The Minimalist Dilemma: Less (Shoe), More (Cost)?

by Editor on June 30, 2011

The average price of a traditional running shoe from a mainstream running brand is between $85 and $95. The average price of a pair of barefoot shoes is $90-$120. The average mileage of a traditional running shoe from a mainstream running brand is 400 miles. An aqua shoe might get you 120 miles. A good minimalist shoe should get you at least 500 miles. There are reasons for that, and I’ll get into those in a moment.

Cost of Bare & Minimalist Shoes

Totally Bare = $0

Aqua Shoe = $8-$32

Huarache = $25-$50

Minimalist = $90-$200+

Natural Motion = $120+

As with so many active/athletic items, there are those early adopters (“gear heads”) who look willingly past a price tag to the design and functionality of a new item. There’s a cache to being an early adopter, and if there’s the possibility of finding a secret weapon that makes you faster, stronger, fitter, hipper…it has its worth.

Most of us aren’t early adopters. Most of the general population (especially in challenging economic times) are focused on the cost/value proposition of everything we buy. So it’s never surprising when a customer asks me why a minimalist shoe – presumably a shoe made of LESS components – can cost as much (if not MORE) than a traditional running shoe.

Before I get into a brief explanation of what goes into a good minimalist shoe, a quick profile of why I know anything about it.

I’m a co-founder of a small minimalist shoe company called kigo footwear. We are a passionate three-person team focused on designing and producing a line of anatomically designed, eco-friendly minimalist shoes that weigh no more than 5 ounces and that provide superior proprioception in a protective, stylish and comfortable package that makes them as useful for athletic and active wear as for lifestyle. Because we are a small team, we function as proverbial hat racks, intimately focused on the design, the textiles and manufacturing process.

So, without further ado, here is a breakdown that should illustrate the cost/value of your next minimalist shoe.

The Upper

The upper is the top part of the shoe. It can be a strap, mesh, fabric, leather or a combination thereof. I start here, because there is less difference between a minimalist and a traditional shoe upper, so the production cost generally is pretty consistent. A minimalist shoe will have less going on, and it will be lighter than with a traditional running shoe.

Functionally, what you want is an upper that breathes, stretches, adjusts to your foot and provides at least a modicum of style.

Adjustability

Staying in the upper part of the shoe, adjustability is important. Whether that is accomplished through stretch in a slip on, straps that can be adjusted, Velcro, lacing or another device, keeping your foot stable inside the shoe provides a more comfortable fit, regardless of activity.

With a traditional shoe, adjustability is often accomplished via lacing and Velcro. With a minimalist shoe, adjustability is a more creative endeavor because things like Velcro and laces have weight. Keeping that weight out while adding those components is the kind of engineering challenge that you might remember from your High School Physics Club. (You were in the High School Physics Club, right?)

Insole

This is the piece inside your shoe where your foot goes. Often, it’s removable. Often it’s garbage. In traditional shoes, you might replace them with orthotics, custom insoles or something else (are you Gellin?). In minimalist shoes, you might not find an insole at all. You might have a thin, removable insole or just a soft interior. Regardless of which, there will be less contour, less mass and lots of softness so that barefoot is possible and comfortable. This piece will break down faster than the outsole because it is a lower density component, which is another reason why removable insoles are important. If you do remove the insole in a minimalist shoe, it should still fit comfortably.

Outsole

Design for an anatomically shaped outsole

Now we get to the heart of the matter. The outsole on a traditional shoe is made of a stratus of layered materials. Some are high compression and some are more like soft foam. If you look at traditional running shoes, you’ll see the high compression rubber on the very outside – this is what touches the ground. It’s very durable, resists puncture and has less flexibility. The soft stuff cushioning the space between the bottom of your foot and the outsole is an EVA type material (similar to your insoles), and it compresses with use. This layer is why you don’t get as many miles out of a traditional running shoe as you do with a minimalist shoe. The EVA compresses and breaks down, leaving you with what may seem like a perfectly good outsole on a shoe that is no longer comfortable.

