Consolidating its partnership with its biggest single client, Vibram has developed a special thin sole for Merrell that will be used in a more commercial line of shoes than its own successful FiveFingers range, but with a special minimalist look as well. Officials of Wolverine World Wide indicated that Merrell’s new “barefoot collection,” which will hit the market in the spring of 2011, will be mainly aimed at specialty running and outdoor stores. It will include shoes for trail-running, but also for other sports such as yoga and for normal walking in the city.

The idea is to establish barefoot running and walking more firmly as a new category of footwear that is more closely connected with nature than the more urban toning shoes, a category launched by MBT 10 years ago that is enjoying a boom thanks to its adoption by mainstream brands such as Reebok and Skechers.

Vibram’s FiveFingers concept is similarly booming. Described as a glove for the foot and toes, or a dressed-up sole rather than a shoe, Vibram’s basic FiveFingers product is a very light rubber-based construction, covering all the elements of the foot, that gives the wearer the sensation of walking, hiking or running barefoot, using the toes for added grip. The concept was invented 10 years ago by a young Italian student and was then adopted by Vibram, but it has taken off mostly in the U.S. in the past couple of years, after making the front page of Time magazine.

Global sales of FiveFingers shoes grew by a triple-digit figure in 2009 to reach a level of nearly 1 million pairs. They are expected to go up to 1.5 million pairs in 2010, but about 80 percent of the volume is generated in the U.S. There, the line is marketed directly by Vibram’s U.S. subsidiary, which is run by Tony Post, a former manager of Rockport who knows the local shoe world well.

Sales of FiveFingers shoes in Europe rose by 30 to 40 percent in 2009 to fewer than 100,000 pairs. The distribution of the line in Europe is handled mainly by Aicad, the Italian company that markets Lizard, a high-end line of sports sandals made in Italy. Future changes in the distribution cannot be excluded.

The success of the FiveFingers line contributed to a rise of about 7 percent in the turnover of Vibram in 2009, offsetting a small decline in the outdoor sector that was evidently due to the difficult economic situation. It grew to $110 million including $30 million worth of sales by its licensees in the U.S. and Brazil, which were relatively stable.

The launch of a Vibram Technological Center in the Guangzhou region of China last year has not brought much in the way of new business, but it has allowed the product development officials and technicians of Vibram, Merrell and other big corporate customers to find a better, more private and more comfortable place to work than in the factories where their shoes are made. The 45,000 m² space is partly covered by a hotel and a spa for guests.

Brand-building, quality, innovation and service are the four areas on which Vibram has been concentrating under the management of Adriano Zuccala, a 57-year-old executive appointed managing director in March 2007. A chemical engineer who previously ran one of the world’s largest fiber optics companies, he has introduced new test areas to optimize the properties of Vibram soles and to adapt them to new uses such as snowboarding, free-ski, after-ski, motorcycling, trail-running and sky-running . The company develops about 300 new products each year and uses a team of about 30 athletes to test new products.

About half of Vibram’s total business is made up of soles for outdoor and other sports, and one-quarter for work, safety and rescue, but the lifestyle segment takes up around 15 percent of sales. The balance is re-soling, an area which has expanded by nearly 20 percent in the last few years (more in The Outdoor Industry Compass).