While Merrell is well-known for their outdoor shoes and apparel, this year they have added another notch to their belt by creating a barefoot running line. Available through Eastbay in both men’s and women’s, these shoes are as minimalist as they come, but they are sturdy where it counts thanks to a specially designed Vibram outsole. While the Merrell barefoot line can be considered minimalist, the instruction they provide about barefoot running is anything but. Check out Eastbay’s Athletic Resource Center for more information about barefoot running courtesy of Merrell.
We were able to chat with Vice President of Men’s Product Development, Hy Rosario, to learn more about Merrell’s new line and the inspiration behind the construction of their barefoot-inspired footwear.
Sara Accettura: How involved are you, then, with this new focus on barefoot running?
Hy Rosario: Very. Basically, in a nutshetll, I’m responsible for all of the men’s product that Merrell puts forward to the marketplace. So, there’s obviously a team of designers, developers, and others, but at the end of the day, it’s kind of my job to make sure that what we’re doing is right for the brand and the consumer we’re targeting.
Could you talk a little bit about the brief of the shoe and maybe just some the insights that you guys were going after for the shoe.
Let me just back up for a second and start with the reason why Merrell is doing barefoot shoes. As you probably know there’s a really large movement with technical runners in this arena of getting back to natural running. And really what our shoes are trying to do is put the body in the right angle of attack, if you will, to the ground to facilitate what people would consider natural running. So really what that is is that we want to make sure that your toes and your heel sit at the same level to each other, and that’s defined by what we call zero drop. So, when a heel has a zero drop, it means that the heel and the toe, or the forefoot of the shoe, sit at the same level relative to each other. If you have a shoe, like a traditional running shoe that has a cushioned heel, it can have anywhere from 10 to 12 mm in the heel relative to the forefoot. So, your heel would sit 10 to 12 mm higher than the toes of your feet. So, the philosophy of barefoot running to try and get your feet are in a neutral, zero drop stance, and then if you use the right running technique the logic is you would be closer to mimicking what would be considered natural running. And the shoes that Merrell has engineered are designed to promote this natural running gate or natural form of running.
I’m going backwards a little bit, I realize that, but I wanted to make sure we were setting up the reason why Merrell was doing barefoot shoes. And what we’ve done is partnered with Vibram, they are also the makers of the Vibram Five-Fingers product, so there’s a lot of know-how there that we’ve been able to tap into as Merrell developed it’s own version of barefoot-friendly, run-able product. And that was really the start of the Vibram and Merrell partnership to build a Merrell barefoot story.
So, once you understand zero drop, then the next thing that we’ve really worked hard to do is to really make the shoes foot-friendly and also sockless-friendly, and that really encompassed trying to do things like reducing layers in the shoes to make them lighter, more breathable. It also included things like reducing the number of stitching panels in the upper, so if you do wear the shoes without socks, which a lot of true barefoot technical runners do, then you’re more likely to have a more comfortable running experience than if you had a shoe with lots of stitching where you actually get what’s called hot spots where the foot and the stitch actually rub against each other and create blistering and chaffing and that sort of thing, so a lot of attention was paid to minimalizing the number of panels and layers to make the product that much more barefoot-friendly, comfortable and functional.
So, the three shoes that you spoke of are basically a manifestation of that idea of less is more. So, we really tried to take things out that you didn’t need and leave in only the things that you needed. So, just to illustrate that point, for instance, there is no heel counter in these shoes, so they all basically formed the shape of the individual human foot, because there is no big, plastic part in the heel preventing that sort of individualized fit. So, that’s one other example of a “less is more” construction methodology. There’s no sockliner, so in most running shoes you would get a removable sockliner, or insole as some people call them. In our barefoot shoes, the sockliner is actually part of the shoe; it’s not removable. But, it’s designed to be comfort-oriented and barefoot-friendly, again, so you could wear it without socks. And then, all three of these shoes use Merrell’s Omni-Fit lacing system, which is a proprietary lacing system that really allows you to secure the foot without inhibiting or creating any pressure points, so that’s another little detail that we’ve placed into the product just from a design and functional story. Those are some examples of the “less is more” mindset when we were working on the designs for the barefoot product.
