User Stories

From Fila Skeletoes to Vibram FiveFingers

David emailed me recently about adding to his now growing collection of FiveFingers. We got into talking a bit and I found out that he actually got his start into the minimalist shoes/toe shoes market via buying a pair of the original Fila Skeletoes.…

(OR Lessons in Marketing and Branding in the Toe Shoe World)

I got an email from BirthdayShoes reader David the other day about how he had been growing his collection of FiveFingers. We got to talking a bit and I found out that he actually got his start into the minimalist shoes/toe shoes market via buying a pair of … wait for it … Fila Skeletoes.

Importantly, David mentioned how he liked his Vibrams better (His words: “I don’t like [the Skeletoes] nearly as much [as my FiveFingers”), so I asked him if he’d be willing to share a little more. Here’s what David had to say:

I think the Vibrams are much better. I had gotten the original Skele-toes because they didn’t have the Skeletoes 2.0 in my size.

The first thing I did was give them a beating. I did a trail run in the pouring rain and ran through tons of mud and ran through water above knee level (and I am 6’4″). The trails I run are pretty crazy so the Skele-toes can take a good beating. I really liked them a lot and read more about minimalist shoes and watched videos and everyone was saying the Vibrams where pretty much the best.

I did more research and found a place really close to me that sells them and bought the KSO’s and I realized right away how much better they where and how much more of the ground I could feel and how much more movement I had. They did really well on some crazy rocks but every once in a while I would land on a not so nice rock on my forefoot and it would be really uncomfortable so I ended up getting another pair of FiveFingers—the Treksport, which allow me to still feel everything and give me the same movement as the standard KSO, but when I hit those not friendly rocks it doesn’t hurt at all even though I can still feel them (if that makes sense).

I use the KSO a lot now just for walking around and going to stores and whatnot and sometimes at home when I am not barefoot and also for running on concrete. But for the crazy trails I run the TrekSport&mdsah;can’t be beat in my opinion.

I’d say the Fila Skele-toes are great to start with and are not a bad shoe but they are just not as enjoyable to run in as FiveFingers. I think my next pair of minimalist shoes may be those new balance black and white casual shoes you reviewed on youtube.

Skele-Toes the “Gateway” Toe Shoes leading to Vibram FiveFingers bliss.

I’ve been speculating that something like what David is experiencing here has been going on for awhile now. Really, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. For example, in the recent post about the Fila Skele-toes “Toetally Original” billboard campaign (Yes, really), a commenter by the name of TLou said the following (emphasis mine):

Could be that Fila is doing Vibram a favor.

I would have never jumped into Vibrams at their pricing point. I first saw them like 2 years ago and was intrigued, but the price was just to much for a footwear experiment. So, just last week I found a pair of FS-Ts on sale for $30 and figured what the heck*!

They were comfortable for walking in, but sitting around in them was a bit much. The problem is that going back to my normal shoes after them was a bit tough. I have some foot issues to go along with being overweight and after wearing the FS-Ts for a couple of days with no foot issues, I tried to go back to my normal shoes and the issues came back and seemed greatly exaggerated.

You are probably wondering where Vibrams come into this… well, after wearing the [Fila Skele-Toes] for almost a week, I decided to check out Vibrams because I want something I can be comfortable in all day at work. So, I went out and bought a pair of KSO [FiveFingers] and I couldn’t be happier. They are great for walking, standing, and even just sitting at my desk.

So yeah, I wish I hadn’t spent the 30 bucks on the Fila Skele-Toes, but if I had not, I would have never bought the KSO’s.

In short, even while TLou had known about FiveFingers for a couple years, the high price tag kept him at bay; meanwhile, the Skele-toes provided a low-cost entrypoint into putting a “toe in the water” (I have to use these phrases, ok?) of the toe shoes/minimalist footwear market. The Skele-toes aren’t a bad product (something I attribute to the benefits of articulating toes in footwear), but they’re also not a great product — shortcomings include a too-stiff sole and some so-so upper builds. Eyes opened to the benefits of toe shoes and now wanting a pair that was a little better than his Skele-Toes, TLou jumped on the Vibram fan club.

