Robert Barr is a professional photographer and blogger here on BirthdayShoes.com. He's based out of Washington and is slowly, if unintentionally, collecting enough minimalist shoes to start a museum. What follows is an interview with Robert so that BirthdayShoes readers can get to know the writers who help keep this site running!
Why did you switch to minimalist shoes?
My path to minimalist shoes was a long one. For years, I wore the same type of dress loafer. You will see a picture of it below. They were almost always leather, heavy, black, and had a significant heel to toe differential. I have had chronic back pain for quite a long time. It stems from several accidents I had throughout the years. It can complicate things at times. For instance, I can't stand in one place for more than five minutes without needing to sit down. In order to reduce the pain, I would have to pace back and forth or sit down. I spent years trying different types of shoes hoping they might relieve my pain. I tried Sketcher's Shape Ups, Z-Coil, Orthotic Insoles, and many different solutions. Nothing I tried made it better. A hand full of the things I tried made it worse. Long story short I went many years without any real relief. I always ended up going back to my big dress loafers.
I had seen these things called FiveFingers online, and they really appealed to me. I spent a lot of time trying to avoid wearing shoes. Mostly because shoes tend to increase my pain. I really thought they would be cool to try out. I did not want to order any online without first getting sized. I was not really aware of the fact that you could buy them at a retail store. I did some searching online and went to born to run in Bellevue. They did a fantastic job of sizing me into my first pair of FiveFingers. They were a pair of Bikila LS in green/grey.
The instant I walked out of the store with them on my feet, I knew I had found something I liked. I found they helped reduce my back pain while standing. It was no miracle cure, but I did notice an improvement in my ability to stand in one place for extended periods of time. I am now able to stand in one place for around 30 minutes before I would I start feeling back pain agin.
What is the most important aspect of minimalist footwear for you?
After studying what it was about FiveFingers that helped me so much. I realised it is because of the heel to toe differential. More than anything else a shoe needs to have a zero drop differential. Any drop over 4mm from heel to toe will cause me extreme back pain. A close second is a wide toe box. If I can't splay my toes, I tend to feel confined and uncomfortable.
How many pairs of FiveFingers do you have? What other minimalist shoes do you have?
Currently I have over 45 pair of FiveFingers. I own at least one of every male model they have produced except the Surge. My collection seems to grow regularly. I tend to look for sales and deals online from authorized retailers. There are also some local retailers I like to visit from time to time. I am always on the lookout for rare colorways and styles. If the readers ever come across any unique or rare colorways in a size M43 don't hesitate to send me a message.
I also have a few pairs of Vivobarefoot, Otz, SoftStar Shoes, Stems (Now Leming), Sockwa, Zem Gear, Kigo, Padraig Cottage Slippers, Altra, New Balance Minimus, and Fila Skeletoes. I am working on writing reviews for all of them.
What's your current go-to shoe?
That would be the Vibram FiveFingers Bormio. It is my all time favorite shoe. If you are wearing pants, you can hardly tell it is a boot. They look very professional. They are also incredibly comfortable. The more I wear them the softer and more supple the leather gets. Currently they are the most water resistant pair of Vibram's I have. That might be different when the new fall models come out. I like the Bormio so much that I have several extra replacement pairs. Unfortunately, the Bormio has been discontinued in America.
What is one activity enjoy doing that has nothing to do with FiveFingers?
I love nature photography. During the summer months in the Pacific Northwest, I like to go for photographic road trips. I have a variety of different cameras I can use. If you like, you can see some of my work here.
Show us a picture of the shoe you wore before you transitioned to minimalist shoes?
I bought these shoes off amazon. They were originally $120 marked down to $19.99. This pair lasted me about three years. As you can tell, they are kind of falling apart now. The sole is starting to delaminate from the rest of the shoe. As you can see, it has a significant heel to toe differential.
As you can tell before I switched to minimalist shoes, I did not particularly care about the types of shoes I wore. I had a tendency to wear shoes down to almost nothing before I was willing to buy myself another pair. The thing I liked the most about these shoes is that you could take them off very easily.
All of that has changed since I made the switch to minimalist shoes. I take pride in my shoes and make sure to give them the proper care and maintenance the need. I make sure to keep the leather shoes from getting dry by applying leather care product. I also make sure to wash all my minimalist footwear regularly to keep them looking as new as possible. I find putting in the extra effort to care for your shoes really prolongs the life of the shoes and your investment in your footwear.
How long did it take you to transition to minimalist shoes?
I did not exactly follow the rules when I transitioned. I have only worn my previous shoes once since I bought my first pair of VFF. I transitioned almost instantly. I experienced some muscle soreness along my right pinky toe as my foot was building up it's strength. I would equate it to the soreness you feel after a good work out. It faded after a week or two. Since then I have not had any problems.
I do not recommend most people transition this quickly. I did not realize it at the time but I had already spent allot of time training my feet to wear FiveFingers by walking around barefoot as much as I could. It made the transition easier for me. Listen to your body and don't do too much too soon (a.k.a. "TMTS"). If you start to feel any pain or discomfort while wearing your minimalist shoes then take them off and slow down the frequency that you wear them. The transition could take some poeple 6 months to a year depending on how much they need to build up the muscles in their feet.
How many people have you converted to minimalist shoes?