What really drove you into the barefoot arena? What sort of inspired you to go in that direction?
Well, I think for us, it was easy to see that this was an up-and-coming long-term trend, not a fad, and because it was based in the functional arena, we felt that we could make a point of difference by coming to market with a Vibram partnership to really bring barefoot to not just to the outdoors, but just to runners everywhere.
So, what would you say would be the difference between your shoes and the Fivefingers?
That’s a really good question. The Fivefingers product obviously have five separate sockets for each of the digits of your feet, so that’s firstly the big difference. We don’t have that; we’ve kind of got the mitt versus the glove kind of feel, if you will. So, that’s first the biggest difference. The second thing is, obviously our uppers are designed with lacing systems, whereas most of the Fivefingers product are designed with either Velcro or stretch panels. So, the closure systems are significantly different between most Fivefingers products and the Merrell barefoot products. We share a lot of the DNA in the outsole in terms of the build or geometry of the build. So, for instance, we have four millimeters of EVA that run from the heel to the toe, but again, at a zero drop. There’s a little bit of cushioning, and then we’ve worked really hard to make sure the product is stable, and on the toes, in particular on the Trail Glove, that it’s also protective. So on that particular product, we worked really hard to give you a very thin, protective plate underneath the ball, so that if you do run on technical trails, that the ball of your foot is protected from stone bruising, because that ESS plate actually takes the shock and moves it sideways instead of allowing it to come straight up on the edge of the foot.
When you were choosing the upper materials, what were some of the deciding factors?
Again, really good question. We were looking at things that were lighter, that were more breathable, in some cases materials that were applicable without stitching, so those were kind of some of the criteria. And also the normal things you would expect from Merrell: durability, strength and things like that that you would expect from Merrell. We were really looking to make sure the material spoke to what the barefoot consumer really wanted, which was light weight, breathability and comfort.
One thing that I think is really interesting is the toe bumper, because I’m sure that it has a completely different reason for existing than for what I enjoy it for, but I feel like it keeps a little bit of stuff out as you’re running. [laughs] Because, stuff just does get in. Was there any other reason; was it just a protection type of a thing?
Yeah, the rubber that you are looking at, especially on the men’s product, is actually a technique of painting the rubber on rather than stitching it on, so that it’s a lighter layer, but still protective. It’s just like you said, it’s a bumper so that if you scrape by a rock or shrubbery, it should give your toes a little bit of protection, and also keep from totally gouging the shoe and turning up a potentially big hole where then you have bigger problems coming through.
What were some of the weartesting processes like as you were developing the shoe? Did you target certain people? And was that a long process?
It was a very intense process that we put these shoes through. We had probably about 50 weartesters that we used at an outside testing firm. So, they were independent; they weren’t affiliated with Merrell. We also had a lot of internal runners wearing our product, and then finally, there were quite a few independent bloggers in the world of the barefoot community that were also at the tail-end of the testing program that really helped to put a stamp of approval if you will. And the bloggers were free to comment both positive and negative on the product and its functionality, so it was kind of great for Merrell to actually have a choosy group of individuals actually give those shoes some major props. So, we’re very excited about that. That been a really great process and a great opportunity for the brand.
What was the biggest challenge as you were going through and developing the shoes and fine-tuning all of these elements?
I think the biggest challenge, to be honest, was probably two things. One is we were on a very short development schedule relative to the remaining portion of the range for Spring ’11. So, whenever you cut the time to do something, you know everyone’s working a little harder and a lot closer to make it happen, and the second thing I would say was just reminding ourselves to really think about less is more, so removing things that you didn’t really need, you know really scrutinizing things that you would normally not worry about, like where a stitch is or where two panels meet, you know, should that panel meet there or should it meet in a different place to help with comfort and flexibility. So, those kinds of minutia details we really had to work hard to get right, because at the end of the day, that little thing could be the reason the user could find the experience unpleasant.
What was the timeframe for developing the shoe? You said there was a little bit of a crunch – is that just sort of the normal experience, or did you guys get the ball started more recently with this whole line?