What can we learn from this?

There are a handful of things the whole Skeletoes vs. FiveFingers toe shoes showdown brings to light. Let’s review:

  • Toe shoes work. It’s due to the design. Even less than ideal implementations are incredibly comfortable and functional.
  • Marketing and distribution matter. It’s not enough to have your product promoted by word of mouth; when our attention is divided across numerous screens and devices to the point of absurdity throughout the day, the only way to be seen is to be bold. Fila is “toetally” winning the marketing battle over Vibram.
  • When it comes to a novel product — even one being touted as having huge health benefits — price is incredibly important. In short, there was a huge gaping hole in the toe shoe market for a low-cost option. Fila took advantage of this gap with their Skele-toes.
  • It’s not enough to be first, nor is it enough to be better. Please, please, please don’t let FiveFingers become the minimalist footwear equivalent of the Betamax.

Now tell me if this sounds familiar.

Back in 2008 when I first saw FiveFingers via, I knew I had to had some. Then I learned they cost $75. My immediate thought, “Man, that’s a lot of money on some weird shoes that my wife/in-laws/family are likely going to think I’m crazy for buying.” I bought them anyway (and the rest is history). In the early days of BirthdayShoes, I distinctly remember thinking shortly thereafter, “I really hope Vibram decided to start selling the Classics/KSOs/Sprints at a lower pricepoint.”

What I envisioned was selling Classic FiveFingers for about $50, Sprints for $55, and KSOs for $60 — something like that. This just seemed obvious to me, but obviously nothing like this has happened (at least not officially; many of the original FiveFingers have gone on sale in the past few months). Meanwhile, Fila has stepped full-fledged into the toe shoe market with the Skele-toes and 600+ counterfeit online retailers have dived in selling cheap, low quality fakes, too.

What’s really going on. What’s the impact.

I think I actually get a lot of why Vibram isn’t selling FiveFingers either in big box stores or at department stores or at lower prices. It’s a brand thing. Vibram is a premium brand and my hunch is the powers that be don’t want to dilute that brand by being sold at lower prices at mass merchant retailers (and sell against shoes featuring Vibram soles, too, if that’s the case).

I get it. I really do.

My beef is just this: when you’re the pioneer in a new frontier of footwear and you let inferior products step in and take over the market effectively defining the shoe category (toe shoes/”barefoot shoes”) you single-handedly created, aren’t you allowing your brand to be diluted via the collateral damage of lower quality toe shoes flooding the market, anyway?

I’ll stop short and ask if I’m off my rocker here or hitting the nail on the head — what do you think?

Happy Friday!

* Random factoid: the original Skele-toes billboard campaign was “What the heck are those things?”

By Justin

Justin Owings is a deadlifting dad of three, working from Atlanta. When he's not chasing his three kids around, you'll find him trying to understand systems, risk, and human behavior.

17 replies on “From Fila Skeletoes to Vibram FiveFingers”

A lower price-point for the Classics/Sprints and to a lesser extent KSO could even serve to underline the minimalist nature of these models. There just is not that much material in a `Classic`. A lower price point still could be credible for a premium brand.

This sounds very familiar…I followed ALMOST exactly the same progression in regards to the order of the acquisition of my minimalist footwear…Started out with the Filas just to test the concept without breaking the bank and quickly moved on to Bikilas and then a pair of KSOs…I also got my wife addicted in the process and she now owns 2 pairs of KSOs as well, one of which she wears to work on a daily basis. She works in the medical field and there seems to be a small but growing trend of health care workers jumping on the Vibram wagon.

I totally agree with the comments made in the article about the Vibrams having better ground feel and more flex…all in all a more comfortable shoe.

I do have to give Fila credit where credit is due…I think they are easier to put on due to the combined 4th and pinkie toe pocket as opposed to Vibram’s five toe design.

