The hottest thing in footwear isn’t Louboutins or Manolos. Not Kobes or LeBrons either, and not Reefs or Crocs.
No, the hottest, coolest frill for the feet is Vibram FiveFingers, a glovelike shoe with separate pockets for each of those five little piggies — like Japanese tabi taken to the max.
These toe-tickling treasures are getting a boost from the resurgence in barefoot running and studies showing that less is more when it comes to athletic footwear. Everyone from soldiers to yoga instructors is stuffing their toes into them. What’s more, men are collecting FiveFingers like some women might collect the latest stilettos.
"I got a glimpse of the 2011 lineup, and I look forward to buying more," wrote Staff Sgt. Tim Burton, an Army Reserve officer from Fort Shafter, in an e-mail from Iraq, where he is on deployment. "I already have four and don’t expect to stop."
Burton said he wears his FiveFingers often in Iraq. "The temperatures get up to over 130 degrees Fahrenheit here and they are perfect because they allow my feet to breathe while I run … on paved roads, off-road in the rocks, across sand and on a treadmill. They allow me to feel everything below me and I have a better grasp of my surroundings."
Tropical Blends on Queen Street is one of five authorized FiveFingers retailers on Oahu. "We just can’t get enough of them in the store," said store owner Keff Carter.
Tracey Russell, owner of Wheatgrass Center in Kaimuki, said the shoes draw odd stares at first, but they’ve been flying off the shelves the two years she’s been selling them for prices ranging from $85 to $135.
Russell said she has sold FiveFingers to hikers, tennis players and anyone who puts the foot to heavy use. Surfers and kayakers like them because they protect them from reefs and rocky shorelines. She said she also has sold them to surgeons who have to stand for hours on end, and to an elderly man who walked in with a cane and forgot it walking out in his new FiveFingers.
"I love them," said Louise Tremblay, a Wheatgrass customer. "I brought my sister here to get herself some. I have better balance, and the muscles in my calves and legs are better."
Wearing FiveFingers takes some getting used to. With the bottom of the foot covered, the temptation is to walk or run as if wearing regular shoes. But the heels are not padded as running shoes are, so landing hard on the heel will soon cause pain.
FiveFingers induce users to land on the forefoot, which leads to a subtle change in stride and posture, and exercise different leg muscles. Having the toes separated also improves circulation, Russell said.
While research on any benefits of wearing FiveFingers is scarce, a study led by Harvard biology professor Daniel Lieberman found that landing on the forefoot strengthens the foot muscles, is more efficient and "feels great." The study also suggests there is anecdotal evidence that it can help avoid or mitigate repetitive stress injuries to the legs and feet.
FiveFingers were first introduced about five years ago in a low-cut model. Since then Vibram, known for making the tough soles for hiking boots, has added features such as extra straps for more active users, leather uppers for workouts in the gym, split bottoms and fuller sock models — better for keeping out debris from the trail or beach.
Diane Rivera, a massage therapist who assists Russell, said she used to suffer from knee and back pains. That changed after she switched to the shoes, which she now wears full time.
"I will never go back to regular shoes. And I think they’re really cute."
Vibram FiveFingers also are sold at Uyeda Shoe Store in Honolulu (phone: 941-1331) and Runner’s HI (488-6588) and Vim ‘n’ Vigor (484-4787), both in Aiea.