Barefoot Shoes

Is KEEN going barefoot?

Is KEEN getting into the barefoot shoe/minimalist shoe market? They’re certainly reducing their standard shoe profile with the upcoming release of the KEEN CNX with a 4mm heel-toe offset and a lower stack height. But is this a barefoot shoe?

When I switched completely to barefoot shoes about 4 years ago, there weren’t too many options on the market (pretty much just Vivobarefoot and Vibram). After Merrell went barefoot, I felt like KEEN was the next brand perfectly suited to add a barefoot model to their lineup. I watched season after season as other footwear brands jumped into the minimal/barefoot shoe market, but continued to wonder why one of my former favorite outdoor brands stayed away. I waited, but it never happened. Now they have finally announced the KEEN.Connect (CNX) Spring 2013 collection, but what exactly is CNX? Is it barefoot? Is it minimal? Read on to find out.

About a year ago I heard rumors that KEEN was in the process of developing a barefoot shoe. I was able to get in touch with someone high up in KEEN product development a couple months ago, and was disappointed to hear that they were actually “not doing a barefoot range.” However, they did have “outdoor/casual low volume footwear coming out, but no barefoot program.” I was disappointed but also curious about what exactly “low volume” meant. If not barefoot, did this mean KEEN was going minimal?

Well now we know. Keen has finally announced the new KEEN.CNX lineup coming in Spring 2013. There’s a great write-up on the CNX in the July 2nd edition of SGB weekly (the weekly magazine of the sporting goods industry). Here’s some of the highlights of the new CNX shoes:

  • The CNX collection is referred to as “lightweight feet enhancers.”
  • CNX will be available across all the current categories (waterfront, multi-sport, and casuals).
  • The goal was to eliminate as much material from the original soles as possible while keeping the signature “protection” aspect of KEEN.
  • The classic KEEN fit has been “modified with a more secure heel and slight reduction of width and volume.”
  • The shoes feature an integrated contoured arch for “added midfoot support” and a TPU stability shank.
  • All of the CNX shoes will weigh less than 10 oz. and have a 4mm heel-toe drop.

If you currently own KEEN’s then you know they aren’t the lightest shoes on the market. The drop in weight and reduced heel-toe drop are a great move in the minimal direction. The contoured arch definitely raises an eyebrow, but isn’t surprising if they didn’t set out with a barefoot mindset. Also, the move to a 4mm drop was apparently to “position the foot in a truer stance to the ground to encourage natural movement…” I guess KEEN doesn’t know what drop could get you even closer to a “true stance” and more “natural movement.”

KEEN comparison: Women's Newport (top) and Clearwater CNX (bottom)

KEEN comparison: Women’s Newport (top) and Clearwater CNX (bottom)

So the big question remaining has to be how thin did they make the sole? I pieced together two different photos of KEEN sandals for comparison and the CNX certainly look thinner. I’m not sure if the scaling is perfect, but it definitely gives you an idea of the difference. I was also able to get my hands on a few styles last week and they certainly feel much thinner than previous KEENs. It’s tough to say exactly what the stack height is as I couldn’t measure and can’t find any specs. Hopefully someone can get their feet in them soon and give more specific feedback.

So given all this info, it definitely appears that KEEN is trying to go minimal. Apparently the motivation for this move came from watching the “minimalist conversation taking place” a year ago. What I find interesting is that it hasn’t really been just a minimalist conversation going on the past few years. From what I’ve seen, it’s been a barefoot conversation with the less-minimal shoes serving as transitions toward the most minimal possibilities. Of course, not everyone wants to wear barefoot shoes and there is a need for various minimal options. Without getting into a debate on what defines the line between a minimal and barefoot shoe, it’s safe to say these are certainly more minimal than previous KEEN offerings. But, is this a transition? A sign of even more minimal things to come from KEEN? The person I contacted said, “let barefoot do barefoot and Keen do Keen.” I’ve tried to convince them to just make a few options even more minimal (basically just 0 drop and no arch), but unfortunately it doesn’t look like KEEN has any plans to target the barefoot minded consumer.

The spring CNX release is pretty substantial considering it includes 20 different styles (each with multiple colors) spanning across mens, womens, and kids. It covers everything from the classic KEEN hybrid sandal and mult-sport hikers to mary janes and more dressy leather work casuals. One of the photos in the Spring 2013 catalog shows the shoe layers and highlights the 4mm drop, a contoured arch support, and stability shank.