I still wear the Filas occasionally but they are now used mostly in wet weather as they seem to repel the rain better than Vibrams…plus I don’t care if I get them filthy since they have been relegated to “back up” shoe status.

In addition, I have had really good luck buying the Vibrams that I do own on E-Bay at a discounted price…again not a bad way for a newbie to “try out” a minimalist shoe and see if it’s for them or not…

Hate to say it, but I bought my Hubby a pair of the Skeletoes today, they were on sale at sears pretty cheap. He refused to even try a pair of the Toe Shoes, his excuse “I don’t like things between my toes”, I figured, well, if he didn’t like them, I’ll take them back. I had him try them on, he says, “These aren’t so bad, I’ll keep them.” Now next step, getting him a pair of Vibrams! Woohoo!! It’s a start at least!

The question remains: who was first? the chicken or the egg ???

On July 6, 1976 A U.S. patent # 3,967,390 was awarded to Anfruns; Luis Sentis (Barcelona, ES)

” A shoe comprising; a generally flat and relatively stiff sole; a relatively flexible upper generally marginally directly connected to said sole; both said sole and said upper having tip portions defining five toe compartments separate from one another; and a flexible strip extending around each and between every two of the toe compartments and interconnecting the tip portions of the upper with the tip portions of the sole.”

Chinese counterfeit need to be stopped in their tracks….

Fila and Inov-8 utilize completely different processes than FiveFingers technology.

The only common link is the footwear is designed to fit an anatomically correct human foot(Which “Evolution” most likely still holds copyrights on that).

I own 44 pairs of FiveFingers and I think we should welcome competition as it forces companies to create a better, more durable products for us to enjoy.

Just my 2 bits.

Orange Blossom

Agreed that Vibram shouldn’t let the low-end of the minimalist/toe-shoe market get eaten up with cheap abominations like the Skeletoes. Not too big on the classics myself, but the KSO’s would make a great entry level shoe if they priced them at what you suggest. Vibrams should mass market the KSO’s wherever they can just to get them into people’s hands. Then they can include marketing material inside those shoe boxes to introduce them to their premium products, it seems like a no-brainer to me.

While I do appreciate the great quality of the Vibrams (I own a pair of KSO Treks), I have to give Fila credit where credit is due.

While I had to throw out my Skeletoes because they were falling apart, they were what really got me into Vibrams, although I was intrigued with Fivefingers the moment I first saw an ad for ’em.

Interestingly enough, it was the fact I’d seen the ad for Fivefingers that led me to get Skeletoes – we were in a store far off from our local area and I ended up spotting Skeletoes because they were just like the Fivefingers (I hadn’t noticed Fivefingers being sold in my area – the whole thing was off my radar until after I bought the Skeletoes – that’s how great stumbling across toeshoes were for me) and figgur’d I might give ’em a shot. Then the smell came up, so I searched on Google, and then came across BirthdayShoes, began reading the reviews on here, and next thing you know, I’m buying KSO Treks 😀

It’s almost as if Fivefingers got me into Skeletoes which then got me back into Fivefingers – almost like a circle, of sorts 😀

Never looked back. And I ended up throwing my Skeletoes out right next to the store where we bought ’em in the first place. Kinda poetic, if you ask me.

So, yeah. Fivefingers are better quality-wise, but I have to give Fila credit for really getting me into toeshoes 😀

I had a pretty similar experience to most on here. I saw the skele-toes, had to have a pair, did some research, bought em anyway. they started to fall apart after a week, so i took em back, and waited a couple weeks to buy some KSOs. Had some issues with them, then a pair KomodoSport LSs which had the heel blow out after less than 3 months, and now have a pair of Komodosports, and a pair of Merrell Tough Gloves for work.

I love my Vibrams, immediately noticed the difference between them and the fila’s. I wear them so much that I can’t wear normal shoes anymore without serious pain, which is why I bought the Merrell Barefoot’s for work. The price is a bit of a downer, but at the same time, the quality makes up for it, and the lack of pain I have now was definitely worth the price. Once I finish school, it will be time to save for some PriPros, and a few more pair of VFFs, and a pair of Lemings, and a pair of Skora……..

