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June 27, 2011

Soft Star Moc3 Review

Every now and then I wonder if there isn’t some larger force at play in this whole minimalist footwear renaissance; while it might not quite approach divine intervention, there’s certainly been a healthy dose of serendipity along the way.

Soft Star Moc3

Case in point is the new Soft Star Moc3, which is as much the story of the designer as it is of the company. According to the video at the end of my Moc3 preview post, this new model was born when one of the most insightful shoe designers in the world happened to walk into the workshop where Soft Star elves were striving to further expand and enhance their already outstanding natural footwear inventory.

The designer is Mike Friton, and if you were drafting the ideal resume for a minimalist shoe designer, you probably couldn’t invent a better one than Mike’s. He ran competitively at the University of Oregon, and had a student job moonlighting in Bill Bowerman’s shoe lab – you know, the one that would eventually become Nike - by hand crafting shoes for elite athletes. He earned a degree in anthropology and continued working with the Nike lab for many years, with a primary focus on footwear innovation, including development of the original Nike Free. Mike left Nike a few years ago, and is currently teaching shoe design at the Portland Art Institute.

Part of Mike’s anthropology research involved studying different styles of shoe construction all over the world, and from the very beginning, he’s promoted barefoot running while trying to convince the traditional shoe establishment that minimal, natural construction was of the utmost importance. During an e-mail exchange I had with him recently, he elaborated on this point:

I made many trips to the Oregon dunes where we would run barefoot and often ran strides barefoot on the infield of the track. Many of the great coaches of my time (Bowerman, Lydiard) promoted barefoot running. I think the inspiration that led me to minimal footwear was from my running experience and doing research in medical journals. There are many studies going back over 60 years that cite lower incidence of knee and hip problems with cultures that are barefoot or in minimal footwear. I began looking at these journals over 25 years ago.

In many meetings with my footwear colleagues I have stated that "shoes are bad for you". This used to be met with blank looks until I cited the articles I had read. It has now become acceptable and even cool to talk about, but the problem is that every company is jumping on the wagon but few really understand the issues related to footwear construction. Most are just making thin midsoles and calling them minimalist. The real issue is making footwear dynamic; shoes should follow the foot, not the other way around.

Of course, Mike’s philosophy and design skills are only half of the equation – the other half is the workshop he happened across one day, where Soft Star has loyally dedicated itself to minimal construction and natural foot function from the time Mike was running laps at the U of O. The skill sets of the designer and the manufacturer complement each other perfectly, and the resulting product is something that’s both truly innovative and highly functional.

An executive summary of the Moc3 would describe it as footwear made of neoprene, leather, and a thin rubber outsole; however, it’s also one of those products that’s hard to place in a single category. Since it’s made by Soft Star, my initial tendency was to call it a moccasin, although it looks and feels more like a bedroom slipper. The website calls it a shoe, and it’s durable enough to handle almost any outdoor activity you can imagine, but when it’s on your foot it seems like you’re wearing little more than a pair of thick socks. And of course, there’s more to its construction than meets the eye.

Perforated leather upper with breathe-o-prene lining

Like my favorite RunAmoc Lites, the Moc3 uses perforated leather on the majority of the upper – but the major distinction in these uppers is what’s underneath. The entire sockliner is composed of a 4-way stretch material called breathe-o-prene that is used in athletic gear like shoe insoles and injury prevention braces. Breathe-o-prene pulls moisture away from the skin to help keep your foot dry, and has an open cell construction that ventilates the foot very effectively. However, it still forms a solid enough barrier layer to keep most dust and grit from reaching your toes through the perforated leather.

More breathe-o-prene at ankle opening for stretch entry

When I first learned that a neoprene-like material would be used for these, my immediate concern was whether the Moc3 would begin to stink after a while. Soft Star advertises this model as odor-resistant, and I have to say that thus far I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well they resist stench. I might change my mind in another hundred miles or so – the most I have on a single pair so far is about 70 – but for the time being they certainly have better odor control than most of my other minimalist options, including my trusty RunAmocs.