The KEEN CNX deconstructed.  Note the 4mm heel-toe offset (drop), stability shank, and arch support.  Some obvious "features" of the CNX that might be cause for concern if you're minimalist/barefoot-minded!

The KEEN CNX deconstructed. Note the 4mm heel-toe offset (drop), stability shank, and arch support. Some obvious “features” of the CNX that might be cause for concern if you’re minimalist/barefoot-minded!

I’m worried by the mention of a slight reduction in width as well as the integrated arch support. Arch support is usually an instant no-no for my feet (this being one of the major reasons I went “barefoot”). It will be tough to tell how the arch and stability shank will affect the feel until we can actually get them on our feet. Undoubtedly, there will be many minimalists that prefer this type of minimal shoe and have less issue with the thickness, heel drop and footbed shape. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the barefoot shoe consumer, there’s a lot of variability about which barefoot characteristics are most important. And, how you feel about the new KEEN.Connect might depend on where you are on the minimal spectrum.

So which end of the minimal spectrum are you on? Would you like to see KEEN go barefoot? Share your thoughts below!

By Philip

In 2009, I switched to "barefoot" shoes after years of bunion and arch pain from my "normal" shoes. I wanted shoes that let my feet feel and move as they do barefoot. I have a master's degree in exercise physiology and love discussing the benefits of minimal footwear. I have also run tech clinics teaching retail associates and customers about Vibram FiveFingers shoes and transitioning to minimal footwear.

19 replies on “Is KEEN going barefoot?”

For me, Keen was a gateway shoe toward minimalism. I loved the open construction and even wore them in pretty cold weather. They were my favorite brand. But once i moved to Vibrams, they seemed hopelessly retrograde and irrelevant. I still look back fondly.

To me, nothing should be described as “barefoot” except bare feet. I call vffs minimal shoes and something like this “reduced.” I guess it’s just semantics, but I’ve never liked the term barefoot shoe (it’s an oxymoron).

If they keep the hybrid spd bike sandal in the new more minimal line up then they may just get a look from me

i like how it says “4mm drop for NATURAL STANCE”

last time i checked, we don’t have a drop in our foot…

and blech, heavy

but interesting…steel toe…as long as it doesn’t mess up flexibility

I’ve had Keen’s before I went minimalist and never really liked the clunkiness, so this is a captivating new release. However, despite the reduced weight and appearance, I would not really begin to consider this minimalist. You might as well look at Birkenstocks and call those minimalist..however this does seem like it could be a gateway shoe for some

I’m a fan of Keen and have been for years. The chunckiness of some of their sport sandals would get bothersome over prolonged use in a day, but I think versatility in outdoor to indoor activities has been some of their strong points.

Mixing in a more minimal sole would be a good move for them as a viable option in the minimalist footwear market and anyone making a slow transition to VFF.

I think those Clearwater CNX sandals look great!

I will be SO HAPPY if Keen makes something like a Newport with a huarache-esque or even Merrell-esque sole! I had just ordered a new pair of Keens about 6 months before I went zero-drop and/or barefoot full time and it makes me sad that I never wear them, they are almost new. I’ve seriously considered having them resoled with a flat sole.

@Brian – I agree. On my way to barefoot, I used to wear the KEEN boots without the insoles. Since I’ve been exclusively minimal (<8mm) so long, I just could never go back to my old favorites. Unfortunately, I don’t know if these new styles will be enough for me either. At least they will bring new consumers toward minimal style shoes.

@Rich – I get what you are saying, and I’ve found this to be a really common debate. I know it’s not being truly barefoot, but I prefer the term “barefoot” shoe as it’s the best descriptor I’ve found to describe certain attributes of a minimal shoe (those characteristics allowing the foot to feel and function as close to the way it would if it were actually bare). You use the descriptors “minimal shoes” and “reduced shoes.” I would argue that “minimal” for VFF’s is not descriptive enough. There are alot of shoes that can easily fall into the “minimal” category, but there’s quite a spectrum ranging from your “reduced” shoes to “about as thin and close to nothing as you can get on your feet” shoes. For example, the Minimus Road and Vibram KSO are both minimal shoes, but one of them is much closer to a barefoot experience. All barefoot shoes are minimal shoes, but not all minimal shoes are barefoot shoes. You’re right in that it’s semantics. I just think it’s an extremely clear, quick, and descriptive way of describing where a shoe sits on the minimal spectrum.

@Gidds – I feel your pain. I still have many old KEENs just sitting on a shoe rack. I don’t know why I keep them around, since I haven’t worn anything that thick for years. I also would love to see them skim these down more. Be sure to email them and let them know what you want!