For Spring ’11, by the time we got our sort of plan together and let all of our partners involved know, whether it was Vibram or on the manufacturing side, we lost some ground, but we were able to make it up by just working really hard as a team to work with Vibram and with our suppliers in Asia to develop the product on time and on functional track, if you know what I mean. So, the timeline was cut, but good news is it wasn’t a point that we compromised weartesting. So, it actually meant that we had to do a lot more weartesting in less time, whereas in the past maybe the weartesting was done over a longer period with less weartesters.
If you had to pick out an element of the shoe that you are most proud of, and I know that this is sort of like a trick question, but is there one aspect of the shoe, or even a couple, that you are just the most proud that you guys pulled off in this timeframe?
Yeah, I think the main thing that I think the whole Merrell team is really proud of is that we really have delivered a runable, functional, and actually aesthetically pretty good-looking product, and it’s not bad for a company that historically isn’t known for running, if you will, in our product mix. So, for our first time out of the gate, I think the team did an amazing job of delivering a truly run-able product.
I agree! So, that sounds like the line is going to continue, that you’ll keep building on it each year. Is that something people can expect?
Absolutely. In fact, for spring ’13, we’re going to take the barefoot story to different categories, including road running, water sports, sandals and also lifestyle products. So, one of the insights we’ve learned is that barefoot runners are now actually finding it more comfortable to be in barefoot product all of the time, so the zero drop construction is almost finding a craving, if you will, from many users, and we want to make sure that we deliver a Merrell story to barefoot consumers and surround their entire barefoot life, if I could say it that way.
I like you’re use of “craving”. That’s a really good way to describe that.
Yeah, and I think when you talk to barefoot runners, and I assume you’ve been running in the shoes because you sound like you’ve given them a little whirl. … I think once you do barefoot activity, whether it’s running or walking – or minimalist if you will – you get that craving. You just end up wanting to do more of it, and that’s the reason why we think this is not something that’s just going to be a blip on the radar. You only have to read any blog site that caters to the barefoot community and how fanatical and passionate they are about it. I don’t think any toning website was ever built with that kind of passion.
That’s a good point. And when you find other people that feel the same way, you’re right, it’s like that instant connection because you feel so similarly. And you guys won the best debut by Runner’s World . How did you feel about that? That’s a big deal.
It was a nice pat on the back for the brand, and it’s just spurred us on to really do the right thing for the end user. So, it’s been a nice compliment, but we have to continue to look forward and improve on all of the things that we have done well and also continue to do better.
I know I’m kind of jumping backwards, but with regards to my personal experience of lack of hotspots in the shoe and I know you talked about minimalist stitching was there anything else you took into consideration with fit. I know you have the lacing system; was there anything else that you focused on or that was really important to make sure that the shoe fit correctly while still being so minimal?
I think it’s just the whole ethos of less is more. And you’ll see that as you go into the future seasons of barefoot. . . . So really, that ethos is the thread that we will continue to develop and finesse as we go into the future seasons. If I could hang my hat on one design language, it’s really about following that ethos of less is more and really considering the details and, “Do we need that, and if we do, great, how do we make it more minimal. And if we don’t need it, let’s get rid of it.”
You guys have a really intense instructional-type initiative along with this. You didn’t just release these shoes and say, “Here you go.” I mean, you have a lot of support on your website for helping people ease into this [barefoot running]. Was that something you thought about on the product development side as well?
When we started in our first phases, one of the things a lot of the retail partners really said to us to focus on almost equally as big as the shoes was educating the consumers. And we take the fact that our consumers really look to us and trust us to be good partners to them. So, we almost felt obligated to make sure that we educated them about how to use the shoes so that they didn’t injure themselves, because it’s quite easy to injure yourself. . . . So, we wanted to make sure that people who were just trying barefoot for the first time had a wonderful experience from the get-go and we felt obligated to make sure that the education was as important to the brand as the product itself was. And that’s why we invested so much on the educational side, especially when you go to our website, the amount of content and resource there is pretty enormous, again, for the first time being out of the gate. . . . We’re really passionate about making our products better each season. We’re really excited about where barefoot’s going and how Merrell can be the innovative partner in that journey for consumers.