A couple months back Birthday Shoes sponsor Travel Country sent me a pair of Vibram FiveFingers Smartwool Classics to test and review. As I've previously blogged, Classic FiveFingers are my favorite everyday toe shoes as they are the most minimal VFFs you can get, and if you remove the bungee strap on the Classic Vibrams the comfort factor goes up exponentially. Indeed, my first pair of Five Fingers (oh so many moons ago!) were generation one Classics (no Vibram logo on top), and my review of them has been read over 233,000 times!
Below I'll talk about where Smartwool FiveFingers Classics stand amongst other models, how they fit, what the deal is with Smartwool, how they perform, detailed photos of what they look like,and whether or not "Smartwool Classics" are right for you.
Vibram Smartwool Classic FiveFingers are $85/pair, which is ten bucks more than your standard Classic VFFs They come in sizes for both men and women. Men's Smartwool FiveFingers are only available in the grey color you'll see photoed in this post. Women get the grey color, but also can get them in a champagne color.
Smartwool Classics are machine washable (hang out to dry) and like FiveFingers Sprints and standard Classics, Smartwool Classics have no midsole to speak of — it's just the standard Vibram sole and a wool liner (on the inside), so just like standard Sprints and Classics, Smartwool Classics provide maximal ground feel (KSOs, Bikilas, and Treks all have some additional "cushion" or "padding").
l Classics are open-topped and come with a bungee strap that loops the upper edge of the shoes that you can cinch behind the heel tab. The Smartwool version of Classics features a green-friendly Vibram rubber sole partially made of recycled rubber called EcoStep.
Classics are most commonly used for light running (and can be worn to run sprints), travel, walking, fitness (like weight lifting, but also some CrossFit if you're into that), and just casual, everyday wear.
What is Smartwool? How does it perform?
Smartwool is a type of high-tech wool made by a company owned by Timberland. From the wikipedia page on Smartwool:
The [SmartWool] company makes eponymous products primarily from treated merino wool. SmartWool claims that this proprietary treatment makes its products itch-free and resistant to shrinking. SmartWool is also claimed to have moisture-wicking performance and odor-reducing, anti-microbial properties; it is thus marketed primarily as performance apparel.
Technical specs aside, smartwool is basically a knit fabric that isn't itchy that lends a more sophisticated look to the Classic design. The Smartwool Classic upper is fairly stretchy. The wool liner on the inside of the Smartwool Classics has a great deal of texture that your feet will notice (particularly compared to the more boring [to your foot], yellow footbed liner on most VFFs). The primary drawbacks to the use of a knitted fabric like Smartwool is that it will pill a bit (a bit like you'd see with your standard merino wool sweater), the wool footbed sheds some over time, and there's the chance that the knit fabric snags on something and tears—this hasn't happened in the few months I've had them. The pilling is pretty manageable/minor in my opinion—it's just the price you pay for wool.
You might think wool Classics would be warm. Perhaps they are marginally warmer than standard Classics, but it's not much. Given the open-topped design of Smartwool Classics, they get plenty of air so in my testing, my feet never felt sweaty or hot in them. Speaking of sweaty feet, the smartwool seems to perform well at warding off the dreaded FiveFingers stink. I finally threw mine in the washing machine after a couple months of wear — more just to test the machine wash-ability than because they actually needed to be cleaned. They didn't shrink or pill or anything of note. Of course, hang VFFs out to dry — don't use the dryer!
Sizing and Fit — plus Breaking In Classic FiveFingers
If you're looking to buy Smartwool Classics online, pay attention here. I normally wear size 43 Classics, so when I got the Smartwool Classics, I got size 43. Here's the deal: Smartwool Classics seem to fit a bit more snugly than the same size in regular Classics. I managed to use my size 43 Smartwool Classics for a couple months even though they were a bit too small. Ultimately I got a pair of 44 Smartwool Classics, too, to see if they fit better: I find they fit more like what I'd expect a pair of regular 43 Classics to fit like. The difference isn't huge but it's definitely noticeable.
So why did I go two months with too small Classics? I wanted to make sure it wasn't a break-in thing. Yes, Vibram FiveFingers break-in. Break-in is hard to quantify. What is there to break-in with FiveFingers? Well a couple things, actually, and I think the Classic FiveFingers design definitely has a break-in period — one I'd estimate as being well underway after about 20 miles of wear in them. What breaks in on them? The primary point of break-in is at the heel and the secondary point of break-in is the !$@# bungee strap.