I got a few of my family members interested. They have not fully converted, but they do wear FiveFingers from time to time. They seem to enjoy VFFs when they do wear them. There are other people in my family though that don't seem to like them much. They would prefer to have something more traditional with a little more padding in the sole.
I did have a recent victory in getting my partner to transition to minimiliast shoes. I had tried many different minimalist shoes and nothing seemed to work for him. Finally I got him a a pair of New Balance Minimus Life/Weleness Zero shoes. He actually seems to be enjoying them and has not worn his regular old ASICS shoes since.
Do you prefer Socks or No Socks?
I always wear socks. It is a deeply ingrained habit I have developed. Even among various VFF styles the insides can feel different on the bare skin. Toe socks help make everything feel similar no matter what type of shoe I wear. Instead of feeling all of the shoe's stitches, I just feel the sock. It helps equalize everything for me. My favorite pair of socks are made by ToeToe called Terry Walker.
If you could only wear one style of shoe for the rest of your life what would it be? (Not just the brand but the model as well.)
Well I would of course pick a pair of FiveFingers. It would be a close battle between the Sorrento and the Bormio. I tend to like the casual styles more than the athletic styles. The Bormio does much better in wet environments than the Sorrento. Since I live in Seattle, I would probably pick the Bormio. I have yet to see or try a Lontra. It might make me change my mind. I am really looking forward to the water-resistant seams.
How did you get over the attention of wearing unconventional footwear in public spaces?
It never bothered me. I tried wearing the Z-Coil in public. I figured if I could wear those I could wear FiveFingers. I have never had any issues with people making negative comments. Most people seem interested. They usually end up asking me where to buy them. No one has pointed and laughed at me yet ... at least I would know it is probably because of my shoes if they were.
If you could design you ideal shoe what would it be?
It would be a toe shoe. I like the feeling of a toe shoe over a single toe box. I would combine the Bormio, Lontra, and Spyridon. I would use the water-resistant properties of the Lontra, combine it with the upper of the Bormio, and the sole of the Spyridon.
Did you like to be barefoot as a kid?
I was barefoot all the time as a kid. I used to run around the yard without shoes most of the time. I grew up in Texas. During the summer, I used to walk on the burning hot road without shoes. I was already used to walking around barefoot for years before I went minimalist. It was a habit I continued into adulthood. I think that is partly why I enjoy FiveFingers so much. I think it also helped me transition to wearing FiveFingers quickly with few issues.
What's on your wish list?
I am looking forward to the FiveFingers that are coming out this Fall. I want a pair of the aforementioned Lontra and the Speed XC. I am very excited about the water-resistant properties of these new styles. It will be a welcomed edition to my collection that should serve me well in the damp Seattle Winter months.
I am also looking forward to all the new types of minimalist shoes that are coming to the market this year and in the future.
Really, I wish Vibram would create more casual and dress style FiveFingers. Personally, the casual style FiveFingers fit my lifestyle more then the athletic and fitness oriented ones. I love wearing toe shoes because they are minimalist and comfortable. I also think Vibram might be able to achieve more mainstream success if they offered more casual and dress options for the everyday consumer. About the most athletic thing I do every week is my marathon session of standing in line at Costco during the weekend rush. I think the majority of Americans are like me. They don't necessarily need a shoe to run in or to go the gym. They just want a comfortable shoe that helps us make it through the day with out adding any pain or stress to our already hectic lives.
What perspective do you bring to your reviews at BirthdayShoes?
When it comes to buying a product I like to find the best option available that suits my desired needs. I often do an extreme amount of research on a product before I will purchase it. This means I am usually reading a lot of online reviews through various websites. I like that the internet has created these communities where people can get together and discuss topics they are knowledgeable and passionate about. My search for the perfect shoe has given me the opportunity to try out many different shoes. I love to critique products—maybe it is my art school background. I find myself basically critiquing every product I purchase. I also have OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) I find that it makes me very critical of the products I buy. I seem to have this need to pick apart what works in a product, what does not work, and what can be improved. Although perfection can never be achieved. I feel like we can always strive to achieve something as close to perfection as possible. I always feel like there is room for improvement in our lives and I guess the same goes for our shoes.
I feel like my specialty is casual wear. I tend to be less active than other minimalist enthusiasts I know. My desire to go minimalist came out of a necessity to relieve pain. When I set out to review a pair of shoes I try to be as unbiased as possible. If I had any pre-concieved notions about the shoe I will do my best to try and dismiss them before I start testing the product out. I first examine the shoe in terms of how comfortable it is for me. I see if the shoe fulfills all of my requirements for comfort and minimalism. After I assess how I feel about the shoe, I move on to trying to figure out who the target audience for this shoe would be. I try and frame the shoe's positives and negatives for that target audience. Just because I don't like the shoe does not mean it might not be loved by another individual. Each person approaches minimalist shoes with a different sets of goals and expectations. Lastly I try and figure out how the general public will react to the shoe I am reviewing. I try and combine all three of those perspectives in my reviews so that I can achieve a critical, unbiased, and informational review that hopefully provides some useful information about the product to our readers.
Any Parting Advice?
Have someone you know make a tracing of your foot. I learned allot about my the shape of my foot by doing this. It helped me realize why I prefer certain types of shoes over others. If you want to know how to do a proper tracing check out this video.
Thanks, Robert, for all you do to make BirthdayShoes a success!
If you want to catch up with what Robert has been penning for the site, see a full list of his articles and reviews here.