Mirror, Mirror: Toed-shoes for kids

Ashleigh Marmer, 8, of Conshohocken tests a pair of FiveFingers at Olly Shoes in Ardmore. Mom Megan Marmer checks out the minimalist shoes.
Ashleigh Marmer, 8, of Conshohocken tests a pair of FiveFingers at Olly Shoes in Ardmore. Mom Megan Marmer checks out the minimalist shoes. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)

The weird-looking gloves for your feet, so popular with minimalist runners, are good for developing tootsies.

Posted: May 04, 2011

When it comes to summer, kiddie fashion usually means bright colors - pinks, yellows, blues, and greens - combined with high-tech durability for running, tumbling, and swimming.

That is why I predict that Vibram FiveFingers running shoes - you know those weird-looking gloves for your feet? - are going to be style must-haves for the under-10 set this warm-weather season. The company, based in Italy, launched the child-size version of the adult running shoe in March, turning runners' progeny into early adapters.

Now, that's a fashion first.

"When my friends see me in them, they ask me, 'How do they feel?' " said Rachel Myhere, 6, of Blue Bell. "And then they say, 'I want them.' "

Rachel's dad, Joe Myhere, bought a pair of Vibrams for her and his 8-year-old son, Maxwell, days after the kid version debuted. The threesome often run together in 5K races - about 3.1 miles.

"I had been running in them for some time, and they have been great for me," Myhere said. "As soon as I saw the shoes were available for kids, I decided I had to get them for my children."

FiveFingers aren't new. In fact, fitness gurus have been rocking the pliable ped protectors for about five years, and in the last two years, they have helped spawn the barefoot, or minimalist, running trend. Minimalist runners tout toe movement - it purportedly activates unused muscles in the calves and feet - and FiveFingers allows that, along with a protective sole.

Although runners say the shoes are initially painful because those specific muscles aren't yet developed, they contend that the shoes eventually cut down on common ailments such as shin splints and sore ankles.

For the last week, my pink-and-orange FiveFingers have made a fashion splash, as perfect strangers ask me what the heck I'm wearing. But I'm too chicken to run in them. On Sunday, while completing the Broad Street Run in my trusty Asics, I saw dozens of adults working the 10-mile course in FiveFingers.

"My 5-year-old son asked me if he could have a pair of shoes like mine," said Scott Garber, a Lancaster County computer specialist. "Now that the weather is warming up, he wears them all the time. He's diehard."

In fact, experts say it is children who will benefit from the minimalist shoe trend even more than adult runners.

Decades ago, toddlers traditionally were outfitted in hard, Buster Brown-type shoes as soon as they could walk, explained Kirby Lohff, president and chief executive officer of Olly, a children's-shoe company, based in Downingtown, that sells FiveFingers for about $60. However, Lohff said, shoe manufacturers eventually realized that kids needed more flexibility in their early years, so their gait could develop naturally.

"Think about the foot as a little block of clay," Lohff said. "During the first 10 years of their life, their bones are molding and developing. They need the right level of support, but their feet still need to develop naturally."

In fact, Lohff said, while Vibram was on the cutting edge for minimalist shoes for adults, other companies like Pediped, Keen, and Geox were already on the less-is-more track for little ones.

Because kids generally are not running for speed or distance, softer shoes are perfect for their level of activity, said physician Howard Palamarchuk, the director of sports medicine at Temple University's School of Podiatric Medicine.

"They are not training the way an adult would train," Palamarchuk said. "It's always better to go with the softer shoes."

Vibram got its start in 1937 when it started making shoe soles for major sportswear brands that were looking for rugged performance and traction.

In 2006, a Vibram designer who was an avid hiker got the idea to make the glovelike footwear for the outdoor athlete who didn't want to wear a heavy shoe. When the company shopped the idea around, no one was interested, so Vibram made and marketed them.

These days, FiveFingers makes millions of dollars for Vibram, and its eight versions vary from the classic, which has a softer sole, to the most sturdy, called the Bikila. And like any good fashion trend, the shoes have spawned knock-offs. Fila introduced a fingerlike shoe called Skeletoes at the beginning of February. Entire walls of such stores as City Sports are dedicated to softer, minimalist shoes.

Michael Martin, Vibram's vice president of sales, won't release exact figures, but said the company's revenue has at least tripled each year.

"So, children's shoes were a natural outgrowth," he said. "Not to mention, we had so many requests."

Right now, the kids version comes in four choices - blue-and-gray and black-and-gray for boys, and pink-and-purple and black-and-pink-and-white for girls.

Sales currently are strongest in Southern states, where the weather is warmer, Martin said, but he's looking for an uptick in interest in the Northeast when the weather heats up.

Score one for fashion cred of runners' kids.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704

or ewellington@phillynews.com.

Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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