Why are we using a Flat Outsole on Our New Boots?

October 31, 2014 0 Comments

Hey folks,

This update is going to be all about the boots, 'bout the boots (no treble?). Namely, why I decided to use a flat outsole, rather than the patented hollow heel outsole that we use for the Oxfords. As I tell the story, we'll also be exploring various types of shoe construction, outsole materials, and upper leather, comparing each one's pros and cons. Excited to learn? Let’s go!


The Story Begins...

...with an email from a customer named David. David is the quintessential Primal Professional. He's an American lawyer, now living in Europe, who grew up wearing Alden and Allen Edmonds, and then discovered the joy of barefoot shoes via FiveFingers. We've written regularly to each other as he knew knew so much about good shoes. In fact, he probably knew more about the history of our manufacturer, Weinbrenner / Thorogood, than I did!
In February 2013, David writes to me suggesting that we consider a high-top design next. Not only was it a popular style right now, but it's practical too for inclement weather. Style and function? I had to look into this more.


Boot Styles

As a California kid, the only boots I ever wore were ski boots maybe once a year, so I was starting from scratch. The first thing I did was research what all the different styles of boots were. We'll cover a select few here, as we explain how we chose our first style to develop.

First, we looked at the Chukka. It's probably the most common style of boots for men today. We actually made a prototype of these. They were okay. I didn't feel like they offered enough beyond the Vivobarefoot Gobi


Not that inspiring, right?

Quite a few brands are making leather minimalist shoes now. I've found that our niche, our specialty, is in making the styles that are more detailed. This is where I get excited. Where I feel like I'm making the most impact. While everyone else is using the open-lace Derby Blucher design, we made a closed-lace Balmoral Oxford. And rather than the simple chukka, we're going with a more detailed 6-inch lace-up boot. We're not afraid to tackle the more difficult designs, because we know they're worth extra effort.

Next style, the Chelsea boot. GQ calls it "the dressiest boot in the game." Well, we already have an Oxford, which is considered the dressiest of shoe styles. Oxfords can look good with either trousers or denim, but better with trousers. I wanted our first style of boots to also look good with either, but better with denim instead. I wanted something a bit less dress-boot than the Chelsea.

Then, the roofer boot. This is the style that Weinbrenner / Thorogood is best known for, and it perfectly captures the the concept of Form following Function. A roofer spends a lot of time crouched down at his job. The double-thick leather paneling on the side is there because this part of the boot is constantly rubbed. The ankle-to-toe lacing allows such thick leather to flex easily. The selvedge denim crowd, particularly in Europe and Asia, are in love with the roofer. However, the look is a bit too work-boot for our first style of boots.

Finally, I arrived upon the style we have today. I don't know what to call it specifically, but here's a nice round-up of the style from various brands. This style originated as work boots in the late 20th century, but it sits much higher in the dressy scale today. (It's kind of like how brogue shoes were once utilitarian footwear, made for walking in the bogs of Scotland. The perforations allowed water to drain, but now they are mainly just for decoration). I think this is because these boots, with a sleeker toe, look just like dress shoes with a high-top. This was just the style I was looking for: comfortable with both trousers and denim, but a bit better with denim. It was the perfect intermediary between the dress-boot Chelsea and the work-boot roofer.


Prototype 1: Black Trek Leather, Cement Construction, Hollow-Heel Outsole

In September 2013, I received our first prototype of this style, made  just like our Oxfords: Black Trek full-grain leather, Cement construction, and our patented hollow-heel Primal outsole. I immediately liked them more than our Oxfords. When you make the forefoot of a shoe wider, the midfoot and especially the rearfoot needs to be snug to keep the shoe from moving around too much. These boots were better than the Oxfords at hugging the rearfoot, making the shoes more responsive.  I ended up wearing these ALL the damn time. I wore them to Coachella, a 3-day music festival in the Southern Californian desert. I put them through a good amount of stress: dust, drinks (spilled), and dancing (both my own dancing and getting stepped on by other people, haha). At the end of it, they looked even cooler for it.

Dirty boots look cool.

Then the weekend after, I wore them again to a wedding! I took them into a shoe repair shop for a clean, condition, and shine 10 bucks, and they were ready to go with a suit! Really speaks to the versatility of this product.

I'm also excited that this is a unisex style. My wife, my mom, and all the women I love can finally have stylish, comfortable, and healthy footwear =D

Inspiration from the Competition

In December 2013, I saw the release of Vivobarefoot's hand-cut line. Of course, the first one I lasered in on was the Lisbon. It was definitely an improvement over the Rathanks to the shinier, more structured leather. However, it still had the Shrek-like toe box characteristic of Vivo. The upper design is also too simple for my taste. And I still think a dress shoe needs a heel, at least the look of one. 


However, the Porto doesn't look so bad! Hm...Why is that?

Seth Godin recently wrote about the Apple Watch in an article titled "Functional Jewelry":

What does this remind me of? is a key question people ask. Certain glasses make people look smart, because they remind us of librarians and scholars. Some cars remind us of movie chase scenes or funerals... If you're going to put something on my wrist, it's going to remind me of a watch. What sort of watch? The Pulsar my grandfather wore in 1973? A 175,000 euro Franck Muller Tourbillion, with complications? 

