Shoes For the “Primal Professional”: A Review

2013-08-17_20-20-42I love minimalist footwear. Once I discovered the comfort and more natural feel of wearing thin-soled shoes, I’ve never looked back. But I confess I’ve never been a fan of the “barefoot shoe” look—they’re just not my style. So over the past few years I’ve sought out minimalist shoes that don’t scream “I’m a minimalist shoe!” I had an especially hard time finding shoes I could wear on dressier occasions that didn’t have the typically stiff, thick sole and feel of most formal dress shoes.

This is why I was especially excited when I heard about the Primal Professional shoes. They’re the brainchild of Mountain Evan Chang, an accountant who enjoys “walking, running, lifting, playing, and doing pretty much everything barefoot”. The problem was, he works five days a week in an office as an accountant and didn’t feel comfortable wearing Five Fingers in that environment. So he set out to make a pair of dress shoes that looks professional, but feels like a minimalist shoe.

Mountain was kind enough to send me a pair to try. (They come in two styles, plain-toe and cap-toe Oxfords; I have the plain-toe.) As soon as I put them on, I knew I was going to like them. You know how most dress shoes are pretty uncomfortable until you break them in? Not the case with these—they felt great right from the start. It was honestly a little disorienting, because I don’t associate dress shoes with comfort at all, and these Primal Professionals were really easy to wear.

I also love that they’re made in the U.S., made by a shoemaker with a 120-year heritage, and are completely resoleable and recraftable. What doe s that mean, you ask? It means when the sole wears down, you can send them back to Primal Professional, and they’ll resole them for you. Not only that, they’ll also refinish the upper, fix any stitching that may have come loose, and replace the laces. As they say on their website, “For a fraction of the price, your shoes will be good as new, and you can do this over and over again.”

If you ever need to dress up and you love minimalist footwear, I suggest you check out these Primal Professional shoes.

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  1. Karl says

    Russell Moccasin Co. sells dress shoes. They are expensive though. They do customs and repairs, too. I haven’t tried their shoes, but they look very high quality.

    • says

      Hey Ann, this is a contentious issue. On one side, it’s argued that the arch is the strongest geometric shape. It is meant to bear weight, and being composed of muscle and connective tissue, will grow stronger with progressive loading. An arch needs no support, and support will not only hinder growth but destroy it, as upwards pressure is how arches in buildings are disassembled. However, on the other side, there are those who argue that some people, whether due to genetics or a lifetime of bad shoes, simply cannot rebuild a proper arch and must wear support.

      Therefore, the Primal Professional does not come with arch support because we believe that the majority will be stronger and more comfortable without it, while those who do need it will use their own custom footbed.

  2. David Venturina says

    I would love a pair of the primal pros for my office days but I spend half my time on construction sites. Do you have any recommendations for zero drop work boots for construction?

  3. David says

    I like the idea, but I like my dressy shoes with a bit more pizzaz. Can I
    suggest a joint venture with John Fleuvog? Perfectly happy to wait till
    after you solve the problem of shoes for the ladies, but maybe John
    can help with that too.

  4. Angela says

    They look great! I have a couple of pairs of Flexible Footwear shoes; I love the Oxfords, and the clogs I just got are not getting much use in this season, but both are immensely comfortable. I can work 16 hours on my feet without a problem. Nice styles for women, and colors, too.

  5. says

    These look like they would work for most office and dress occasions. I’ll have to pass along the details to the primal men folk. Thanks for posting this Chris!

  6. says

    Having tried and owned nearly every brand of barefoot shoes on the market for over 10 years now (since before it even became popular to call them “barefoot” shoes), I’ve always lamented the dearth of professional looking options. These look promising and like a step in the right direction, but I have 3 hesitations about them:

    1) Toe hinge: Evan, you say above this is minimal, but I’d still like to echo Greg’s concern. If your toes are pointed upward while you are just standing still, it throws your posture off and causes other problems upstream. I find myself constantly trying to push down on the toes to stand flat with Vivo’s (one reason I won’t buy any more Vivo’s).

    2) Toe box: It’s not just about having a wider toe box, the toe box has to be the right shape. It’s hard to tell from the pictures, but the design of this shoe looks like the inside edge of the foot still curves inward quite a bit and likely to put pressure on the big toe.

    3) Loafers: Okay, so this is more of a personal preference, but I’d like a nice pair of barefoot loafers that still fit snug enough around the heel not to pop off as I walk. Evan, perhaps you will get to these at some point.

    Anyway, I applaud the initiative in starting the business I’ve often thought about doing myself for some years. I hope this is the start of more to follow.

    • says

      1) Toe spring: I like my customers. I don’t want to trip them with my shoes! If the toe spring is too much for you, send it back. We cover return shipping for up to a year, full details here http://theprimalprofessional.com/pages/returns-and-exchanges

      2) Toe box: If you order the right size, that inward curve will not affect your big toe. I strategically tapered it to not interfere with any of your toes, while still offering the sleek point. For a visual guide, see https://twitter.com/PriProShoes/status/281251225788354560/photo/1 I am able to wear Correct Toes spacers in there. Enough room to wiggle my toes, let alone be neutral. Also, see http://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0133/0772/files/20130524_165228-3_grande.jpg?407 Again, my feet. I have no bunions; it’s a pretty straight line from heel to the tip of my big-toe.

