Minimalist Sandals Like Huaraches, But Simpler to Put On (That Remind Me of Minimalist Chacos)
I recently learned of (another) new minimalist footwear company that is making a splash on the "barefoot shoes" (or sandals in this case!) scene: Unshoes Minimal Footwear. Founded by Terral Fox about a year ago, "Unshoes" take Vibram soles, climbing spec webbing (the nylon/spectra straps) and a huaraches-inspired strapping mechanism to make a sandal that is at once reminiscent of Chacos but incredibly lighter, less rigid, and more comfortable. Oh and you can run in them if you like. Just in time for the summer heat, I'm happy to strap into a new pair of custom-cut-soled Unshoes Wokova minimalist sandals.
Photos, thoughts on design, and review after the jump.
Unshoes Minimal Footwear Background
Before I dive into the details on the Unshoes Wokova, in the process of ordering my pair I got to emailing with the founder (Terral) about the origins of Unshoes. I was curious how he got into making and selling minimalist sandals. I want to share Terral's response below because I think it neatly sums up the background of Unshoes. Here's Terral on how he got into building Unshoes Minimal Footwear:
I am an avid outdoors enthusiast. I have always loved backpacking, hiking, kayaking, etc. I wore Chacos for years but I was so hard on them I found that I was going through a pair a year and for nearly $100/pair I started thinking I needed an alternative. As I searched for something better I was looking for something lighter and lower profile. That's when I stumbled upon VFFs. I was intrigued but I wanted sandals. I found huaraches and I loved the concept but I still wanted something different. Eventually I decided that since I couldn't find what I was looking for, I would make my own. After a lot of experimentation and prototypes I came up the the basic design that we still use for our Wokova sandals. My wife suggested selling them online and my first thought was that nobody would want to buy my homemade sandals but after some thought we decided to give it a go.
Terral's response resonates with me for a couple reasons. For one, up until FiveFingers became my all-around footwear of choice, sandals were my "go to" and I specifically liked Chacos (and also Birkenstocks). I just can't wear Chacos anymore. They feel insanely heavy on my feet—big rubber weights that hang heavily from my foot on every step and press uncomfortably on my arches. My aged and withering Birks aren't terrible but they're also not quite "right" — just like how flip-flops seem to affect my gait in an unnatural way. Huaraches actually work well but I have to confess (And huaraches deserve their own review, I know! It's on my to-do list!): I find huaraches tying to be cumbersome, inconvenient (even the slip-on method), inconsistent, and ultimately an aesthetic I just can't seem to pull off.
All said, I welcome Terral's entrepreneurial problem-solving with Unshoes as he's worked at solving a problem I've vocalized: I want a pair of minimal sandals that I'd actually like to wear on a regular basis (And before this review is over, I'll speak to comparison of Unshoes to the Teva Zilch, Luna Sandals [huaraches], and Invisible Shoe [huaraches]).
The Unshoes Wokova Design
If you're familiar with huaraches, you know that they require a thin sole cut to the shape of your foot (the Tarahumara simply use old tires), three punched holes in said sole (one between the two biggest toes like a flip-flop, one on either side of the ankle), and some strap/lacing material that starts with a knot on the bottom of the sole and runs through the each hole of the sandal and over and around your foot in order to tie the huaraches to your foot. The lacing on huaraches is perhaps more art than science and particular lacing styles depend on the wearer's preferences. So while huaraches are extremely minimalist, do-it-yourself sandals, they are also somewhat complicated and can be a pain to dial-in fit-wise. That said, the design is one of the most time-tested, foot friendly, most beautifully simplistic mean of adding "protection" to the soles of your feet. And since they are homegrown, the fit is always custom.