I too was a Keen fan before going minimal/barefoot two years ago. I’m afraid they’ve got a long way to before I’ll buy Keen again. While an improvement, the CNX shows they don’t really “get it”.

Seeing as my about to wear out Alexander Vivobarefoot sandals led to me getting a by reply email back from Vivobarefoot UK telling me that there are presently no closed-toe sandals in their range, I was extremely delighted to view what looked like my next sandals.
So, disappointed to see that they are not available now 🙁
Oh, well back to the research.
Am a bit concerned that I might actually be almost enjoying/seeking the pain from thin soles walking on hard sharp flinty paths leading to a lasting endorphin glow.

As a 4-5yr fan of VFFs my old Keens didn’t get much use. I tried on a pair of the Clearwater CNX Keens a few weeks ago, and I have to say – what took them so long?

Seriously they are night and day better than the old heavy, high-heeled Keen disasters. Super light, and manageably dropless. The only caveat is width – these are narrower than the old Keens. I was still able to fit into the same size, but they look a bit odd – long and slender.

Either way, the CNX platform seems to be promising. I’m certainly going to hunt down some of the other CNX shoes to try.

Just got a nudge from Ryan’s post and I see that it was about a year ago that I posted my wish for some CNXs.
Had my pair for about 4 weeks and they are not as barefoot as my Vivo Alexander (saving my last hoarded pair until next year), but still a very comfortable shoe.
No blisters, heel strap not adjustable, but not a problem as I incorrectly anticipated. Outside vents are personally a little too close to my little toes, not popped through yet.
Worn them on stones, sand, wet brick pavements, countryside and they are superb. Better pain protection than true barefoot, but I can feel that foot is not planting so far forward.
Good compromise for me.

I think it would be great if they provided some minimalist offerings, but for some of us with hard core toe arthritis that is simply not an option (inflames the problem to disabling levels) and the solid keens are a life saver. I would be very upset to see the shoes I need to survive disappear.

I need to contradict what I said about how good my CNX Clearwater sandals are.
Been wearing them for 3 weeks since weather started to improve and they’re like a different shoe this year.
I think that the heel strap has stretched, so foot is not being held properly and what I thought was pain from rubbing turns out to be quite deep inner side heel cuts on both feet. Tend not to wear glasses when dressing/undressing so I literally didn’t see the cuts for a couple of weeks 🙂
Suggested to Keen Europe that a better design would be to have adjustable heel straps – their response is that the fit is wrong for me, inspite of my explanation that new sandals = perfect fit, stretched sandals = not wearable.
They’ve offered me a token voucher and so I looked at all the Keen sandals – guess what? Two new styles, Class 5 and Class 6, have adjustable heel straps.
I can probably get the shoes cheaper if I wait for a flash sale.
Am off to look at Hi-Tec Shore sandals, as I can find no barefoot sandals with toe protection.

These are a fail because of the narrow width.

I was so excited that Keen was making a Much lighter-weight, thinner-soled sandal. The soles really are nice and thin. I could have lived with the slight drop and the slight arch support (thought I would have preferred none), but the deal-breaker was, I could not fit my toes into this shoe. Why go halfway toward a more natural-working shoe (thinner sole, reduced drop) and then skip out on the other important part of allowing the foot to work naturally – a wide toebox??? At least their clunky, heavy shoes have room for the toes!!

2019, and still no “barefoot” offerings from Keen (WHY did they make their lighter-weight shoes so NARROW???)

What I cannot understand is why no barefoot companies have made a Keen-style barefoot sandal-shoe? It doesn’t seem like Keen is stopping any companies from making knockoffs -you can find knockoff Keens from Wal-mart to LL Bean. So what’s stopping Vivo or Vibram or Xero or Luna or any of them from making a barefoot knockoff Keen? I think of it every time I get a twig jammed into my toes, hiking in open-toed sandals.

2019, and still no “barefoot” offerings from Keen (WHY did they make their lighter-weight shoes so NARROW???)

What I cannot understand is why no barefoot companies have made a Keen-style barefoot sandal-shoe? It doesn’t seem like Keen is stopping any companies from making knockoffs -you can find knockoff Keens from Wal-mart to LL Bean. So what’s stopping Vivo or Vibram or Xero or Luna or any of them from making a barefoot knockoff Keen? I think of it every time I get a twig jammed into my toes, hiking in open-toed sandals.

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