Marketers rarely get the chance to start completely fresh, to say, "this reminds you of nothing, start here."


For Oxfords, the presence of a fake heel is still a plus--if not a necessity---to look good with a proper suit or trousers. 

But for boots, an outsole that is clearly flat doesn't look too bad. It's probably because there are a good number of wedge sole boots, where it isn't immediately obvious that the heel is raised. Flat sole boots remind us of something familiar, in a way that flat sole dress shoes do not.

No longer needing the hollow heel outsole also means we can try different construction methods too. We'd be able to use Goodyear welt construction, and provide you with all the benefits that come with that!

Shoe Construction: Cement vs Goodyear Welt

Back in June 2013, I asked if we could use Chromexcel leather for our boots. Chromexcel is made with a century-old recipe by Horween Leather Co in Chicago, USA. It's a prized leather among craftsmen of the finest goods, found in products such as Alden Indy Boot, Red Wing Iron Rangers, and Wolverine 1000 Mile. The oil content of Chromexcel is very high, over 30%. This is what gives Chromexcel its trademark look of depth and variation, as well as it's softness despite thickness. Unfortunately, the oil also made it impossible to make with our outsole, because the cement can't stick to it. And, Cement is the only viable construction method that we're aware of for attaching our hollow-heel outsole.


However, if we don't need the look of a heel for our boots, we're no longer tied to Cement, and we could use other construction methods. Namely, the timeless Goodyear welt.

(For those who want to learn more about how these work, check out Tanner Guzy'sarticle on Primer Magazine: Understanding Shoe Construction. In addition to Cement and Goodyear welt, he also covers Blake construction, which is what the Vivobarefoot Lisbon uses).


The goodyear welt comes with a number of advantages:

  • Use of oily, rich leathers like the Chromexcel. With Goodyear welted shoes, the primary means of attachment is stitches, and so we're not subject to the limitations of Cement and oily leather not playing well together. And the benefit of oily leather isn't just the looks. It also allows a thicker, more robust piece of leather to still be soft.
  • That outsole isn't going anywhere. You know how I tell you not to run in our Oxfords? I run in our Goodyear welted boots every day =). They're not the best for it, as leather is heavier than running shoe mesh. But I do it because Goodyear welt is probably THE sturdiest construction method. Not only do stitches beat Cement, the lockstitches used in Goodyear welt mean that even if one thread pops out, the remainder won't unravel. 
  • More resoles, and easier resoles. In Goodyear welt, the upper and the outsole aren't directly attached to each other. Rather, the upper is stitched to the welt, and the welt is stitched to the outsole. In Cement resoling, the old outsole needs to be removed via force. In Goodyear welt, the old outsole is removed by taking apart stitches, resulting in much less stress to the shoe's leather.

However, it's not completely one-sided. Goodyear welt does lose to Cement in the following:

  • Flexibility. With thicker leathers and stronger bonds to said leather, Goodyear welt shoes are less flexible. For a barefoot athlete like me and you, I must say that they are NOT comfortable out of the box. They do break in to comfortable levels, but they won't ever be as flexible as our Oxfords.
  • Groundfeel. Goodyear welt shoes have more layers of material, and thus more between your foot and the ground.
  • Cost. A Goodyear welt is an old but sophisticated process that involves more time and skill. The average Goodyear welt shoe involves over 200 individual hand operations. This adds more labor costs to the shoe.
  • Dressy Heel. I must admit that even though the flat outsole boots look great, having the appearance of a heel would make them look even better. 

As you can see, this was not an easy decision to make one way or the other. It's not even a clear-cut matter of Form versus Function, because both construction methods have their fair share of advantages in both courts. Our shoes are the highest intersection of style and comfort, and it is our mission to stay that way by continuously push the envelope in both directions. 

In the end, after all things considered, I decided to develop our first boots as a Goodyear welt because I feel it makes the best boots for you.

Prototype 4: Chromexcel No. 8 Leather, Goodyear Welt, Vibram Outsoles


To Be Continued...

In next month's newsletter, I'll be continuing our story as we walk through further prototypes. There will be another controversial discussion, this time on leather versus synthetic outsoles.

But for now, Happy Halloween! You can bet I'm gonna be "stress testing" (i.e. dancing in) some boot prototypes this weekend ;)


Best Regards,

Mountain Evan Chang

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Sizing, Fit, & Feel

I. Sizing

  1. Let's start by asking: What shoe size (US Men's) normally fits you best? To convert from other sizing standards, see this chart.
  2. Is that a Narrow width? Go one size down for our shoes.
  3. Is that a Medium width? Depending on how roomy you like the toebox, go one size down OR order the same size.
  4. Is that a Wide width? Order the same size for our shoes.
  5. Don’t know the width of your shoes? They’re most likely Medium. 

II. Fit & Feel

This image shows roughly how/where your feet should sit inside a pair of Carets, at right. 

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.

If the widest part of your feet (i.e. your toes) occupies the widest part of our shoes, then you are wearing the right size.

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.

Expect Carets to feel less like FiveFingers and more like flat-bottomed skate shoes with the insoles removed.

In the end, what matters most is that you are happy with your shoes! We will gladly take them back (365-day free returns and exchanges, click for details) and I am honored that you gave us a shot.