Unshoes sandals begin with the thin-rubber, three-holes-in-the-sole concept of huaraches. Then, the Unshoes Wokova uses climbing spec webbing in lieu of leather/rope laces. Finally, the Wokova employs a fixed solution on either side of the ankle (See this pic). From there, the big toe thong strap runs up over the top of the foot, through the ankle straps and around the Achilles tendon (pic), ending at a plastic ladder lock/adjuster that is attached to a fixed second strap. This second strap is attached to the sole via a fourth hole — a departure from the classic huaraches design.
Thanks to the ladder adjuster, you can easily dial-in the fit by tugging on the webbing to get it "just right" around your ankle. It's a simple, elegant replacement for the huaraches more complex (though more customize-able) lacing. Bonus, the Wokova webbing is flat and soft and lays on your foot comfortably without digging in at all — traditional leather or rope laces on huaraches tend to dig in to the foot more given that they are round and not flat.
You'll note that Unshoes have glossy spots on their bottom side where the straps run into the sole. This is where they are attached to the sole. I'm not entirely sure how this works (Melting? Glue? Some other adhesive?) and only time will tell how durable these attachment points are.
If you like the look of Tevas or Chacos, you'll probably like the look of Unshoes. The thick webbed straps provide some "weight" to the look of the Unshoes, which in my opinion, is a nice improvement over thinner laces. On the flipside, a 6mm rubber sole (or 4mm or 10mm depending on which sole you select) custom cut to the size of your foot won't have that factory-perfect look of a mass-manufactured sandal.
As for me, I like the look of the Unshoes. It's enough strap (thickness) to make the sandals look "there" on my foot and not just a bunch of string latched to rubber. I'd love to see Unshoes with a standard cut sole (like those used by Barefoot Ted's Luna Sandals). That said, the imperfect cut of the Unshoes soles reminds me my feet are custom!
Strap-wise Unshoes Wokovas function fantastically. A simple plastic ladder adjuster makes it easy to dial-in the snugness to your liking. It's simple enough that not having any instructions (cough FiveFingers cough), I was able to fit them right within seconds of putting them on. Perhaps the only drawback is that there is extra webbing material to deal with that extends past the ladder enclosure. I haven't decided if I want to cut some of this off (and melt the ends) or just leave it. Right now I sorta like it dangling off a bit for some reason, but I could see this changing.
Walking around in them is just as I'd expect from a thong-based minimalist sandal (like huaraches). They are flat heel-to-toe ("zero drop") and stay adhered to the foot. The rubber is thin enough to flex with my foot (see pic to the right) though, as is the case with all thong based minimalist sandals, dorsiflexion leaves my toes pointing up and the rubber sole "hanging" below my toes. This is an unavoidable (?) shortcoming of all huaraches/thong-styled sandals. Unfortunately, it can mean that every once in awhile the rubber snags the ground and flops underneath your midfoot (Toe shoes solve this problem though by doing so they also put negative force on your dorsiflexing toes, which isn't natural!).
Outside of wearing them casually, I've gone on a long three-mile walk in the Unshoes. I've yet to run in them. For knocking about and walking, the Unshoes function well favoring a natural gait. For some reason, when walking on concrete in Unshoes (or huaraches), my foot feels a little like it's searching for the ground, for lack of a better way to put it. It's as though my foot keeps expecting to hit the ground before it makes contact. Anyone else notice something like this? The only explanation I can give for this somewhat strange sensation is that the rubber sole forward of the thong is making contact earlier than the rest of my foot, which is throwing me off a little from what I'm accustomed to with either FiveFingers or minimalist shoes (sufficiently flexible shoes will dorsiflex with the toes to varying extents). It's a nit and something I think I'd adjust to with prolonged wear. I'm very curious if anyone else has noticed this (or maybe it's just me).
My pair of Wokovas is outfitted with 6mm Vibram Cherry rubber soles. Such a thin, flexible sole affords tons of ground feel — I'd put it somewhere between a KSO and a KSO Trek to compare to FiveFingers "barefoot" feel.
As far as running is concerned, my expectation would be that, once again, the Unshoes Wokova would function just like huaraches. Soon as I get to run in them, I will update here.