The heel break-in relates to the two strips of Vibram rubber that run at an angle from the top of the heel at the back to the sole sides on either side of the heel. These connectors put positive pressure on the back of the heel, which keeps the Classics on your feet. They are really what makes it possible to cut the bungee cord. If I had to guess, I'd say this rubber fatigues slightly over time, which helps reduce pressure on the back of the heel (where the heel tab is). Regarding the bungee cord, elastic tends to breakdown over time but doesn't loosen up quick enough to eliminate the discomfort it causes, which is why I'm a fan of cutting it out entirely. That said, to do this, you have to fit your Classics right in the first place.
Let met share a few thoughts on fitting Classic FiveFingers. It's my personal opinion that Classics are sized right when your longest toe is kissing the end of it's toe pocket and the heel cup is putting a bit of pressure on the rear of your heel. Fit this way, the bungee cord becomes almost unnecessary (except in very active situations). However, on initial wears, a snug fit like what I'm describing here is almost certainly going to cause someone to think they should go up in size, which can be a bad decision because too-loose, brand-new Classics will require use of the bungee strap (1) and are more likely to be loose at the rear/vertical part of the heel (2). This will cause irritation on the top front left of your foot (behind the big toe where the bungee strap will be tight) and at the heel near the Achilles tendon as the looseness will promote more on-and-off rubbing of the heel tab on your tendon.
If you dial in the Classics fit to be snug (but not tight!), they will be "just right," and you'll be free to cut the bungee cord (and void the warranty). Plus, you won't have an irritating pressure point on your front instep nor will you get a lot of rubbing on your Achilles tendon.
For the record, the length of my feet puts me squarely between a 43 and 44 Classic on the Vibram sizing chart. I side with 43 Classics, generally, but with Smartwool Classics, I've got to wear the 44s to be comfortable. In other words, no amount of breaking in on 43 Smartwool Classics will make them feel like 43 regular Classics — Smartwool Classics just run small.
Function and Aesthetic
Smartwool Classics function just like regular Classics, which is to say that they are good for many activities: awesome for travel, great for weight lifting (Heavy squats for the win!) and many fitness related endeavors, and fantastic for walking. They are everyday wear champions for their ease of entry (the sandal of the Vibram line) and overall comfort.
Aesthetically, I think the Smartwool Classics are by far the most fashionable Classics you can get. Many men are deterred by the look of Classics—this is a shame. Classics look pretty solid with shorts (Much much better than the ankle-socked look of KSOs with shorts). The knitted-wool upper of Smartwool Classics makes them easy to match with just about anything and using a natural fabric rather than a mixed-color synthetic fabric makes Smartwool Classics look less like a weird five-toed shoe you'd wear to the pool.
Below are some photos I took of me knocking about my neighborhood with my daughter whilst wearing Smartwool Classics:
Concluding thoughts — what to make of wooly Classic FiveFingers
I like my Vibram FiveFingers Smartwool Classics a great deal. My favorite aspect of them is their look — natural fabric just looks a lot more sophisticated than synthetic fabric (Black Trek Sports with their coconut fabric look much sharper than black KSOs and KSO Treks and Performas/Performa Janes look very sharp with their leather uppers).
The two drawbacks I can see to Smartwool Classics are the price — they cost the same as KSOs at $85; and the double-edged sword of having a knit fabric made of wool, which is fear of them snagging and ripping. But for casual, everyday wear, I think you'll find you can wear Smartwool Classics a lot as they're easy to pair with clothes and comfortable to wear for everyday activities. That means that even at their elevated price, you should get your moneys worth! Just make sure you get the right size, which may mean sizing up!
If you're looking to pick up Smartwool Classics, check out TravelCountry's selection for men and for women here. If you're wary of buying from an online retailer, read up on store reviews of Travel Country here. They offer free shipping over $70 (so these qualify), frequently ship the same you order (not guaranteed, but just sayin'), and offer a price match guarantee.
Finally, see below for more detailed photos of the Smartwool Classics! And if I left anything out of this review, comment below with your questions and I'd be happy to answer them!