2mm Vibram street outsole welded to T-Rex fabric

The most distinctive aspect of the Moc3 is the outsole, which evolved from a “podded” look to a single piece of Vibram 2mm rubber shaped to coincide with natural ground contact areas. There’s no last to this shoe whatsoever, so the entire bottom surface can contour to your foot. The outsole is welded onto a very thin, completely flexible layer of T-Rex material that Soft Star uses on the bottom of its grippy Roo slippers. Thanks to its outstanding flexibility, the Moc3 accomplishes Mike Friton’s goal of dynamic footwear that moves with the foot in every position and in all directions; there’s no structural element of this shoe that prevents your foot from moving 100% naturally.

In my preview post I mentioned that ground feel with the Moc3 is better than anything I’ve ever worn – in fact, it’s so pure that I actually shy away from using them sometimes. If I’m doing a run on super-rocky or jagged terrain, I have to slow down a lot more in the Moc3 than I do with my 5mm-trail-outsoled RunAmocs. I wore the Moc3 for one 50K trail run, and my feet got beat up a lot worse than they typically do in FiveFingers or RunAmocs. The product webpage says they’re suitable for dirt and moderate trails, and that “tough-footed” barefooters can use them on technical trails. So perhaps I just need to toughen up – but I’d still classify the Moc3 as a street, fire road, and groomed or moderately technical trail model.

Outsoles after about 70 miles

The net result of combining a soft foot-hugging upper, a completely thin and flexible outsole, and less than 5oz of weight per shoe is this: it feels like you’re not wearing a shoe at all. Part of the reason I’m somewhat confused about calling the Moc3 a shoe, slipper, moc, or sock is that it doesn’t really fit any of those things; it really just feels like an extension of your foot with some minor reinforcement.

Early in the testing process, I realized that this was one of the most comfortable pieces of footwear I own, even rivaling my beloved Roo slippers. I was so pleased with their comfort that on more than one occasion, when I had to return a prototype to Soft Star for inspection, I included a note asking if I could have them back afterward – even the early models that were falling apart in places. I now have two pairs of Moc3s that I use in heavy rotation: a dedicated running pair that gets muddy and sweaty, and a secondary pair that I use for lounging around the house or wearing casually.

Reflective striping on the heel

Despite my infatuation with them, there are a few noteworthy disclaimers about the Moc3 to point out, especially for returning Soft Star customers who are used to a “have it your way” ordering process. Things are slightly different with this model in the following ways:

*  As of its initial release, there isn’t a smooth leather option for the Moc3, and you can’t customize your colors and materials like you can with other models.

*  Because of the thinness and flexibility of the undersurface, the 5mm trail outsole isn’t available on the Moc3. I tested a prototype with the trail outsole, and the overall feel was fairly awkward, with my foot sliding off the edge of the outsole quite a bit. This is something else that may be revisited at some point, but for the time being, only thin is in.

No laces, straps, or other means of adjustment

*  Like other Soft Star models, the Moc3 is only available in whole sizes, but since there’s no lacing system or any other way to adjust the tension around the ankle or through the midfoot, if you’re between sizes on these, you may have a difficult fit. Sizing up might give you a looser fit through the midfoot, and sizing down might cause your toes to touch the front seam.

If you’re OK with those caveats, the Moc3 is really an extraordinary shoe (or moc, or slipper, or whatever you want to call it) that is unlike practically anything else in modern minimalist footwear. It retails for $94 from the Soft Star website.

Related reviews:

Soft Star Original RunAmoc

Soft Star RunAmoc Dash

Soft Star Roo slippers

*Product provided by Soft Star Shoes
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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The BIG E 6/28/11, 6:36 AM  

I have been waiting for you review.
Off to buy a pair. Thanks!

Richard Averett 6/28/11, 9:36 PM  

When my Treks are ready to retire, I'll try the Moc3's. Thanks for the review.

The BIG E 7/3/11, 3:57 AM  

might be the holly grail. the shoes continued to conform to my foot with every mile. best transition to and from barefoot, FAST! I did develop 2 hot spots which will be eliminated with body glide. hope they continue to feel good in the days to come.

EricaC,  9/9/11, 5:45 PM  

one other caveat being no wide widths, unfortunately for me...

Anonymous,  5/12/12, 9:58 PM  

Could you speculate as to how many miles these shoes might last?

Donald 5/14/12, 9:22 PM  

@Anon: it depends on the type of use and terrain. I'd estimate a few hundred miles of road running at least.

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