Anyway, Vibram’s customer service will keep me a customer for life. My initial pair of KSOs got a hole in them 3 days after I bought them, took them back to the store, they were under the store warranty still, so I got some Komodosport LSs. I wore them a lot, but not all the time, and I really only wore them casually. 2 and a half months after I got them, I noticed the leather in the heel had split, vertically. I had heard about Vibram having a 90 day warranty, went back to the store I bought them from, clerks had no clue and were supposed to get a manager to call me back. After a couple days, I called Vibram, the rep on the phone instructed me to take them to the store I got them and get a new pair, and gave me a number for them to call if they had a problem. You can’t buy that kind of customer goodwill. Can’t say I have ever had that kind of customer service from any major shoe company.

I too started with the Fila Skeletoes but returned then the next day. It took me 4 additional months to buy my first pair of VFF: the bikila LS. Now I have 8 pairs and my wife 2. I used to have extreme pain in the joint of the second metatarsal and since I started to use VFF the pain is gone. I can’t use vff all the time but when I can I do. We’ve bought somw of the discountedvff online over the last months and I think that the Classics should go for $50… but again, since this is so far a niche market, Vibramneeds tomake money. If they don’t they’ll go out of business and we’ll loose our favorite shoes!

talk the talk but… do you walk the walk?
vff, skeletoes, invisble shoes, nb minimus, merell or naked dan’s sandals…
what’s important is you actually go running or just do any barefoot related stuff.
the shoes alone will get you nowhere and
i’m sure the avid barefooters will find out over time what’s their favorite shoe.

I had an opposite experience than what others have been commenting. I actually bought full price $90 Brown/Brown KSOs back in 2009. I shelved them due to major pinky toe irritation. I just could not get my short pinky toe comfortable in the toe pocket. Along came Fila with their four toed model and my problem was solved. I bought them at KOHLS and with a 30% off coupon I paid like $30 for them. I tried them around the house and new something was not quite right. I promptly returned them and forced myself to push through the pinky toe pain in my KSOs. I have never looked back. 10 pair later I am up to 11 pair of VFFs and I also have two pair of LEMing (formerly STEM). Lucky for me I already knew what Vibrams were all about and I very quickly realized that Fila Skeletoes were not comparable.

I think you’re off your rocker myself. Say we didn’t have stereos. Brand Jimbo introduces a CD player and it’s amazing. Then brand Bilbo introduces a cassette player and it’s mediocre. Why the heck would Jimbo need to stoop to Bilbo’s prices if they have the FAR superior product? Some people are willing to settle for less quality at a lower price and some people want amazing. Amazing is always going to cost more. FiveFingers are amazing. Premium brands are just that, a premium. Some customers start with mediocre and graduate to premium and some consumers go right for the goods. Eventually, anyone who CAN afford premium is going to go that route. In my opinion, it’s better to buy quality the first time or your FiveFingers ended up costing $30-$50 more in the way of a Fila Skeletoes trial.

I think in all honesty that VIbram should market this to more mainstream sports stores. I live in PA and it bugs me that in my area there are only 2 stores in south central PA that carry them. And only one of them, a “mom and pop” store, really understands the gist of what vibrams are.

My thought about Vibram going more mainstream is that I dont understand how the companies that they make soles for, like Merrell, market with stores like Gander Mountain and Dicks Sporting goods selling their minimalist shoes.

If Vibram marketed their shoe to more public groups it wouldn’t cheapen it, but rather make it more aware to the public as well as educate them more. I hate when people compare Skeletoes to Five fingers as being, ” the same shoe”.

This is exactly what happened to me. Started with the Skeletoes because they were dirt cheap, thought they were okay but kept hearing about how awesome Vibrams are, switched to them and the rest is history. The Skeletoes ARE an entry-level toe shoe — there’s no doubt about it.

