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Minimalist shoes
October/November 2010

Minimalist running

New category to leave its footprint?

The new minimalist/barefoot shoe category has started to make an appearance in SA and CARIN HARDISTY wants to know if suppliers think it’s here to stay, and is SA ready for it?

Less is more is the latest concept in running shoes and the latest developments in running footwear are trying to tell us that, actually, the best way of running is barefoot.

However, our feet have become so accustomed to constantly wearing shoes that the skin on our feet’s soles are too soft and tender to handle running over most surfaces as easily as a runner does while wearing running shoes. Look at people who have been walking barefoot for the majority of their life — the skin on the sole is thick and hardened, which provides protection.

Minimalist shoes do not attempt to control the natural motion of the foot and embrace the benefits and philosophy of barefoot running, and are hence often referred to as barefoot running shoes. The minimalist refers to the minimal interference the shoe should have with the foot’s natural shape or movement when running. But, is this going to be a significant trend in running, or a passing phase?

“Over the last few years there has been a big push to make shoes that are lighter and lighter,” says Brett Bellinger, marketing director for Puma SA. “Each year when shoe companies announced an update to a given model, one of the key points was always that it was lighter than the previous version. Then you combine that with the mainstream coverage given to barefoot running — e.g., Born to Run (Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book about long-distance running), Vibram Five Fingers, etc. — and suddenly you have a strong trend towards minimalism.”

“There have been a few reports of increased injuries, especially lower leg injuries, because many runners are going straight from a traditional running shoe to one that closely mimics barefoot running,” says Bellinger. “That’s a recipe for disaster for most runners. So while the trend towards lightweight and minimalism is certainly here to stay, I think you’ll start to see a more gradual approach with offerings in between.”

Denton Goslett of Omni-Sport, local distributors of Saucony, agrees that minimalist shoes are not just a passing trend. “We believe the minimalist shoe category is going to be an exciting growth category that is definitely here to stay [and we] are budgeting for this category to contribute between 12-15% of our sales by 2013.”

“We do not think about it as a passing trend, but rather as an emerging category,” says Gerry Smith, brand manager for Power Footwear SA, locally distributed by Futura Footwear. “Barefoot running, or minimal cushioning shoes, are not for all [in the same way that] mini-skirts are not in every woman’s closet.”

“Minimalist footwear is here to stay!” says Seruscka Naidoo, communications manager for Nike. “Just ask the Kenyans and Ethiopians about the benefits of barefoot running.” Nike’s Free mimics barefoot running and should be used as a training tool to strengthen those muscles in the foot, ankle, calf etc. that runners do not normally use when in normal, structured shoes.

Economically, for the manufacturer, the less-is-more approach of minimalistic shoes makes sense too. “Building shoes with the same expected features and benefits while using less materials, hands and processes, is a logical move in this, as in many other, industries,” says Smith. “This is in part a result of the increment in costs as much as it is due to innovation on materials that allow brands to do more with less.”

However, not everyone is convinced yet. Jan van Rooyen, product manager for Hi-Tec, believes the minimalist shoes category is just a passing trend and is too niche. Is the SA market ready?

New concepts that work overseas are not always as eagerly embraced in SA. Do suppliers think the SA market is ready for minimalist shoes?

“In my opinion the South African consumer has not caught on as yet, but will very soon,” says Zhivanni Marais, footwear product manager for Reebok. “There are a million pro’s and just as many cons, but no one can argue that this is the next big thing.”

Nike have had the Nike Free concept of footwear in the market for the past six years, before any of our competitors and have been considered ahead of their time, says Naidoo. As Nike have this history behind them, they can say with confidence that the minimalist shoe category works in SA. They have extended their Free range from just covering running, to also include cross-training, dance and tennis shoes.

While John Andrew (product line manager for New Balance SA) does not consider the category to be just a passing fad, he thinks there will only be a small market interest in SA, because the category only really caters for the running purist. “New Balance has already received enquiries about our minimalist shoes, but I think it needs to be sold through the running specialists, so that they can make sure it is being put on the correct foot,” he says.

Purist runners have always argued against excessive cushioning, says Smith. “Materials today allow for shoes to finally have a very minimal and close to the ground experience, while still protecting the feet against the urban landscape.”

“As long as the benefits are understood, there’s no reason why this trend won’t become the norm. Consumer education is so important to ensure that the minimalist trend becomes a norm”, says Naidoo.

“We believe the market is ready to accept the trend,” says Goslett. “It also offers a crossover product into other sports, such as canoeing.” He says they have had a fantastic response to their minimalist shoes. “We are already actively selling our styles in the market place and these sales are gaining momentum.”

