Right alongside huaraches, one of the most long-lived (as in, millennia!) minimalist footwear designs is the moccasin. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Wikipedia entry for moccasin reads as though it was written by a minimalist footwear enthusiast. Check it out:
A moccasin is a slipper made of deerskin or other soft leather, consisting of a sole and sides made of one piece of leather, stitched together at the top, and sometimes with a vamp (additional panel of leather). Though sometimes worn inside, it is chiefly intended for outdoor use, as in exploring wildernesses and running. . . .
Moccasins protect the foot while allowing the wearer to feel the ground. The Plains Indians wore hard-sole moccasins, given that their territorial geography featured rock and cacti. The eastern Indian tribes wore soft-sole moccasins, for walking in leaf-covered forest ground.
Meant for running, allowing the wearer to feel the ground, but providing some protection to the foot? What a crazy concept!
Soft Star Shoes, based out of Oregon, has built their brand on a modernized moccasin design. I was first introduced to Soft Star via the Soft Star Grippy Roo. The Grippy Roo moc is crazy comfortable. Just how comfortable? Let me put it this way: of all the minimalist/barefoot shoe options sitting in my closet, I still find myself wearing my Grippy Roos on a regular basis! With a soft suede upper, a structure-less overall build, and ultra-barefoot soles lined with sheepskin on the insides, how could you go wrong?
So enthused with my Grippy Roos some three years and countless shoes later, I wanted to test out more of the Soft Star (casual*) line-up. Moreover, I wanted to tackle two of their longest-lived designs — the original Soft Star Roo (no "Grippy" bonded rubber) and the Vibram-soled Soft Star Rambler. Why these two in comparison? Simple: I wanted to figure something out. Would a suede, soft-soled shoe as with the Roo, hold up to daily wear and tear? Meanwhile, what benefits, if any, come with a thicker, Vibram sole, as with the Rambler? My hunch was that the thin-soled Roos would prove durable for wear both indoors and outdoors; and in comparison, while the Ramblers would assure more protection, their thick soles would be (mostly) unnecessary.
What did I find out? Want to know more about these moccasins? Onward!
You can jump around this post (as it's fairly detailed!) to the individual reviews and big takeaways below. Note there's a coupon code toward the end!
Soft Star Shoes Roo Ove(R)eview
Like the majority of Soft Star's shoe designs, the Soft Star Roo (MSRP $65) is constructed of three "sections:" the vamp, which runs around the front and top of the shoe, the sole (self-explanatory), and the heel enclosure, which wraps the rear of the moc and utilizes elastic around the rim. The elastic then attaches to the top part of the vamp (behind the Soft Star logo of the Roo). If you have kids, the whole design is reminiscent of toddler moccasins like Robeez or Bobucks. The Soft Star moc design is quite toe-splay/forefoot friendly with a wide toe box.
In the case of the Soft Star Roo, the outsole, if you can call it that, is comprised of suede leather facing the elements (exposed to whatever surface you walk on) and sheepskin, which is enjoyed by your bare feet. As you can see in the above collage, top right, the whole shoe can be rolled up with zero effort. The whole shebang is flimsy in any direction. Check it out:
As you can guess, the Soft Star Roo's suede "outsole" and sheepskin "insole" transmit a huge amount of ground feel. Indeed, of all the minimalist/barefoot shoes I've tested, none compare to the ground feel of the Soft Star Roo. I was noticing the other day as I walked on grass outside my house that I was feeling acorns beneath the grass that I couldn't see. Meanwhile, surfaces are bathed in a soft sheepskin thanks to the insole. It's like you get all this texture from the earth while still having a nice soft layer of goodness on top. Mind that sheepskin does not provide cushioning; I clutzed onto a laptop electrical plug last night while putting up Christmas tree lights and it hurt badly!
Also, I've gotten in a couple workouts in with the Soft Star Roos including some squats and dead lifts and once again, the Soft Star Roos performed amazingly: barefoot-to-ground power with a sensational sheepskin feel. The only drawback to workouts in Soft Star Roos is that leather can be a bit warm; otherwise, these things are great in the gym for weight-lifting.
As for warmth, the Soft Star Roos are still comfortable in the mid-30s temperature range (worn without socks) — not warm at this temperature, but comfortable enough. With socks, I'd say you could take them into the 20s so long as you aren't standing still on concrete for too long.
As for water resistance, well, these things aren't meant for water (Soft Star notes these are indoor/dry outdoor and I agree!). While the leather of the Soft Star Roos provides some resistance to water, it's not much. Meanwhile, the suede soles will soak up any moisture you walk on and retain that wetness for quite a bit and can then provide a bit too much traction on smooth surfaces (it feels weird). Keep'em dry (though they can be washed in the washing machine)!
While you could run in the Soft Star Roos, particularly if you're a pro at minimizing friction while running, your feet are going to get hot pretty quickly and if you're not perfect in your form, you likely will wear through the soles fairly quickly (my estimation). I don't really see the Soft Star Roos as running shoes.
