As the global political landscape experiences tremendous change, Galahad Clark wants to engineer a revolution of his own — in the shoe industry.
Since founding Vivobarefoot four years ago, the entrepreneur and member of the storied Clarks family has built his own business with a distinct mantra: “Follow your feet, not the rules.”
“Conventional footwear makes your foot shoe shaped instead of foot shaped,” Clark said, arguing that shoes should be wide and flexible with thin soles.
Of course, Vivobarefoot isn’t the first player to bet big on the minimalist movement. Vibram jump-started the craze six years ago with its FiveFingers design, but the company later was implicated in a class-action lawsuit alleging that it made false and unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of the glove-like design for runners.
“We’re putting our effort into building up the whole lifestyle. It’s irrelevant what you wear to the gym or for a run,” Clark said.
Vivobarefoot— valued at around $20 million — has sold 1 million pairs of its styles, which cover a diverse range of categories.
A recent crowdfunding initiative helped inject about $2 million into the business. The company, which now counts about 20 concept stores, is looking to open locations in key U.S. markets with franchise partners. It also wants to energize the fast-growing kids’ segment with the help of a larger footwear company. “We’re obviously a small business chipping away at this,” Clark said, “and we want to find a company that does kids with gusto so we can get the shoes on as many feet as possible.”
While many traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have been reluctant to jump on the barefoot bandwagon, a number of storeowners believe Vivo has potential.
“There is certainly a customer that loves the barefoot freedom,” said Danny Wasserman, owner of Tip Top Shoes. “We all love to walk around at home or on the beach without shoes. Vivobarefoot [helps replicate] that feeling.”
Clark spoke to FN about the power of crowdsourcing and why he’s so passionate about throwing out old connotations about shoes.
It’s been four years since you launched the company. How is the business performing?
It is increasing about 30 percent a year. We’re growing pretty fast, and the most encouraging news is that Amazon told me the category as a whole is growing at 40 percent for them. People are describing it as the second barefoot revolution. Consumers are older, wiser and smarter about it. It’s not just, “Nature will heal me, and I’ll put on these magic shoes and go and run a marathon.”
The category took a big hit when the Vibram FiveFingers class-action lawsuit judgment was handed down. How has that impacted your brand’s trajectory?
There was tremendous bad press around it [after Vibram was implicated for making false claims about the health benefits of running in its shoes]. The barefoot thing collapsed in America because people associated it with running. Most people do not have strong, healthy feet. If you’re used to running in other shoes and you suddenly go barefoot, you will hurt yourself. It’s like having your arm in the cast and then getting it off and suddenly going to play tennis. If your feet are in foot coffins, you can bet they’ll be out of shape, and muscles won’t be functioning properly. It’s stunning how few shoe people know about anatomy.
How successful was your crowdsourcing program that you started earlier this year to fuel investment?
We raised over $2 million. We got 1,000 new shareholders. We’re like a mini public company, and what’s great is there is an army of “Viva-istas.” A fair number of them have worked with us in some capacity. It feels like a very engaged and passionate community. The biggest investor was 150,000 pounds.
You’re focusing heavily on the kids’ segment of the business. Why do you think that’s growing quicker than other parts of the company?
The science for kids barefoot is going to come through much quicker. Fewer and fewer people can argue against that. The healthiest thing is for a kid is to let the foot grow naturally. Forcing them into non-padded shoes is a health scandal.
In which geographic markets are you having the most success?
Overall, our biggest market is America. But Northern Europe is bigger than the U.S, and Germany is the biggest market in Europe. It’s basically where people eat organic food and live healthy.
Where do you see most potential growth in the retail market?
Vivo is a tough bedfellow for traditional shoe market so it’s all about e-commerce and concept stores. We have 20 locations in Europe, and we’re just starting in Australia. The new store concept focuses on bringing nature inside. The first store is opening in Prague next month, and then [we’re going to roll it out]. We’re going to move our Covent Garden store to a better location in the area, and we’re looking for other spaces in London. We’re looking for franchise partners in America: New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Seattle are definite points of focus for us.
You spend a lot of your time traveling and scouting out emerging sourcing destinations. What countries are you most interested in?
We are starting to make more shoes in Portugal, and Ethiopia is an exciting place to make shoes. They have a pretty good government that’s encouraging a lot of investment. They have a lot of cows and people, and labor prices are a fraction of the expensive parts of China. We started making in Cambodia, too. China isn’t anything like it was: Even if they still have manufacturing in the southeast, the uppers get sent out to some backwater province. The components are flying all over the place.
How worried are you about the impact of Brexit?
We sell to our distributors in dollars and buy in dollars. We hardly need to exchange currencies. Everything we sell in pounds we pay in pounds. The only worry would be the British economy [declines] and if the dollar collapses [with Donald Trump getting into power].
How involved are you in the Clarks business today?
I’m in the shareholder council, so I sit on a body that represents the owners. The board presents the business to us six times a year, but the company is very much run by outside leadership. The Gary Champion appointment was huge in America: He’s steadied the ship, and I like him a lot. I’m very proud of Clarks and honored to be part of that whole thing. But the previous boss tried to go in a fashion direction, [and] it didn’t have the capability to do that.