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September 16, 2009

VivoBarefoot Dharma Shoe Review (and Coupon Code!)

Try as I might, it’s difficult for me to think of Vivo Barefoot as a small startup company.

That’s because the story of the brand is more accurately the story of Galahad Clark, a 7th-generation shoemaker and scion of England’s Clark Shoe Company empire. The family business was founded by brothers Cyrus and James Clark – thus the company’s formal title of C&J Clark, or the more informal moniker Clarks – in 1825, and has steadily expanded to become one of the most recognized (and profitable) brands of footwear in the world. It's one of the largest private companies in the UK, and remains predominantly under family ownership.

So Galahad wasn’t exactly an underdog when he branched out to create another line of footwear – but what distinguished his cause from the very beginning was a mission for eco-friendly manufacturing processes and socially conscious business practices. After he purchased the Terra Plana company, Galahad focused his efforts on that label to become prime innovators in design, sustainability, and responsibility.

Terra Plana has gone on to develop numerous environmentally friendly methods of production, such as chrome free leathers, vegetable tanned leathers, and using recycled materials for soles and foot beds. Another chief goal is to minimize waste and toxins from the production process, and Terra Plana has been an industry leader in this regard as well. The company’s reputation for eco-friendliness is so strong that when you Google "Galahad Clark", you quickly find a variety of articles proclaiming him one of the UK’s most beneficial environmental and social crusaders.

Galahad Clark: notice what he's wearing ... or NOT wearing?

Clark has still another passion: developing shoe designs that support the natural structure and function of the human body. He’s actually on record describing traditional footwear – such as the kind his own family created for six generations – as “little foot coffins” that prevent the foot from working the way it’s intended to. Given his background, that’s not a minor statement – but Clark believes in it to the extent that he developed a whole new line of footwear specifically intended to preserve a barefoot feel and natural biomechanics as much as possible.

And that’s where the Vivo Barefoot story really begins.

The first Vivo Barefoot line was launched as a separate collection under the Terra Plana brand in 2004, and they've steadily expanded their catalog with each passing year – fine tuning and improving the models that its customers love, and introducing new styles to attract a wider consumer base. Among minimalist shoe manufacturers, they have far and away the largest selection of both men’s and women’s footwear styles.

Another distinguishing trait of the brand is that many of their styles are formal-looking enough to pass in a business or professional setting. And while I love going barefoot (or wearing Vibrams), there are times – a lot of them, frankly – when a more traditional look is in order; that’s exactly what I was looking for in choosing the Dharma model.

The Dharma

(That, plus I’m a huge Lost fan … so I enjoyed saying, “I’m in Dharma again today!” to my wife as I headed out the door each morning. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Like most shoes in the Vivo Barefoot line, the Dharma (the shoe this time, not the cult) has an outsole measuring a mere 3mm thick; there is a thin antibacterial lining on top of a Duratex puncture-resistant layer, sitting on a TPU abrasion resistant sole that is molded with a honeycomb pattern for traction. The enitre outsole is actually thinner than that of the Vibram FiveFingers, and more flexible to allow an even better “ground feel” than the VFFs.

Honeycomb outsole

When you slip your feet into Vivo Barefoots, there’s really no noticeable difference from your barefoot height, which admittedly seems a little strange at first. More than one person at work has commented than I seem shorter than usual, because I’m no longer propped on the 1-inch platforms that my standard dress shoes provide. (On a related note: if you happen to have a Napoleonic complex, perhaps if these aren't the shoes for you.)

The other design aspect you notice right off the bat is how much space there is in the forefoot area. My Dharmas initially felt like clown shoes – so much that I wrote to the rep because I thought I mistakenly ordered the wrong size. She explained that the fit is supposed to be snug through the heel and rearfoot, but very roomy in the forefoot area, with up to a full thumb’s width of space between the big toe and the end of the shoe. Despite this feeling, when I place the Dharma alongside my customary Rockport work shoe, the length of the two models is the same.

Size 12 Dharma on top, size 11 Rockport below

(One final quirk as to the fit of most Vivo Barefoot shoes: the sizing typically runs a full number short. I usually wear size 11 shoes, but my Dharmas are size 12. And there aren’t any half-sizes available, so if you’re in between sizes you’ll have to make an estimate. There are sizing guidelines on the website; be sure to read them before you buy.)