All in all, the Unshoes Wokovas feel super lightweight on my foot, are airy as a sandal should be, and are minimally "there" but quite functional.
Unshoes Wokova vs. Huaraches, Teva Zilch (Minimalist Sandals)
Unshoes Wokova vs. Huaraches — So far I'm liking Unshoes over huaraches. I have the Invisible Shoe and the Original Luna with black leather laces. Given all three utilize a very similar approach to the sandal, the simplicity of the single ladder lock/adjuster vs. an infinite array of lacing/knots just rules the day. I admit that were I a more seasoned huaraches lacer (with lots of practice), I might be partial to huaraches from a purist or truly custom fit perspective, but what can I say? I like being able to lift and release the plastic ladder to loosen and pull on the strap to tighten. Knots need not apply.
That said, both my Luna and Invisible Shoe huaraches weigh in two ounces lighter than my Unshoes. Mind, the Unshoes Wokovas I ordered have 2mm thicker Vibram rubber than the Invisible Shoes plus the webbing which likely adds weight, too. It's a noticeable weight difference in hand, but if you really wanted to shave weight with Unshoes you could just get the thinner soles (or get the Unshoes Wokova Feather).
Unshoes Wokova vs. Teva Zilch — James has reviewed the Teva Zilch for BirthdayShoes, but I've got a pair I've kicked around the block a few times. I quite like the Teva Zilch sole even though it's thickness and stiffness costs it some ground feel. That said, the Zilch's middle, cross-foot strap just grabs my foot in a way that can be irritating. It's not the strap material of the Zilch, either — more the strap placement. So from a comfort and ground feel standpoint, I'd pick Unshoes Wokovas over the Zilch. I'm also not convinced the Zilch is intended for running distance whereas the Unshoes feel perfectly capable in that regard (all due to the huaraches-influenced design, of course!).
And while aesthetics are a personal preference, I like the fabric straps and lack of plastic of the Wokovas over the Zilch. I wouldn't mind marrying the Zilch sole to the Wokova straps though. I'd dig that all day long.
Other sandals — hard to make any other comparisons as there aren't a ton of other minimalist, functional sandals out there (I'm completely excluding flip flops from consideration as they innately don't function with the foot due to the rear sole "hang" on every step).
The Vivo Barefoot Achilles (also reviewed by James) would make for an interesting comparison. Maybe James will try some Unshoes and sound off on them all as he's a big fan of huaraches.
No doubt the minimalist sandals "versus" debate has only begun.
Sizing, Ordering, Cost
The Unshoes Wokova is sized to your foot. You trace your foot on paper and send in a scan and the soles are custom cut for your feet. They price based on the sole thickness and my 6mm Wokovas were $42 plus shipping (I think shipping was $6). 4mm Wokovas are $39 and 10mm Wokovas $47. I chose 6mm as I find my 4mm Invisible Shoes just a little too flimsy in the sole for my taste and wanted to go a little thicker. I've a feeling the 10mm Newflex Vibram soles would work well, too. For a custom-made sandal, $50 really isn't that bad—custom made Invisible Shoes are $49.95 (you can get the Invisible Shoe huaraches kit and just DIY for $25 of course).
Given Terral's business is young, if you order a pair of Wokovas, bear in mind orders take some time to get fulfilled — I think mine took a couple weeks or so.
If you're looking for a huaraches-like minimalist sandal that gives a hearty nod to popular strappy sandals like Chacos, look no further than the Unshoes Wokova. They are functional, lightweight, easy to strap on minimalist sandals that custom fit your foot. They afford a great deal of ground feel and look pretty solid dressed in Vibram rubber and thick nylon webbing. While time will tell on the Wokova's durability (and straps are not easily replaced as with the laces of a pair of huaraches!), if you're after a simple sandal solution for the summer, I'd give unshoes a serious look.