Vibram used to make mountaineering soles for actual hikers, but today the brand is being tapped for some of the coolest sneakers in the market.
Over the last 18 months world of menswear has been dominated by two overlapping trends: bulky, oversized footwear and apparel that blurs the line between hyped-up streetwear and ultra-sturdy workwear. Call it the second wave of normcore. (Or maybe the first wave of utility-core?) Whatever it is, one thing is clear: the new vibe in menswear finds style in utility. And no brand seems to be benefiting more from this uptick in tactical gear than Vibram, an Italian company that has been producing top-of-the line rubber soles since 1937. Today, it’s become a favorite of well-dressed dudes and fashion designers alike. Whether it’s appearing on Alyx’s low-top hiking shoe, Our Legacy’s chunky running sneaker, or Margiela’s new steel-toe-capped trainer, the Vibram outsole is everywhere.
“Vibram is timeless quality and function,” says Matthew Williams, the creative mind behind the rising New York label Alyx. At 32 years old, he can already count clients and collaborators like Kanye West, Nike, and Supreme and accolades like being named finalist for the LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize to his name. Williams uses Vibram soles in a number of his designs: the satin Low Hiking boot, the strappy low-cut Chef Daddy shoe, and the carefully weathered Washed Hiking boot. He recalls wearing Vibram climbing shoes as child, but his first “real” introduction to the Italian company came back in the late aughts, through a collaboration between Russell Moccasin and Nom De Guerre. “I bought it when I was very young. It was my favorite shoe,” says Williams. “I still wear [them] to this day, even ten years later.”
Vibram wasn’t always used by fashion folks to signify that they’d been outside more than once, though. The hard-wearing sole was originally (and specifically) designed for mountain climbing and outdoor exploration. The company’s founder, Vitale Bramani, created the initial Vibram outsole in response to a tragic climbing accident that claimed the lives of his friends in the Italian Alps. (Bramani believed poor, inadequate footwear was partially to blame for their deaths.) He spent two years developing a new kind of climbing sole, and then, in 1937, he launched a vulcanized rubber lug sole with a tank tread-inspired design. Named the Carrarmato, it was the first of its kind, and the sole provided traction on the most unforgiving of surfaces.
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Vibram focused on mountain sports in the early days, and began experimenting with soles for non-mountain shoes as far back as the 1950s. Today, the company quietly produces on average of 35 million soles a year, partners with over 1,000 different shoemakers, and ships its product to over 120 countries. And though they once tried to be on the cutting edge of the sneaker game with their infamous “five finger” shoes in 1999, their actual big break into fashion wouldn’t come until the early 2000s, thanks to help from another upstart Italian brand: Prada. “A significant boost in exposure came when Vibram collaborated with Prada to launch their groundbreaking Prada Sport collection,” says Lawrence Anastasi, Vibram USA’s Director of Sales, who has been with the company for nearly two decades. The Prada collection featured a range of attention-grabbing shoes—and Vibram soles. Since that collection, the company has further knit itself into the fashion world. Brands like Maison Margiela, Mark McNairy, Giorgio Armani, and Thom Browne have all turned to Vibram—for high-tech design, and unmatched quality, and choice amounts of ugliness—in the years since.
One independent label early to the wave is Our Legacy, the Swedish brand responsible for weirdo takes on Scandinavian minimalism. Since 2014, it has been selling versions of their Vibram-soled Mono Runner—the kind of ugly-until-it’s-beautiful shoe you see on artists, creative directors, and general nightlife connoisseurs. “When we first introduced our ”Mono Runner” with the wedgy RollinGait sole unit, we felt we really found an unique way of combining our design DNA with the Vibram soles,” says Jockum Hallin, one of Our Legacy’s co-founders. He likens the pairing to a vintage Land Rover driving through the glossy streets of London. “If you combine [Vibram soles] with the right uppers you get a shoe that is progressive both in design and in performance.” The up-and-coming sneaker company Brandblack also features Vibram soles on the majority of its non-hoops offerings. Virgil Abloh, the ultimate multi-hyphenate, and his Off-White label recently took on the bulky runner trend with a premium leather, suede and mesh sneaker—complete with thick Vibram outsole. Hiroki Nakamura has been using the soles in his Visvim footwear for years.
And while Vibram-soled sneakers are weirder and more adventurous than they’ve ever been, they’re still a utilitarian product made desirable to the snobbiest shoppers on the planet. Which makes a certain amount of sense: who wouldn’t want sneakers that are simultaneously upscale, revered by sneakerheads, and tough as nails, especially when you’re paying hundreds of dollars for them?
The rising tide of Vibram isn’t just about the aesthetic of a Vibram sole, though, or its durability—it’s a signal of the sneaker industry’s growing interest in something like authenticity. Even an iconic luxury house like Maison Margiela, one that has access to any material or method in the world, is using Vibram soles for its new line of Fall-Winter 2018 sneakers. Margiela doesn’t need to use Vibram, but chooses to because of the company’s decades of unrivaled expertise producing this one specific thing. (All this despite the fact that these same soles are featured on sneakers that cost less than $100.) It’s hard to say whether the historically secretive French brand called upon Vibram for the…vibes, or simply because of some manufacturing shortcomings, but the choice speaks to Vibram’s newfound weight with even the most exclusive fashion brands.
Ultimately, Vibram isn’t the star of any of these shoes—it’s simply the ultra-sturdy platform upon which designers build increasingly fantastical sneakers. They’re not going to sway a customer one way or another on a pair of high-end designer kicks,. But Vibram’s small, unassuming yellow logo lets a person know what they’re buying is legit, no matter the pricepoint. Trends come and go, but Vibram and its its rugged-as-hell outsoles are here for the long run.
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