Mike (two comments up from mine) is missing the point. This isn’t something unique to this market — it happens almost anywhere. Look at Apple. Most people start off with an iPod. Loving that, they go to an iPhone. Then they realize they want a Macbook and bam. You start with an entry-level and work yourself up the ladder. Just because there ARE people who will go for the quality upfront doesn’t mean the lower-end product doesn’t lead people to the better stuff. You even SAY that, Mike. Your comment just doesn’t make sense. You say he’s off his rocker but prove his point at the same time.

It’s hard to justify forking over a ton of money to just try something. Can you imagine paying $2k for a great Apple laptop just because you want to try it out and see if you like it? No. You start smaller. You see if it’s for you. THEN you invest in quality. It’s how almost every market tends to work — why would toe shoes be any different?

As a marginal jogger with a short attention span who hasn’t yet upgraded from FS-T (which I bought strictly on a trial basis) to VFF, I find that Vibram makes it a little difficult to transition. Scanning their website for men’s shoes gives me 13 options, and narrowing it to men’s running shoes yields 9. I don’t want to parse the differences among 8 versatile, comfortable, rugged products and 1 cold-weather option; nor do I want to buy most of them and figure out the differences myself. I want to choose one pair and be confident it will meet my needs, without worrying that the TrekSport isn’t optimized enough for running or that the Bikila won’t be rugged enough if I decide to hit a trail. (So my next step will be the BirthdayShoes beginner’s guide, but frankly I shouldn’t have to.)

Regarding Mike’s comment, cassette vs. CD is a poor comparison. CDs have obvious technical advantages over tapes, and they’re just plain purtier to boot. To outside observers, differences between FS-T and VFF are subtle at best, and toe shoes look like…toe shoes. Because I read Slashdot, a better analogy is the U.S. car industry. For years they neglected the small-car market, instead focusing on high-margin SUVs, since their main competitors were lousy foreign cars from countries with cheap currency. But eventually those cars were anything but lousy, and the Big 3 found they’d lost a huge chunk of the market. Vibram fortunately doesn’t have any Cavaliers or Escorts to sully their name, but right now all they’re doing in the low-end market is giving Fila time to catch up.

Way before these shoes became popular and everyone tried them they had Nike Air Rift (look them up). I bought my 1st pair in 1995 or 96. Bought 2 more b/c loved them so much and now can usually only find in women’s if at all. They are close to barefoot running with the big toe split from the other 4 which are together and come with socks as a option if want or can go barefoot. Funny the rest of the shoe markets took about 11 yrs. to catch up with the Nike Air Rift.

It’s also interesting that Nike took the Air Rift design from Japan’s own Jika_Tabi.

The Jika-Tabi is the original split-toe footwear that dates back to the Japan’s 17th century Edo period.

Jika-Tabi are “zero drop” footwear with a 2mm rubber sole.

I went a similar route, Fila toe shoes to Vibrams, one huge issue for Vibram though, is you (or at least I) really need to try them on in person. My first pair were KSOs, took some trial and error at the store(measured size was not actual size!), but got a pair that fit right. A few weeks after that, and I decided I wanted another pair that would be easier to get on, for more every day use, went through a lot of different styles, and even sizes, to find a pair that felt OK. I’ve been wearing a pair of Jayas around the house for a few days now… and they don’t feel quite right. I change to my KSOs to go outside and they fit like a glove, I love them! I’ll probably be going back to the store with my Jayas and try a few more styles, but may end up returning them.
I’m sure a lot of people who don’t have the option of trying these on in person are holding back, simply to avoid the hassle of not getting a good fit, and needing to exchange them via mail (vs simply asking the clerk for a different size). Personally, I’ve always HATED the idea of buying shoes through the mail, even before I knew about toe shoes.

Also, you’re pretty much locked in if you don’t buy them from the website at full price, “No refunds on discounted items.” hope you can find a style/size that suits you…

So in short, more retail locations would be a huge boon for Vibram. Simply having the option to walk around in them for 5 minutes for free will sell just about anyone who puts them on.

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