Back when I first tried Soft Star Shoes via the Grippy Roo, I confess to being a bit taken back by the looks of them — particularly when worn with anything exposing my ankles. While that may sound very 17th century ladylike of me, what I mean is that the elastic enclosed leather shoes just looked a bit funny when exposed. Meanwhile, I still found myself gravitating towards the Grippy Roo for everyday wear — to work — so long as I paired them with pants or jeans. See, pants mask the elastic upper enclosure of the Roo (which is the same overall design and aesthetic as the Grippy Roo) and make them passable as a pair of suede shoes or clogs — sorta like Birkenstock Boston clogs**. Don't believe me? On a handful of occasions while wearing the Soft Star Roos (Or Grippys), unknowing coworkers have remarked, "Hey you're wearing normal shoes today!" at which time I've lifted my pant leg and blown their minds. Soft Stars do that sometimes. Of course, then they get a bit incredulous at their approximation that I'm actually wearing slippers to work. It's a fine line between a slipper and a shoe — honestly, I don't know you can really say what that line is!
Seriously though, it is very easy to dismiss the Soft Star Shoes because of their elvish aesthetic. Don't. For one, if you're wearing them around the house, who really cares what they look like? Two, if you're wearing them out with jeans or pants, 99% of folks will have zero clue you are an elf in disguise! Meanwhile, you'll have the most comfortable feet you can imagine.
Wear and Tear
But how do those thin leather soles wear, you ask? Well, I have been wearing my Soft Star Roos for everyday occasions (sans inclimate weather when avoidable/predictable) for over two months. Over that time, I've logged about 20 miles in them walking on a treadmill (walking desk!) and worn them at least a couple days a week during weekdays. On weekends, I've worn them out perusing various retail outlets, running errands, doing grocery shopping, and chasing a hyper-active two year old girl. What has all this wear and tear done to these soft-soled shoes? Have I worn holes in that uber-thin leather?
Well, you be the judge. Here are a couple before and after photos:
Here's a close-up. Note the foot-shaped wear pattern! And by "wear," what you actually see is mostly just a polished sheen on the suede. The most polished parts, which I'm sure have worn some (though it can't be much and doesn't feel like anything is missing) are at forefoot and heel. Meanwhile, you can look at this before and after of the insides to see effect on the sheepskin. The sheepskin really doesn't wear much in my experience: sure you get a few fuzzies bunching up from time to time, but there was no significant wear to the insides in my two month test and my original 2.5 year old Grippy Roos still have all their sheepskin intact.
In short, Soft Star Roos are surprisingly durable despite being minimally soled with suede. What's going on here? Well, when you think about it, it makes complete sense: the paramount ground feel you get with the Soft Star shoes results in a softer step, less friction on the ground, and a more natural gait. Just as when you walk barefoot you aren't likely to wear through the pads of your feet (mind they are self-repairing!), something similar extends to the Soft Star Roo. Less sole means greater foot awareness and sensation. Greater sensation and less heft in your shoe means that your soles stay intact longer. It's really that simple. Less is more^.
All Soft Star Roo Photos
Soft Star Shoes Rambler Ove(R)eview
The Soft Star Rambler (MSRP $75) employs the same overall structure as the Roo: three sections including the ankle enclosure, front vamp piece, and sole. The primary differences between the Roo and Rambler are (1) the Rambler utilizes a smooth leather rather than suede like the Roo, (2) the Rambler has a "hard" Vibram rubber outermost sole rather than a soft suede leather sole, and (3) the sole of the Rambler has an outer seam structure (the seams are exposed on the outside rim of the shoe) whereas the Roo's seams go sight unseen (you can actually feel the Roo seams on your foot from within the shoe).
I'd say the Ramblers are otherwise the same, but the above simple changes make for vastly different shoes — functionally and aesthetically.
As noted above, the Rambler uses smooth leather for it's upper material. The smooth leather has a bit more structure to it, meaning that it's not quite as flimsy as suede. Soft Star notes that the Rambler is somewhat waterproof; while I can't fully contest that claim as I've not done any puddle stomping in the Ramblers, I'd say that the smooth leather should be more resistant to soaking up water through the upper; meanwhile, the rubber Vibram soles won't soak up water like the Roo's suede soles (more on the soles of the Rambler below). However, the overall three part design of the Rambler (or Roo) leaves a gaping entryway on either side of the shoe whereby water can get in very easily, so bear that in mind.
The Vibram rubber sole is minimal by default, providing a bit of protection from the elements and a neutral platform for your foot. Relative to the Roo the thick Vibram rubber soles on the Rambler lend a substantial amount of structure to the moccasin. The rubber soles also provide a good bit of weight to the bottom of the mocs, so when you lift your foot off the ground, the Rambler feels more "apart" from your foot, meaning that it's more noticeable that there's a shoe and there's your foot, and the two aren't the same.
Like the Roo, the Rambler also has a sheepskin liner on the inside.
A note on the outer seam stitching on the Roo: in addition to extending the length of Rambler by the material at the front, sides, and rear of the shoe beyond the stitching, it sharpens the angle of approach of the upper to the sole. Subtle changes to the Roo, but big differences (Why? More on this in a second).
