Research Notes is a series that reviews and recommends great footwear from a three-prong approach: style, biomechanics, and shoe construction. It also shines a light on how our own products change as we learn from our peers.
Quite possibly the most minimalist boots on the planet.
I had never owned a pair of Soft Star Shoes until these. I had heard great things about their comfort, but their designs were too folksy for my personal style. I’ve also never been a fan of chukkas due to a lack of detailing, and I don’t plan on making chukkas because there are plenty in the barefoot world and I have nothing to add.
So despite everything, what turned me on to the Hawthorne? It was Jarvis Chen’s excellent review of the Hawthorne and his comparison against the Vivobarefoot Porto on BirthdayShoes.com that got me to pull the trigger and buy a pair. His articles and comments suggested that I could learn a lot from these boots, and thereafter make a better Chronology boot for you guys. Well, I did. Thanks, Jarvis!
Now before I continue, I want to say that, while the Soft Star Hawthorne are not the boots that I would make myself for my audience, the Hawthorne is consistent with Soft Star’s ethos, and likely perfect for their audience. Therefore, any design choice I point out as a “con” is more of a difference in design philosophy, and not a con in and of itself.
Actually, I will be extending this approach to all of my Research Notes. When I first started in this industry, I thought you could make a perfect shoe, with all the best features. And I thought I knew what those features were. Now I know that everything is a choice, each with their own benefits and tradeoffs, and that these are subject to the wearer's preference and usage. Now, let's continue to the Notes...
The “secret sauce” of the Hawthorne is in its construction method: stitchdown.
It’s pretty simple, actually. The upper is stitched down to the midsole. Then, the Vibram outsole is cemented to the midsole.
I also suspect that the leather in their midsole is softer than typical soling leather. Soft Star, please feel free to confirm =)
The way they construct the Hawthorne lends itself to 2 of the things I like about it:
They are resoleable by local cobblers. While our cement oxfords and our goodyear welt boots can be resoled, they do require the right equipment in the right hands. It usually comes down to whether the brand wants to offer the service. I imagine most brands would prefer you just buy another pair. I was very insistent that we provide a resole and restoration program for Chronology, because I hate waste. With the way Soft Star made the Hawthorne, a local cobbler can just cut off the old outsole and glue on a new outsole. This would be significantly cheaper and faster for my customers!
+ They are super flexible. Goodyear Welt has a number of physical features that add stiffness: the thick leather welt, the gemming of the insole, and 2 rows of stitching. I was told that this support was a benefit, since Goodyear Welt is often used on workboots. The stitchdown doesn't have any of these, and is very flexible as a result. Of course, they wouldn't be as flexible if they didn't have the next feature...
+ They have a super soft leather. This leather would look too soft for a dress shoe, but on these chukkas they are appropriate. In the pic above, I am pressing a Hawthorne (left) and a Lems Boulder Boot against a step with my knees. The Boulder Boot is a bit taller, so it's understandable why it wouldn't be as flat as the Hawthorne.
+ They have no structured toe, nor structured heel counter. Inside most leather boots and dress shoes, there is a hard structure inside the toe and heel counter that reinforce these areas. The Hawthorne and the Boulder Boot do not have either, and it makes them more flexible and easier to pack. Viberg Boots, a renowned Canadian bootmaker, is famous for having unstructured toes as well. I think this is worth a shot for our boots!
+ They provide ample groundfeel, again comparable to the Lems Boulder Boot
+ They have a wide toebox that still looks pretty good, thanks to a slight taper.
At right is the latest boot prototype we have.
- The Hawthorne, at left, has no toe spring. Notice that the very tip of the shoe is pretty scuffed. That's because I've tripped on the front quite a few times while walking. Toe spring helps prevent that. Even though our boots are longer, I've never had that happen before, and I've worn our boots quite a bit more. However, I do believe that our toe spring is a bit much. Our last (a plastic "foot" that shoes are built around) does not have this much toe spring, but the shoes built on it does, so we need to account for that difference and adjust our last accordingly.
- They have a short (in height) toebox, also apparent in the pic above. The tops of my toes feel slightly oppressed. It does get better over time, but slowly.
- Their tongue is not gusseted.Having a separate tongue that isn't gusseted does allow it to lay a little more comfortably on your instep, but the difference is slight, particularly with such a soft leather. However, you lose the protection from the elements that a gusseted tongue provides. In the photo above, I use a blue arrow to show at what height each shoe provides protection from the elements. The Hawthorne's loose tongue doesn't provide protection even up to the first eyelet, whereas our gusseted tongue provides provides protection all the way up past the fourth eyelet. I feel like it under-utilizes the fact that it's a high-top.
- They don't have any insole cushioning. Their outsole does have some give to it. But, having a hard insole and midsole on top of a slightly cushioned outsole is not as nice as having a soft insole right under your feet.
A pair of the @softstarshoes #Hawthorne #chukka #ankleboot. I put #elasticlaces on them, like the kind we have on our #oxfords. This video shows how easy it is to slip them on and off, even with one hand holding my phone. See link in our profile for a review on quite possibly the most minimalist boots on the planet, and what I learned while wearing and examining them.
- They don't use elastic laces. These shoe are the perfect candidate for elastic laces. The shorter the laces, the better the elastic works. They're useless on our boots, pretty good on our Oxfords, and excellent on the Hawthorne's 3 rows of eyelets! I hope you guys see this and try out elastic laces =)
Quite possibly the most minimalist boots on the planet. These are now my go-to work boots, and my go-to sand shoes. Despite the tongue not being gusseted, they still do a pretty good job of keeping out sand, as chukkas were originally designed to do!
Check them out:
I think this job would be ideal for a Stay-at-Home Parent with a spare bedroom who wants a part-time job that they can do from home and at their own pace. Or, a shoe repair shop with extra storage space.
At left is a typical dress shoe, same size and same Wide width. You can see that it is still 1 or 2 cm longer than ours. Most sleeker dress shoes have a fair amount of unoccupied space in the front. We took advantage of that and used it to give you a wide toebox without looking like it. Dress shoes get even longer if we start looking at chisel-toe and pointy-toe styles. But even though these conventional dress shoes are longer, you still feel cramped because of the heel lift and the fact that their shoes are widest at the ball of the foot. Ours are widest at the toes, as a foot naturally is.
Regarding groundfeel, Carets' outsole is 4mm thick, with another 4mm of leather and cork between that and your feet. The polyurethane we use for the outsole was selected for durability, which is more important than groundfeel in a shoe like this. The 2-part (polyurethane + leather/cork) design allows for the shoes to be resoled like good dress shoes and unlike most minimalist shoes.