If you ever had a doubt that barefoot running (not to mention the Internet, but that goes without saying) could bring the world closer together, consider the story of Feelmax.
(Coincidentally, 1999 is the same year that Injinji started. So how come one company became so popular, while you’ve likely never heard of the other one? Actually, that’s a trick question – because identifying the “popular” company depends on what side of the Atlantic you’re on. Feelmax has a loyal following overseas, but since they have a hard time showing up at Northern California ultras, they’ve remained under the radar of most U.S. trail runners – although I suspect the balance of power will even out over the next several years.)
(And one more tangent, since I’m clearly in a parentheses mood … can you name the biggest company in Finland? There’s really only one to choose from; the country isn’t exactly an industrial giant. The answer is at the end of this post.)
The company operated on a shoestring budget for several years, conducting studies with universities and military personnel to determine the optimal materials and construction for socks that that would allow natural movement and strengthen all the small muscles of the feet. Socks remain their primary business, as they now offer eight different styles of toe socks, for everything from formal dress to active wear.
I’ve had the privilege of exchanging e-mails with Jarno Pulkka, Vice President and owner of Feelmax, who is quick to share his enthusiasm for the barefoot lifestyle and how our overall well being is best served by allowing our feet to function with as little restraint as possible. It was a natural progression for Feelmax to expand its manufacturing to footwear – and since launching their first models in 2007, the demand for Feelmax shoes has grown so rapidly as to rival their sock production.
The company has huge growth potential, and after trying their products, it’s easy to see why. Jarno was generous enough to provide two pairs of shoes for review: the Niesa, a casual shoe for today’s review, and the Osma, a running-specific model I’ll discuss in detail next time.
(*Update: the Osma review is here.)
Feelmax has about a dozen different styles of footwear; a few models are identified as male or female specific, but the majority of their catalog falls under the unisex heading. The upper of the Niesa looks like a hybrid of a breathable sneaker and a comfortable moccasin. It also bears a strong resemblance to the Panka, Feelmax’s most popular model to date – the primary difference being a Velcro closure at the top of the shoe instead of the lacing design. The styling of the Niesa would blend nicely in any setting where sneakers or casual footwear are typically worn.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that the laces on the Niesa aren’t actually for tying; they’re basically a decorative touch to make the upper look more sneaker-like. The rest of the upper is a thin, soft nubuck and mesh combination that is very comfortable and extremely lightweight. The upper also provides some warmth when the temperature gets cold – and since it is shaped like a traditional shoe, you can wear socks with the Niesa to keep your toes even warmer if necessary. (I haven’t worn socks for any of my minimal shoe testing.)
It’s shocking just how light Feelmax footwear is; when you pick them up out of the box, they feel like they’re made of cardboard paper. The overall weight of the entire shoe is 90g (3.17 oz.) – making them by far the lightest footwear I’ve tried thus far. It’s even 2.5 oz lighter than Vibram’s FiveFingers KSO, the standard-bearer in minimalist footwear. It would be incredibly easy to travel with these shoes tucked into a handbag or waist pack for convenient use if necessary.
Of course, anyone can make a lightweight shoe cover – the question is how well the underside performs. Fortunately, Feelmax delivers the goods in this department as well.
Their main goal was to create an outsole that was as thin as possible but could still provide puncture protection for your foot. Feelmax collaborated with the Continental tire company (who also make outstanding bike tires) to develop a special puncture-resistant 1.3mm thick rubber outsole. While it's not 100% puncture-proof, it gives you the same degree of protection as a standard shoe outsole - all in that slim, flexible 1.3 millimeter surface.
The sole is a full 2mm thinner than Vibram’s, and has greater flexibility which provides you with an amazing ground feel. I raved about the FiveFingers ground feel previously, but the ground sensitivity of the Feelmax sole simply blows it away. You can detect every single pebble in the road and crack in the sidewalk while wearing these; in most cases, you can even feel the relative temperature and firmness of the surface you’re walking on.
The Niesas have a somewhat smooth sole, and prove to be a bit slick on hard surfaces that are wet. Aside from that particular condition, the traction of the outsole seems comparable to Vibram KSOs – which is to say, generally pretty good, but spotty on downhills with loose surfaces. It’s an interesting comparison: while the KSO’s outsole is thicker and carved out a bit to improve traction, the Feelmax outsole is so thin and flexible that it allows the natural grip of your foot to aid with stability, as it would if you were barefoot. The two designs take different means to reach a similar functional end point.
Basically, Feelmax shoes are as close as you can come to feeling naked on the soles of your feet without actually having them exposed. The primary question that remains is durability – more specifically, how long the outsole will last before getting worn out. This was one of the main complaints with the Panka model, and Feelmax have made this the primary area of focus for the Niesa. I’ve only used the Niesa as a walking shoe, so I can’t say that I’ve logged enough miles to expect some wearing yet … but this guy has put a lot of miles on his, and is reportedly very satisfied with their durability.
Overall, I really love Feelmax shoes, and the Niesa is an outstanding choice for those seeking a barefoot feel without the head-turning response (sometimes good, sometimes bad) that wearing Vibrams can trigger. I’d feel great about recommending them to anyone else who enjoys comfortable, casually stylish minimal footwear. The shoes retail for $80, which is comparable to Vibrams, and assuming their life span is similar, the Niesa makes a very plausible alternative for everyday wear.
Having said that, I found a few minor frustrations when trying to shop for these shoes:
1) The Feelmax website is really cumbersome to navigate. Some product pages have manufacturing specs, while others don’t, and it’s hard to compare product information by jumping quickly from one page to another. Worst of all, the website doesn’t sell products in US dollars at this time.
2) Amazon.com carries the Panka, which was the precursor to the Niesa - but there were significant quality upgrades made between those two models, so I can’t say that I’d recommend paying the same price for the Panka as I would for the Niesa. Amazon doesn’t carry the Niesa yet (UPDATE! Now they do.), so …
3) Another place to find the Niesa online for US distribution is from Extreme Outfitters, which looks to be a military supply store; not exactly the folks I’d expect to carry tree-hugger footwear, but that’s beside the point..
As the brand becomes more well-established, hopefully their distribution will improve to make it easier for US consumers to buy Feelmax products. Of course, if you ever happen to find yourself in Maaninka, Finland, you can just drop by corporate headquarters and pay them a visit in person. If you do, say Hi to Jarno for me; he seems like a pretty good guy.
(*update: per the comments below, Barefoot Ted now sells Feelmax from his website, or in person at his digs in Seattle - which is an awful lot closer than Finland.)
That brings me to one final thought – as well as the answer to the trivia question near the top of this post. Jarno is clearly devoted to both promoting the barefoot lifestyle and making his company succeed, and he’s an optimist on both fronts. Or, as he put while sharing his company history with me in one of his e-mails:
So the future looks really promising. In Finland, there is only one big brand and it’s Nokia. The second one will be Feelmax :)
I sincerely hope he proves to be right.
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