April 23rd, 2012 - A man named Mountain and his girlfriend Cherry step out of a silver rental sedan on a sunny spring afternoon and I greet them at my door for the first time in person. They will spend a few days with my wife and I along their massively epic US road trip, taking them from their home in sunny California to the cool Midwest, the East Coast, and the baked Southwest, mostly to see their homeland in its fullness, but also to take care of some business. The warmth of their West Coast home radiates from their smiles, and I like them immediately. It's true that his full name is Mountain Evan Chang, and I wonder if he's named after Mt. Evans, the third tallest peak in Colorado at 14,264ft with the highest paved road in North America. Not a bad start to life with a name like that. His female companion Cherry exudes the very essence of the fruit itself, sweet and vibrant. Indeed it seems these two were destined for greatness by their very names alone.
I met Mountain about 6 months earlier when I discovered his Indie GoGo campaign to kickstart his own business surrounding a totally new shoe design, namely for a zero-drop, minimalist dress shoe, or barefoot dress shoe as it were. Choosing to adhere to the paleo diet and live life as an urban caveman of sorts got him to thinking about bringing the ethos of his personal life into his work life, a place filled with modern conventions that are contrary to most everything we know in life to be healthy: sitting all day, slouching in front of a computer under artificial light, wearing constricting clothing, and eating junk food to stay awake to do work that does neither provide joy nor satisfaction. That may be an overstatement, but you get the idea. In any case, like many people devoted to a more primal lifestyle, being barefoot - or as barefoot as possible - is a key ingredient, for various health reasons. Thus, designing a barefoot dress shoe that not only provides comfort and a minimalist feel but also compliments the modern dress shoe style became increasingly more paramount to him as a member of the professional world.
In my last post, I discussed the notion of making an impact on the world in a positive way, while also leading a kickass life. It's important to allow our dreams to be larger than life, and even more important to dedicate the energy necessary to truly make them a reality, which is what Mountain is doing, and I respect and admire him a great deal for it. Although his initial Indie GoGo campaign failed, he was so confident in his design that he quit his job and dedicated himself full-time to making this barefoot dress shoe happen. He has fronted most of his life savings to put this into production, and the moment has finally arrived. The first run of the shoe will be ready to ship in just months. Having shared in his excitement and being a supporter of his dream, I was lucky enough to snag a pair of prototypes from him to preview, so here's the sneak peek. Check it out.
The idea behind this shoe is to provide as much comfort and space in an otherwise classically-shaped dress shoe, allowing for the greatest proprioception and toe-splay without sacrificing style. The clothes may make the man, but the shoes make him complete. Thus, Mountain decided on a high-quality full-grain black leather, round-toe, closed-lace, cap-toe oxford, because it's truly classic and elegant (sorry guys if the word "elegant" rubs you the wrong way - how about sexy?). It is a shoe that fits many purposes and occasions, and it's a great place to start for a minimalist dress shoe.
The penultimate feature of the design for this shoe is the shape. The shoe looks like a standard oxford, managing to hide the fact that it is wide enough to give all five little piggies room to splay and the midfoot room to expand without looking like a clown shoe. There were a couple of earlier prototypes that I had the chance to check out when Mountain was visiting, and I felt like was wearing a pair of Ronald McDonald's flattened casuals, so I'm glad that he hit the mark with this current version.
|The Primal Professional in the middle, in comparison with my two pair of (very old) dress shoes.|
Ultimately the coolest and most unique part of this barefoot dress shoe is the sole. The greatest beef with dress shoes for barefooters, in my observation, is the raised heel in most standard styles. To be a true barefoot dress shoe, or even a minimalist dress shoe, it would need to be zero-drop, meaning no difference in height from heel to toe, while also providing good ground feel, otherwise known more technically as proprioception. To this end, Mountain was creative in designing a sole that tricks the eye into believing the heel is raised, when in fact it's all just a ruse. By having a flexible, zero-drop sole that appears to have a raised heel, form and function become delightfully intertwined. Unfortunately, I did not get the fully finished version of the shoe, because the soles hadn't been produced yet, so the best part was missing, and instead it had just a flat piece of ersatz rubber. Here's a pic I stole from Mountain to give you the idea, however.
