Update July 2012: The original Aquas have been discontinued. Don't dismay: Vivo Barefoot redesigned and improved the original Aqua in a re-release called the Aqua Lite that hit the market in 2012. I've reviewed those, too (as of July 2012) — here.
The market for "barefoot shoes" is small. It's in this context that it doesn't take long to discover the main minimalist footwear options and manufacturers. You've got Vibram Five Fingers, but you've also got companies like FeelMax or perhaps you're hearing more about Soft Star Shoes. One of the major players in the barefoot alternative shoes industry is, of course, Terra Plana, manufacturers of the Vivo Barefoot line.
Vivo Barefoot Origins
Vivo Barefoots got their start circa 2000 / 2001 when two childhood friends, Tim Brennan and Galahad Clark, endeavored to create a shoe that fostered the benefits of being barefoot. Brennan and Clark created a prototype shoe around 2004, which eventually led to the first Vivo Barefoot, one with a zip on/off sole. The zippered sole concept didn't quite work, apparently, so Vivos quickly went "zipless."* It wasn't long before Vivo expanded the line in 2005 to include the Dharma and Aqua, two styles that continue to be popular today.
It's been almost ten years since the beginnings of Vivo Barefoot shoes. Today, there is a full line-up of men's and women's shoes, and Vivo Barefoot will soon be releasing a running specific barefoot shoe called the Vivo Barefoot Evo.
I got in touch with Terra Plana back in November wanting to get my feet into a pair of their Vivo Barefoots to test for the Five Fingers fan community here. They kindly obliged and sent me my first pair of blue suede shoes— Vivo Barefoot Aquas. My review of the Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aquas will cover the design and performance, barefoot feel, aesthetic/style, sizing, and price. Let's go!
A front view of the Vivo Barefoot Aquas, you can quickly get a sense that these are well constructed, downright stylish shoes — that look normal despite being built barefoot-ish.
Design and Performance of the Aqua — that barefoot feel
The Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aquas, which I'll refer to as just "Aquas," have a thin, neutral sole (meaning they lack an elevated heel) that is composed of TPU rubber, "puncture resistant" Duratex, and a removable insole. My calipers put the thickness of the sole at the heel at 5mm. Note this measurement is taken having removed the Aqua's insole. I originally tried the Aquas with the insole in place, but preferred the closer-to-barefoot feel of having it removed. If you leave it in, the insole adds another 3mm or so of thickness and cushioning (Here's a photo of the Vivo Barefoot Aqua having removed the insole, which sits to the right of the shoe).
In my testing, I found the Aqua to do a solid job of conveying ground textures to my foot. Pebbles, bumps, gradation, rugs, whatever. It's not as much feel as you get with the VFF Moc or Soft Star Grippy Roo moccasin, but the sole of the Aqua is sturdier than both and after three months shows no sign of wear. Regardless, the Aqua finds a balance betweeen the benefits of barefootedness while still being stylistically shoe-like (I'll get into this more below).
That the Aqua is a shoe means that it has a fairly robust structure above its minimal sole. This upper is comprised of leather (for durability and style) and mesh (to add flexibility and make the Aquas breathable). Though the mesh placement helps the Aqua to flex, overall, the structure makes the Aqua more rigid than what you'll find with VFFs. That said, it's still easy to bend with one hand:
Here I bend the Aqua to demonstrate its flexibility.
The lack of heel enabled a natural walking gait, typically landing midfoot (forefoot and heel striking at effectively the same time). I'd put the overall walking feel as similar to the Vibram Five Fingers KSO Trek, meaning that I'm less likely to walk with a forefoot gait as I might with Classic Five Fingers, but the heel isn't catching the ground unintentionally, as it would with your typical raised heel shoes which effectively force a natural gait into a pronounced heel strike.
The Vivo Barefoot Aquas have a stout, comfortably wide toe box within which my toes felt free to roam, not confined or cramped. This is a welcome feature compared to your run-of-the-mill, non-barefoot shoes. There are neutral, thin-soled shoes out there, but many of them have painfully narrow toe boxes. Not the Aqua:
A welcome feature of the Vivo Barefoot Aquas is a wide and open toe box. Compared to the typically narrow toe boxes you find on most shoes, this is a welcome feature of the Aqua.
