we know we want synthetic, what kind of tread pattern do we want, and how thick?
Second, what type of upper leather do we want? Boots can be made in a number of different leathers, including pigmented, pullup, and roughout. The subject of leather has been a very interesting (if somewhat frustrating) one, as there are so many to choose from, and a lot of incomplete or inaccurate information based on hearsay.
Finally, I wanted to share with you an article I wrote on my personal blog: Open Letter from Your Friend with Dietary Restrictions. I know that most of our newsletter subscribers watch what they eat to some extent. If this communicates your own sentiments, effectively and respectfully, please feel free to share.
Thanks for tuning in, and happy holidays! Until next time...
Mountain Evan Chang
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