Mountain went out of his way to find a manufacturer that not only is in the US, but would produce the shoe with the greatest quality, materials, and attention to detail. The leather is incredibly uniform and supple, the stitching is perfect, and it just looks sexy. I can't say that it stands out in the crowd of dress shoes, as there is really no trendy or funky accent to it, but as mentioned earlier, it's a timeless design that will withstand the fashion trends through the years. Although the pair that I received to review are unfinished in the fact that they only have an ersatz sole for the time being, the upper is impressive. Unfortunately I cannot say anything about the feel or quality of the sole itself, other than to say that the pictures look pretty swanky, and this vid - starting at 7:06 - shows superior flexibility. The entire product is manufactured by a company in Wisconsin, for which Mountain searched long and hard to ensure quality, and also to support our own national economy. A high-quality product that also maintains jobs here at home - what could be better?
Fit: The Most Comfortable Dress Shoe Ever?
To say that I was excited to receive the test prototype is an understatement. I had seen pictures of the developments and followed Mountain through the process, and thus have anticipated the final product for quite some time. In regard to the fit, they are definitely roomy enough to provide toe-splay and midfoot expansion. That being said, they didn't fit my foot terribly well. I have a very narrow heel and a wide midfoot (think swim flipper), and in order to avoid the shoe looking too clownish, the extra width in the midfoot continues back to the heel as well, making the shoe wide in general. Additionally, these are a size 7, and I normally wear a size 8 in regular shoes (7.5 in my Merrel Trail Gloves and a 39 in Five Fingers), so the sizing is also a bit wonky.
The other dilemma in designing this shoe came from the trick-the-eye sole. The foot actually rests inside of the outsole, meaning the upper must be a bit shallower to fit more properly when the foot rests so low to the ground. However, making the upper too shallow drastically changes the look of the shoe, giving it a strangely flat profile, so finding the proper shape was a challenge throughout the design process. In my case, along with my narrow heel, I also have a rather shallow foot from top to bottom. Due to this, the cuff of the shoe felt quite loose and sloppy and I never felt I could tie it quite tightly enough. The closed-lace design, while looking cleaner and classier, also hinders the ability to tie the shoe tighter, as opposed to an open-lacing system that is a bit more forgiving. I have tried on numerous closed-lace dress shoes in the past (regular dress shoes with a raised heel), and I've always had this problem around the cuff.
|Laces tied all the way, foot resting normally, with visible space at heel, while wearing thick wool socks.|
So the question is; is this the most comfortable dress shoe ever? It certainly has the potential. After about an hour, I didn't notice the loose cuff except for when I went down the stairs or downhill, when my foot was pushed forward more and it cramped my toes a bit. Otherwise these were a sweet ride, and I think that with the actual sole, they will be even more comfortable. Also of note regarding the soles is that they can be replaced when worn out. Overall, I would say that there is still room for growth and improvement in the design, but seeing as this has never been done before, I give Mountain an "A" for effort. I personally am fond of the patent-leather square-toed oxford and would love to see a Primal Professional version in the future.
Is This Shoe For Everyone?
Quite a few people I've met who aren't into the minimalist "movement" don't seem to understand what the fuss is about, or they simply don't care, which begs the question of why to even consider these dress shoes, especially considering that they run around $300 a pair. Allow me to make a few points to address this. First off, let me ask you; are your dress shoes both appropriate and stylish, yet also comfortable enough to wear ALL day without sore feet by the time you take them off? If not, then you should consider these shoes. Secondly, do you want healthier, stronger feet, better posture, and a more normal, efficient gait that will prevent foot problems like bunions, a misaligned spine, and a host of other preventable maladies later in life? Consider how much time you spend at work throughout your life, for which you need to wear dress shoes (if you have such a career). Your feet will thank you for these shoes. Finally, I will direct you to this post by Jason Robillard, who has done some testing on the comfort and support of minimalist shoes while working long hours on his feet as a UPS delivery man, otherwise known as an "industrial athlete." Some of his findings and insights are truly invaluable, showing that you need not be a suit-and-tie businessman to benefit from a minimalist dress shoe. You may decide for yourself that not only is this the most comfortable dress shoe ever, but simply the most comfortable shoe, period. You even have a 365-day risk-free period to test it with free returns and exchanges during that time. That's how confident Mountain is in his product. As I mentioned earlier, you're also buying a quality product that's made in the USA from a small business owner who cares about the economy and the health of his customers (not to mention their style). That's the kind of person I would like to support.
If you're interested in more information, check out the website via the link on the side of my blog, or on The Primal Professional's Facebook page, where you'll find more photos and information on how to get in on owning a pair of these unique and comfortable shoes.