The fit took some getting used to, as did routine walking in the shoes. Truthfully, I found this process to be more difficult than the barefoot running routine I’ve been working on. It’s one thing to devote 20 to 30 minutes of focused attention to your form while exercising; it’s an altogether different challenge to adjust your walking pattern every time you walk from the house to the car, get up from your desk for a cup of coffee, or quicken your pace a little bit because you’re late to a meeting. Like nearly everyone, my previous heel-strike gait was so ingrained as to be subconscious; during my first few weeks in the Dharmas, I had to remind myself of just how I was supposed to be walking from now on.

The upper of the shoe is extremely comfortable, with thin leather above the forefoot, soft suede cut low around the ankle and heel, and a cushioned collar on the back and sides of the foot opening. The upper provides minor water resistance, but isn’t waterproof. For a leather shoe, the Dharma seems fairly breathable, and the lightweight construction (the entire shoe weighs only 9oz) is a stark contrast to traditional dress shoes.

Can your dress shoes do this?

I’ve been wearing the Dharmas for about one month, and I absolutely love them. They’re convenient, comfortable, and a perfect extension of the barefoot running experiment I’m conducting. In fact, as part of an overall natural foot philosophy, I’d say there’s as much – if not more – to be gained by wearing Vivo Barefoots for 8 to 10 hours per day than by doing a short barefoot run before schlepping off to work in a pair of traditional dress shoes. In my case, I’ve also found them somewhat addicting; it’s become very difficult for me to put on a pair of normal shoes anymore now that I have a “barefoot” alternative.

The Vivo Barefoot Dharma is part of a just-released Fall 2009 line, and retails for $140 from the company website. The price is a bit steep, but it’s not really out of line with traditional dress shoe offerings. (And, as I mentioned in a previous post, all those responsible business decisions and manufacturing processes don’t happen on the cheap – and our individual buying habits do influence company practices. Terra Plana is another perfect case study of this lesson.) With my previous Rockports, I usually didn’t mind paying a high retail price since I knew I’d get a couple of years of dependable Monday-to-Friday use out of them. That’s the only question mark I’d suggest about the Dharmas I’m wearing: whether they’ll be as durable and comfortable one year (or more) from now as they are today. Terra Plana has a reputation for superior craftsmanship, so I like my chances.

Vivo Barefoot is also offering a great deal in conjunction with this product review: a 20% discount on any model from their men’s or women’s collection. From now through October 31st, if you enter coupon code R&R20 at checkout, the discount will automatically be deducted from your purchase price. It’s an ideal opportunity to support an innovative, forward-thinking company and test out the world of natural footwear.

See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you'd like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.


Jeffrey 9/17/09, 7:14 AM  

Thanks for the review. On sizing, from their site it looks like I would need a 44, but it sounds like our feet are about the same size and you went with the 45. For reference, what size KSO are you wearing?


jeff 9/17/09, 7:21 AM  

thanks for the review, donald. i'm a long time clarks wearer [and seller - i used to manage a hiking and walking shoe retail store], so this is exciting news. i'm due for a new pair, since my current clarks are coming up on 8 years.

Donald 9/17/09, 7:38 AM  

Jeffrey - I wear a size 42 KSO (no socks), and at the recommendation of the Vivo rep, I did go one full size higher in the Vivos than I would have guessed on my own. They're slightly roomy on me, but in the absence of half-sizes, I decided to go slightly big than too small. The fit turned out pretty good overall. Thanks for asking.

Anonymous,  9/17/09, 10:13 AM  

just ordered a pair. thanks for posting the coupon code!

shel 9/17/09, 12:10 PM  

donald - you'll get used to the new way of walking pretty quickly. give it another 4 weeks.. at which time you will discard every shoe in your closet that remotely has a heel. you'll find them not only uncomfortable, but intolerable! they should put a warning on the box!

Annette 9/17/09, 7:36 PM  

Those must feel great! I so love being barefoot. This morning when I had to put on actual shoes to head out for the day, it made me a little grouchy. My toes like to be free! :) Not so sure about running barefoot, but I do like the thought of it.

Anonymous,  9/18/09, 11:25 AM  

the shoes may be eco-friendly but they are still made in china

Donald 9/18/09, 11:58 AM  

Anon: The fact that a company does business in China isn't automatically incriminating - I spoke to that in the previous post that was linked in this review. Some companies try to effect change within the system, and do it very responsibly; Terra Plana is one of them.