One drawback to the simple, hexagon speckled sole of the Vivo Barefoot Aqua is that I found it a bit slippery on wet surfaces. This is a bit unfortunate as one of the most common times I found myself wearing the Aquas was when it was raining (and VFFs just wouldn't cut it).
The only other design issue I had with the Aquas is that the tongue of the Aqua is a stretchy, thick fabric that starts at the sole, goes up and over the instep, and then attaches on the other side of your foot back into the sole (photo).
The upside to this design is that it makes for a comfortable, naturally snug fit once your foot is inside the Aqua. It means you don't really have to tighten the laces of the Aqua much to make it feel attached to your foot. That said, I found it a bit more work than I'd have liked to put the Aquas on — humorous in that I can actually put on Five Finger KSOs faster than Aquas! And incidentally, just like the KSOs, I found the best way to get my foot seated into the Aqua was to push the heel down, stick my foot into the shoe, and then pull the heel of the Aqua up and around my heel.
Aesthetic and Style — How the Aquas look
The Vivo Barefoot Aquas — blue suede with red laces and a yellow stripe at the sole — simply look fantastic. I got many compliments on the Aquas from my wife and her girlfriends, as well as *most* of my guy friends. It's hard not to like the colored suede, the clearly well constructed quality of the Aqua, and the attention to detail. Sure, they're a bit eye-catching in blue, but not in a "Oh my, what are you wearing?!" sorta way as you come to expect with Vibram Five Fingers, but in a "Oh those are unusual -- and I like them!" sorta way.
I found myself able to sport the Aquas to dressy casual events with khaki or brown pants, but also kick back in them in jeans. Either way, they always attracted the right kind of attention. Major points on this front.
The Vivo Barefoot sizing can be a bit intimidating to some as the shoes size in European sizes. The reality is that Vivo Barefoot suggests you go a full size up. I'm a 10 1/2 shoe size last time I checked, and Vivo Barefoots run in whole sizes. So that put me between a 10 / 43 and a 11 / 44. I got the 44s and they are perfect for me. For what it's worth, I'm in between on VFFs, too — 43 in Classics, but also 43 in KSOs and my feet are both 10.875" long (People ask these things!).
Compared to the Five Fingers sizing gymnastics you might be used to, simply "sizing up" with Vivo Barefoots is a barefoot walk in the park.
At a retail price of $150, the Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aquas can be a tough pill to swallow for many would-be buyers — that is a chunk of change. Having said that, astute shoppers often find good sales, and I've heard of some folks finding extraordinary deals on Vivo Barefoots. If you're interested in taking the plunge on a pair of Aquas, you can buy them up directly from VivoBarefoot here.
Here are a few more photos, a couple close-up shots to show quality (Note the double-stitching, for example), and a look at accompanying literature on the Aquas from Vivo Barefoot:
Overall thoughts on the Vivo Barefoot Aqua
Let's face it, as much as you may want to be barefoot or in your favorite five toed footwear all the time, there will inevitably come times when you've got to put on regular shoes. Thankfully, with the Aquas, the sacrifice you make wearing "real shoes" is almost welcome: you can simultaneously free your feet and impress friends with a bit of style. It's nice to go out in public and have my wife not cringing about my VFFs! You can't go wrong.
Also, though I didn't do run in the Aquas, I did burst into the occasional short run in them. They felt great — no binding of my toes and a welcome barefoot-ish, natural running feel.
If you want to pick up a pair of Vivo Barefoot Aquas, the bad news is that they have been discontinued. The good news is that Vivo Barefoot redesigned (and improved!) the Aqua in a re-release called the Aqua Lite. I've reviewed those, too (as of July 2012) — here.
As always, if you have any questions or want me to answer specific questions, I encourage you to comment below!
* If anyone can find a working model of these original Vivos, I'd love to see some photos!