I’ve been told I can get away with all the bizarre styles that minimalist shoe makers keep producing because I’m rather odd myself. Apparently I look like the kind of guy who would have shoes with individual toe pockets or run a race in sandals with socks. I’m fine with that. In contrast, that means I have a much tougher time when it comes to wearing something that might actually be cool. That brings me to ANI shoes. They’ve got a polished, artsy website with slick marketing that’s obviously inspired by high-end fashion designers and New York City. ANI is probably the first barefoot brand I’ve encountered that relies so heavily on style. But don’t take that to mean that the function is bad — it isn’t. I could easily see a bubble-jacketed youth breakdancing excitedly as the white headphones of his iPhone fuel him on, the shoes holding up like gangbusters. In other words, I’m probably not cool enough for these shoes. But I wore them anyway.

What you get

ANI (“As Nature Intended”) makes stylish minimalist shoes with a simple, clean, retro-sneaker sort of look to them. They’re primarily a casual shoe, but are sturdy enough that they could easily be multi-functional. They got their start via a successful Kickstarter campaign. Don’t let the retro-cool look of the shoes fool you, though. While ANI’s elder relatives may include classics like Converse All-Stars and mid-top canvas Nikes, the soul and philosophy of these shoes couldn’t be farther from Nike’s. The ANI name isn’t just a gimmick; this is a shoe company that’s really working to keep their products and processes as responsible, sincere, and positive as possible. The canvas used in the shoes is 100% organic, all other materials are vegan, even the packaging is recycled. And that’s before we even get to the as-nature-intended movement part. The shoes themselves start as either a black or white primary base along along with an assortment of secondary colors. You also get two pairs of laces: one pair to match the base shade and a second pair that matches the color stripe.

What works

The canvas upper is extremely sturdy. This isn’t a thin, floppy All-Star style canvas. The outsole, despite being only 4mm, is also quite sturdy. True to classic sneaker style it’s also flat and broad all the way across, with a simple tread design. Walking and moving in them feels much better and more natural than similar shoes. As far as looks go, I really love the simplicity. When I saw the early pictures I was worried that they might come out looking cheap or plain, but the high quality of the shoe instead makes the simple design look exceedingly elegant. I really wouldn’t have ever expected a pair of mostly-white, canvas, sneaker-style shoes to look so good as to make me feel insufficiently hip. While these are indeed very handsome shoes I would be interested to see some more color variation in future releases. The individual canvas panels could even retain their placement while having some mix-and-match variations of color. My two main reasons for thinking of this is because 1) I don’t think mostly-black sneakers look all that good on me personally, but 2) when I wear all white sneakers it’s pretty much a guarantee that the most stain-causing things that exist on this earth (pasta sauce, mud, red wine, beets, etc.) will find their way onto them.

What doesn’t

The broadness of the sole and the sturdiness of the upper do take away from the flexibility of the shoe somewhat. It would be interesting to see future models that retain the same basic look and design while shaving off a little more thickness of the upper and sole. ANI shoes also tend to run rather small. Often when ordering footwear online you may hear advice from all over the spectrum in terms of sizing, and since you can’t try them on then the best you can do is hazard a guess based on your size in other brands. Even without knowing you I can say with at least 95% certainty that you will need to order one size up from your usual when buying a pair of these. Lastly, there’s a feature that I’ve decided all minimalist shoe makers need to consider from here on out: a properly finished interior beneath the removable insole. Most shoes are not intended to be worn without the insole, even if the insole is in fact removable. You can tell because the area beneath the insole usually has the look of an unfinished product. While this is understandable on more traditional shoes since most people love cushion, the fact is that minimalists tend to experiment a bit. If a shoe feels like it’s too padded, the first thing I do is take out the insole to give it a try. But typically even if the reduced cushion, ground feel, and fit are better with the insole removed, the trade off is that the interior has awkward stitching or the like since it’s not meant to be worn that way. Vivobarefoot is the only minimalist shoe maker I’ve tried thus far that seems to recognize this, and I’ve decided to make it a personal crusade to get other footwear companies to follow suit. Viva la ground feel!

Final thoughts

ANI is clearly a labor of love. These are some seriously good-looking shoes that still manage to be high-quality and stay true to the minimalist footwear mentality not just in function, but also in soul. And they manage to do so all within the challenging boundaries of an actual social conscience. If you’re like me, you’ve probably already found a minimalist shoe to exercise or bum around in. Maybe you’ve even got a pair of more professional type minimalist footwear. But I’ve found that there’s a dearth of minimalist casual shoes, much less of the eye-catching sort. ANI not only fills that void, they do so with gusto! You can check out ANI shoes over at anibrand.com. They MSRP for $65 (Note: my pair were supplied for free to be tested/reviewed on BirthdayShoes).