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Charles Birch

Charles Birch

Chris Wilson

Last year Charles Birch became the UK distributors for Vibram FiveFingers, having, from 2012, been the distributors of Vibram shoe components and soles. Managing Director Chris Wilson speaks to Chantelle Kelly about the latest products and how they plan to build brand awareness

What drew you to Vibram FiveFingers?
The first thing that initially drew us to FiveFingers was that they were made by Vibram. Having been Vibram’s UK distributor for their rubber soles and other shoe components for many years, we understood Vibram’s exceptional dedication to innovation, top quality production values and testing. This has helped them to forge an unrivalled reputation in the shoe industry.

Ultimately however, it was the product itself that sold us on being UK distributor. The more research we did into FiveFingers and barefoot running, the more impressed we were with what we saw. Not only is Vibram’s design extremely innovative and unique compared with anything else on the market, the barefoot community that surrounds and supports Vibram FiveFingers is vibrant, fun and constantly growing. This is why we were very excited to become a part of it all.

Can you explain the idea and technology behind the FiveFingers range?
The idea for a ‘barefoot shoe’ was initially created by a man named Robert Fliri in 1999, who believed that our ten toes are crucial to our balance, posture, weight distribution and proprioception. Vibram developed this idea, working with Fliri to create the variety of different FiveFingers models you can see today, with each one serving a different purpose. Every FiveFingers style has the five-toe design, which are integral to Fliri’s initial concept of unlocking a foot’s full-sensory capabilities. The shoes are also extremely lightweight whilst possessing a thin, protective rubber sole. 

What are the benefits of wearing them, compared to standard footwear?
Wearing thick soled, cushioned shoes can lessen sensory perception, much in the same way as it’s more difficult to feel and hold things whilst wearing thick mittens on your hands. With Vibram FiveFingers you receive instant feedback of the ground beneath your feet enabling you to instinctively react and adapt to the terrain.

Running in FiveFingers will normally result in a change to your running style as it emphasises the need to run on the forefoot. According to research by Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman, barefoot runners incur up to a third less gravitational force going through the body than when they strike down with their heels as in standard cushioned running shoes. He also found that training barefoot exercises the hamstrings, gluteus muscles, calf muscles and quadriceps as opposed to using standard cushioned shoes where the force is concentrated more directly to the quadriceps.

Barefoot running gained traction in 2010. Is there still a market today?
Yes, the barefoot movement is as strong as ever. Every day more and more people are realising the benefits of exercising with Vibram FiveFingers and joining the barefoot community. When we exhibited at the London Marathon, BodyPower and the National Running Show this year our stands were overwhelmed by people wanting to try on and purchase FiveFingers. The product is so unique and exciting that it has and will continue to attract people’s attention and draw them to the barefoot lifestyle.

Have you experienced a lot of interest from retailers in stocking the product?
Yes, we’ve had a lot of interest from many sports and outdoor retailers, especially online, and many are now our customers. They are satisfying the demand for Vibram FiveFingers and barefoot running as a concept. Our aim for 2018-19 is to focus more on physical retailers so people will be able to try on and experience FiveFingers before they buy them. Just this month we are pleased to announce that the nationwide sports chain Real Buzz has agreed to stock Vibram FiveFingers in all their branches.

The FiveFingers range has expanded for 2018. Can you tell us about the new products?
One of the new additions to the FiveFingers range is the new V-Trek model, which features a 50/50 blend of wool and synthetics to provide an improved foot climate and reduce odour. The V-Trek also boasts a 4mm outsole made from Megagrip rubber compound giving the shoe fantastic grip for hiking even in the wet.

For colder weather Vibram has also introduced the Trek Ascent Insulated, which has an insulated layer inside the shoe as well as an outsole with an Icetrek rubber compound that is perfect for hiking in colder, wetter climates.

Another addition is the V-Alpha; a new ultra-minimalist style with an outdoor Megagrip sole which is great for trail running and all outdoor activities.

Finally, the V-Aqua, which is Vibram’s new, light, thin and flexible water-shoe that has silicone print in the lining to stop the foot from slipping out when it gets wet and perforations in the sole so water can move through the shoe and dry quickly.

Are there any new products for 2019?
Vibram has turned to the V-Trail and enhanced it even further for 2019. The new V-Trail 2 has an improved upper with a lighter but extra resistant polyester fabric that dries out faster, allowing your feet to remain comfortable whilst running outdoors in any weather.

What are your current goals as UK distributors?
We hope to make as many people as we can aware of the barefoot lifestyle and the benefits to exercising and training barefoot. The more people aware of FiveFingers and its advantages, the more mainstream and accepted the product will become. We are also currently striving to build up a comprehensive network of ‘bricks and mortar’ stockists across the UK, so that people can try on and experience FiveFingers, which will help them realise what the commotion is about!

How are you planning to grow brand awareness, in terms of both trade and consumer?
We have quite a few different campaigns to increase awareness of Vibram FiveFingers. We are advertising in magazines and we will also be taking part in a number of different retail, trade and sports shows across the UK over the next year. Charles Birch has recently signed a five-year sponsorship deal with Leeds United and have adverts for FiveFingers all around the stadium. Finally, we also have very proactive social media accounts on Instagram (@vibramfivefingersuk), Facebook (@vibram5fingersuk) and Twitter (@vibram5fingeruk) where we showcase our products and answer any questions people may have online.

Do you offer any support or training to stockists?
Yes we do, we have the Vibram Academy in Hoxton, London which offers training. We also visit stores and give their sales teams in depth training on all aspects of the brand. This includes the history and background of the Vibram company, the benefits of barefoot, minimalist running/training and the technical aspects of each style. A quiz is normally held afterwards to consolidate the information.

What are your long-term goals for FiveFingers?
Overall, we hope FiveFingers and the barefoot community continue to grow and become more widespread so that people can enjoy the benefits of running and exercise in the way nature intended.