Anonymous,  9/18/09, 2:36 PM  

Donald: I just read "What's Done in Our Name." I do agree that doing business in China is not automatically incriminating. If Terra Plana is making a positive impact in a traditionally very eco-unfriendly country and also not exploiting cheap labor, then I support them. Maybe I'll order a second pair of Vivo Barefoot shoes. I do love their Aqua model.


giftcertificate guy 9/18/09, 2:48 PM  

awesome kicks, im ordering a pair right now <3

Anonymous,  9/18/09, 2:55 PM  

Donald: Check this out. http://www.terraplana.com/blog/how-can-terra-plana-justify-making-eco-friendly-shoes-in-china/

Donald 9/18/09, 3:22 PM  

Anon: Outstanding link! Written by Galahad Clark himself, no less. Thanks for doing the diligence to track that down.

the Dread Pirate Rackham 9/21/09, 8:23 PM  

hi donald -

i'm trawling through my backlog of your blog (haven't been here in awhile) because I just hit 'pay' for a pair of KSOs and uh, need to do some more research. (let's just say it's an impulse buy that's been developing for about a year and a half)

anyway. I'm more than a bit pleased to see some dress shoe options with barefoot shoes. As a self-proclaimed show whore, I was a little concerned about the manly butchy look of these but I have to say I'm really seriously impressed with the ladies line - those boots are yummy.

clearly I have more reading to do...thanks for the review!

Size 12 shoes 10/6/09, 3:39 AM  

It was really cool blog. I read three - four post of your blog. And finally I comment you just to praise your work. Good on you.

Jim Hansen 10/11/09, 9:07 PM  

I have been wearing a pair of Dharmas nonstop since January (except when running). They are very comfortable and I don't like walking around in any other shoe. They are supposed to be coming out with a running model soon called the Evo. That could be interesting.

Anonymous,  11/23/09, 4:15 PM  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous,  12/3/09, 1:21 PM  

Regarding the wear, I have a pair of Dharmas in black. Mine wore down under the ball of my foot after about 18 months of fairly constant wear.

I had them resoled at my local shoe repair place, and they feel great again.



JP 1/29/10, 5:55 AM  

I do like these shoes, as well as the other barefoot options out there. But the $100+ prices are out of my league. A few years back, I realized that the surf shoes you can get for $5 or so at discount stores are a great option. I stock up on them for the off season. Granted, they don't look nearly as good as the Vivo, but I can deal with that. They also do suck in rain & snow, but hey, nothing's perfect. I may still get a pair of Vivos for the look, but not any time soon. Nonetheless, I'm really glad to see the number of "barefoot" options increasing.

Anonymous,  3/13/10, 2:49 PM  

I just received my Dharmas today, but don't know what all the fuss is about sizing up. I have very normally proportioned feet by all measures, wear a size 10 dress shoe, 10 to 10.5 running shoe, and 42 VFF KSO, so based on everyone's advice I went up a size and ordered size US 11(44) Dharmas. While they fit well, they're still a tiny bit on the big side, and would be a size too big without the included insoles. Take out the insoles and I really don't think you need to size up at all unless you're between sizes. If you don't plan on using the insoles, just get your regular size - or at most round up. I know everyone has a different foot, but that's my experience.

btw: thanks for the review, I found out about these through your website.

trainers shoes 7/29/10, 4:32 AM  

Nice and really helpful article i think they are dress shoes not a trainers shoes isn't it ?

Clyde 12/12/11, 4:40 PM  

how have they held up to the rigors of work use thus far?

Donald 12/12/11, 10:10 PM  

Clyde - pretty good, but they're not my everyday shoes anymore. I now use the VB Oaks or Merrell Tough Gloves.

Paul,  8/19/12, 7:18 PM  

Hey Donald, what's your opinion of the fit/feel between the Dharma and Tough Glove? I planned to purchase the Tough Glove for casual wear, but the Dharma look more fashionable and appear to have a roomier toe box, whereas Trail Gloves rub my pinky toe.

Donald 8/21/12, 10:36 PM  

@Paul: You're correct: Dharmas have a roomier toe box and are wider in general. The Merrells are quite narrow through the midfoot and slightly up front as well.

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