In a minimalist shoe, that squishy EVA layer is noticeably absent. You have a high compression outsole made of something like rubber, latex, TPU, foam – the variety is surprisingly wide, and there is good reason to look at the sole material on your next minimalist purchase. The goals for minimalist outsole are a high degree of flexibility, thinness, high tear strength for durability and puncture resistance. Combined, these elements will provide you with natural motion, proprioception and protection. And because there no EVA involved, you should get 500+ miles out of your minimalist shoes whether you are using them for running, walking, outdoor activity or lifestyle. How’s that for cost/value?

There’s much more that goes into the production of a minimalist shoe, but hopefully this dissection of the shoe itself – along with the health (and performance) benefits – help to justify the average cost of a minimalist shoe. And if not, well, there’s always bare or a regularly replaced supply of aqua socks.

Rachelle Kuramoto, co-founder of kigo footwear

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Comfortable Shoes June 30, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Great post! It leaves me with a question though: Is having no EVA layer the only “requirement” for a shoe to be called minimalist? Are there minimalist shoe regulations?

Jordan June 30, 2011 at 4:37 pm

GREAT article! I guess I consider myself a “semi-early” adopter in many cases, so I regularly make the decision to purchase without much regard for the cost (as long as my wife says I can). I’ve used the argument that minimalist shoes last longer, but I’ve never had this much science and rationale to back it up.

I think there may be one other factor worth considering…labor cost. Without getting into a debate on international business practice and basic human rights, I’d venture to guess that many minimalist shoe companies are still relatively small and that there is more hands-on work being done throughout the productions process. When I ordered my Luna Sandals, it was quite clear that a small team of workers hand-crafted my sandals, packed them, and shipped them to me. For me, this helped justify the cost. If I believed that my sandals were being massed produced by machinery and foreign labor on a high-volume production line, the cost would have been harder to justify.

I am happy to know that my minimalist shoes are being made with some attention to detail and that their makers are earning a fair wage, not only to support themselves and their families, but to continue their efforts to build a better, lighter, thinner, more natural shoe. Thanks for being a part of the minimalist movement and I’ll happily pay the price for quality work.

Rachelle June 30, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Great question! EVA/lack of is not the only requirement, certainly. We often say that a truly minimalist shoe should have the following as a basis:
-zero (or very near zero) drop
-totally flexible outsole
-weight of less than 5oz
-high degree of proprioception
-anatomical shape
-good traction/grip
-high durability

It is finding a way to do all of this within that 5oz, flexible package that makes this category really interesting from a design engineering standpoint. We actually changed manufacturers after our first two design seasons in order to work with a team that really understands this magic combination (and – as an aside – shares our commitment to total ecological responsibility)…so it’s not just the design, it is the production as well.

Theo June 30, 2011 at 5:21 pm

I think you may have put down the wrong numbers for the shoe break down below. What minimalist shoe costs over $200 ?

Cost of Bare & Minimalist Shoes

Totally Bare = $0

Aqua Shoe = $8-$32

Huarache = $25-$50

Minimalist = $90-$200+

Natural Motion = $120+

Rachelle June 30, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Nope. Not wrong. Ecco, SoftStar (custom) and Russell Moccassin all have models the cost more than $200. We have a full scale minimalist market study if you’re interested in seeing it.

Theo July 1, 2011 at 9:17 pm

I assume you are referring to the Ecco Biom shoes and I don’t really consider those minimalist running shoes. The only SoftStar shoes that cost that much even the custom shoes, aren’t meant for running. The same goes for Russel Moccasin Co. I thought this article was referring to running shoes?

Rachelle July 2, 2011 at 3:07 pm

The audience is largely runners, of course, but this article takes into consideration all of the minimalist and natural motion options on the market. The trend in this category of footwear is toward versatility, which is why it is valuable to look at all of the options on the market. Brand name and customization absolutely play into the pricing. If you want to talk averages, the $200 mark is well outside the range – as noted, the general cost is more at like $90-110. Even that may seem high, especially to those who don’t understand the engineering and lightweight textile sourcing that go into a minimalist shoe.

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