“There is a gap in the market for people who do not want to be bamboozled with loads of technical terms and technologies and want something lightweight and comfortable to run in,” says Bellinger. “I have no doubt that the traditional running products will continue to sell well, but there is a marked increase in the demand from consumers who are taking note of trends in running for closer to barefoot running products.”

“Not many runners in SA can afford to buy two pairs of shoes at a time,” says Rohan Kennedy, sales executive for Brooks, which is locally distributed by Texas Peak. “That is why many runners use their training shoes for racing. I think there is a market for this category, because your non-runner can also use the shoes for fashion purposes.” However, he cautions, it will take a number of years to build the category. “As a brand in SA we do a fair amount of racing flats, but we tend to sell more of the regular (neutral and support) shoes.

In SA, top running brand Asics are not incorporating minimalist running shoes in their range. Neither is Olympic. Both brands are distributed locally by Jordan & Co. At the time of going to press, adidas SA had not yet received news from their international office whether they would be incorporating minimalist running shoes or not. What will be available?

BROOKS, locally distributed by Texas Peak, is bringing in the T7 and the ST5 minimalist models in December/January 2011. They are both in the racing flat category. The ultra-lightweight, ultra-flexible T7 racer features a streamlined, asymmetrical upper that wraps the arch securely from start to finish.

Brooks is also bringing in the Green Silence, but it will only be available in small quantity. A key feature of the super-fast Green Silence is that 75% of the shoe’s materials are recycled, water-based adhesives are used in the construction, all dyes and colourants and non-toxic and packaging is 100% recycled. Other features include BioMoGo (the world’s first-ever biodegradable midsole for running shoes) and a biodegradable insole and collar foam. It also requires less petroleum and energy to make, because it is constructed with roughly half as many parts as comparable shoes.

K-SWISS’s Blade Light Run won the Running Network’s Best New Shoe award for Fall this year. It is an ultra-light (236.6g) super-cushioned running shoe, featuring cutting edge Blade-Light technology, says Jeremy Nel of local distributor Crown Footwear. It is engineered to shave minutes off your time while training or racing. The K-EVA blades, unique to the Blade Light Run, are placed anatomically aligned to the angle of impact and critical flex points for ultra-light, super cushioned, and amazingly flexible ride. The top layer of low density(52d) K-EVA in the GuideGlide format provides second stage impact protection and natural foot guidance. A micro layer of Superfoam sits underneath the K-EVA sockliner to provide a soft and resilient feel under the foot.

NEW BALANCE’s minimalist range, Minimus Concept, will be launched during Q3 next year and will encompass both trail and road running. The Minimus line was designed with a lot of input from top ultra-marathoner Anton Krupicka and features a Vibram outsole. It features a new anatomically correct last designed with significantly less drop from heel to forefoot (4mm in all styles compared to 12.5mm in traditional athletic shoes). This means a more natural stride is encouraged by the design by moving the runner off the heel. The shoe consists of stretch materials and minimal constructions, which reduces weight.

The POWER Proximity, part of the Power Barefoot Running range, is an ultra-lightweight performance shoe that allows the foot to fully flex. Power is distributed locally by Futura Footwear. The design is based on the biomechanical benefits of running barefoot, which is believed to strengthen the foot and ankle muscles. Also, without a heel lift, Proximity realigns your posture to that intended by nature.

Omar Velazquez, who was formerly on the footwear design team at Nike in Oregon, recently joined Power as Development Manager for the Asia/Africa region. This has had an immediate impact on the styles that Power are offering in their running ranges.

PUMA’s Faas range will be launched in Q1 2011 and aims to provide a practical solution to minimalism. The name comes from the Jamaican word for fast.

When designing the range, they looked at two main things:

1) what they could take away from a traditional training shoe while keeping a shoe that can be used for everyday training;

2) how they could construct the shoe so that it more closely mimics natural biomechanics. The biomechanical design technology used in the range, which helps runners get into their own rhythm for increased speed and per- formance, is exclusive to Puma and called BioRide. The Faas range features a range of lightweight running products with various degrees of cushioning and structure that will suit every type of runner. The first products that will be launched are the Faas 300 and the Faas 500. The numbers are part of the Faas Scale, which run from 100 to 1 000 — the higher the number, the greater the cushioning and structure provided. The lower end of the scale shoes, Faas 200 and Faas 400, will be launched during the second half of 2011 and the Faas 800 will be launched in 2012.

Retailers can still expect to see two new SAUCONY minimalist models this year, distributed locally by Omni-Sport. They are launching the Saucony Grid Type A4 in November and the Saucony ProGrid Kinvara (men’s and ladies) in December. The Saucony ProGrid Kinvara has won the Best Debut Award in the Runner’s World Shoe Buyers Guide locally and internationally. Next year sees four new launches, the first of which is the Saucony ProGrid Mirage (men’s and ladies) in February and the other three being launched during the second half of 2011.

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