Barefoot Feel and Function
Now for a brief Vibram rubber sidebar/digression ...
There are a slew of Vibram-soled minimalist shoes: and I'm not talking about FiveFingers! The original Invisible Shoe (huaraches) used Vibram soles as do Luna Sandals, of look at the Russell Moccasins, the New Balance Minimus line-up, or the Merrell Barefoots. What is it about Vibram rubber that makes a great minimalist shoe?
Perhaps it's that Vibram rubber is fairly dense stuff — it's not foamy and not squishy, so by default, it's not going to completely mute ground feedback. While this is true, what's really going on here (I think) is that Vibram just a sole manufacturer first and foremost, and still sells soling materials to cobblers around the world. Since many minimalist shoes out there are made in smaller batches, built from the ground up with stock materials (mocs and huaraches), it's just a happy coincidence that Vibram is the "sole" of choice for minimalist footwear.
What about the Rambler's Vibram rubber sole — how's it function and feel? While massively thicker than the suede sole of the Roo, the rubber-soled Rambler still provides a lot of ground feedback: I'd peg it as less "barefoot" than your most thick-soled FiveFingers (the KSO Trek but more barefoot than your $5 pair of Wal-mart flip-flops.
The problem with having a Vibram rubber sole on a pair of moccasins is that (at least with the Rambler) Mocs have a loose-fitting design to accommodate your foot comfortably. That means your foot can move about a bit within the shoes. This works well except for the fact that the heft of the rubber soles detracts from the ability to forget you're wearing the shoes. It causes the soles to hang below the foot when taking steps or to slop around (you can shake the soles below your feet were you to lift your foot off the ground).
More sole almost always means a less dynamic shoe (relative to the dynamic nature of your foot): protection comes at a price!
The main drivers of the Rambler aesthetic are the outer seam stitching on the sole and the smooth leather upper. I've a feeling most will either like these features or find them a bit less attractive.
As for me, I fell on the "less attractive" side of things with the Rambler. Mrs. BirthdayShoes was immediately reminded of the types of orthopedic shoes someone in their 80s might wear. I'm inclined to agree. You might dig the smooth leather sheen or the exposed stitching; I just can't quite marry the look to any other shoes (like I can with the Roos).
All Rambler Photos and Overall Take
If you like the look of the Rambler and want a bit more sole and a bit more protection for your foot, then you might consider picking up the Rambler. They're foot friendly shoes and even though the sole is much stiffer with the Vibram rubber, they still have the sheepskin liner on the insides, which feels nice and soft.
Soft Star Roo vs. Rambler
Where do I fall on Roo vs. Rambler? I'm guessing it's pretty obvious: I side with the Soft Star Roo. The thing is: it's the lack of sole that makes them so fantastic:
- The soft sole of the Roo is lightweight and ultra-flexible meaning that it wraps around your foot and moves dynamically with your foot. Comparatively, the Rambler's Vibram rubber sole, while minimal, flat, and not providing cushion, adds weight and stiffens up the soft sheepskin liner, reducing barefoot feel for the ground and increasing the awareness of your foot that it's wearing a shoe
- The Roo's suede upper blends better aesthetically with jeans or pants. Aesthetics are an important consideration if you plan on wearing your Soft Stars outside your house (and if you're staying indoors, it's really no question at all — you don't need thick rubber soles on house shoes!), and the Roo just wears better looks-wise than the Rambler.
The biggest concern with the Roo is also sole-related — that they'll wear out too quick. This ultimately has to do with how hard you are on shoes, but also is somewhat offset as a problem by the fact that a softer, lighter, more ground-feeling sole is going to encourage lighter steps. If you're dragging your feet in your shoes, you're either walking wrong or your shoes are negatively impacting your biomechanics.
As for sizing, Soft Stars size roomy generally. I'm a size 10.5 and wear an 11 in the Roos and Ramblers. This sizing feels a bit "large" at first but for me, quickly feels "just right."
Coupon code! If you want a pair of Soft Star Roos, through December 28th you can pick them up at 10% off using the coupon code FESTIVE FEET, so that makes them a bit under $60 (vs. $65). Go to Soft Star Shoes and order by Dec. 14 to ensure Christmas delivery!
Did I miss anything? Anyone have Soft Star Roos or Ramblers and care to weigh in with their own assessment? Sound off in the comments below!
About Soft Star Shoes
Soft Star Shoes is a company based in Oregon that handmakes modern moccasins for adults and children. It's run by "elves," so called because so many of their moc-styled shoes are evocative of elvish inhabitants of the forest. These elves are a friendly bunch I've gotten to know over the past two years or so.
* Soft Star Shoes has a more recent running shoes like the RunAmoc and RunAmoc Dash
** Incidentally, the Boston from Birkenstock was my go-to shoe for wear with jeans and pants for about a decade.
^ I think the same could be said about Vibram FiveFingers' durability: it's more about the lack of sole that makes them so durable; less about the Vibram rubber compound. The faster you wear through your Vibrams, the more likely you're walking/running with friction. It's not to say that any of these soles will last forever for those with perfect form, it's just a spectrum.