      3) Loafers: Have you tried http://tunefootwear.com/ ? They don’t make them in my size, but from what I’ve heard, they’re promising. As for our product line, I only want to take on high-level designs. The difficult ones, that are harder to pull off, but oh-so-worth-it. That’s why we went with a closed-lace balmoral style, rather than the usual open-lace blucher that you mostly see. Expect some even cooler things to come.

      4) Thanks, Brian! FYI I go by Mountain, that is indeed my real name =)

      • Flo Y says

        I am an old “sole” but I learn something new from this site everyday! After all these years and more than a few dozen + pairs of shoes from flats to extreme heels, I am amazed I never heard of toe spring or toe box! Now I know why a few of my killer shoes are killing my feet. It used to be that I would walk through the pain but that is getting harder to justify these days. Is there such a thing as a smoking hot pair of 5″ heels with a decent toe spring? While the Primal Professional sound tempting, the sound doesn’t match the sight. :-(

      • says

        Thanks Mountain, the photos definitely give a better sense of how the shoe will fit on the foot. I like the x-ray photo, that’s cool. These will certainly be the next pair of lace-ups I try.

        Re: loafers. Perhaps I should say “slip-on dress shoe.” My shoe arsenal will never be complete until I have a barefoot-feel pair of cordovan shoes something along this vibe:

        http://what-is-fashion.com/243-1803-large/mens-real-leather-inner-band-loafers-slip-on-dress-shoes.jpg

    • Andrew says

      Hi Brian,
      I just got mine a couple of days ago (cap toe). They are fabulous. I’m not sure what you mean by toes pointing up. They do a little when you look at the naked shoe, but for me it’s not enough to notice when I have them on.

      I got a size 9 after stuffing Mountain around a bit (I originally ordered a 10) and they might be marginally small (re: your comment about toe box) but I still find them really comfortable and I’m happy to have a sensible shoe that doesn’t look like a pair of slippers to wear to work.

      I ride to work on my Ezee Sprint electric bike all kitted out in a tailored suit and my Primal Professionals. I look like a right prawn, but the lycra brigade do a double take when a guy in a suit and tie cruises past at 35km/h so it’s all good in the end :) .

      Cheers,
      Andrew.

  7. Simon Hill says

    They might sound good but getting your hands on a pair (unless you’re offering to review them it seems) can be elusive. I placed an order via the website, was told they could be delivered to me locally in Australia, and then subsequently had the order cancelled as in fact there was no stock and local shipping to Australia was only if someone was travelling this way. Needless to say not a good first impression and I’d be reluctant to go down that path again. Disappointing.

    • says

      Simon, I did not know we got off on such a bad foot after our interaction. You said “Thanks Mountain” and shot me a smiley on your last email. I was still hoping to send shoes to you in Australia, or possibly sending them to your place of stay in the US when you visit again.

      Chris did not offer to review them. He posted a question on facebook asking if anyone had minimalist dress shoe recommendations, and a friend tagged me in it. I offered to send Chris a pair of our Zetone Plain-Toe Oxfords (which we have in stock and is NOT backordered, unlike the Fer Cap-Toe), purely as a token of appreciation for all that I’ve learned from his blog and podcast over the years. There was no mention of a review.

      The option you selected, “Local Pickup” for $0, is exactly that. It is for customers living near or travelling through San Diego and arrange to meet me in person. I had the pleasure of meeting 2 upstanding gentlemen last Thursday, one a business owner and obstacle racer, the other a lawyer and powerlifter. I welcome this option whenever possible, as I love meeting the cool people that would be interested in a barefoot dress shoe.

      I hope I’ve been able to clear everything up. If not, you have my email!

      • Simon Hill says

        Folks, ignore my comments above. They were erroneous and unfair. Have ordered a pair of Primal Professionals and can’t wait to ditch my crappy ‘normal’ shoes for work. Mountain has a lot of sizes in stock now and can take pre-orders for those that aren’t. Go check them out!

  8. says

    Vivo Barefoot sells some almost passable dress shoes. But they have a big flaw: a lot of toe hinge. This prevents the toes from taking their natural part and movement placing stress on the metatarsals. It is very noticeable for a frequent bare-footer like myself, although it is definitely much better than a normal shoe. Looking at the pictures it appears that the Primal Professionals also have toe hinge. I hope it is either an optical allusion or will be corrected in the next version.

    Luna Sandals are by far the best foot-friendly option I have found although they aren’t going to pass as dress shoes.

    • says

      As a long-time and frequent barefooter myself, I thought this might be an issue. But while searching Barefoot Ted’s “Huaraches” minimalist footwear group on google back in 2010, the general consensus even among this hardcore community of early adopters was that toe spring is a nice feature to have on most shoes. Don’t tell me you’ve never snagged the front of your Luna’s during a trail run =)

      That said, one of our key design philosophies is to not mess with the natural function of the foot.
      The Primal Professional has just enough toe spring so you don’t trip going up stairs.

      • says

        Looking at some more of your pictures I can see that much of the toe box has a lot of empty space, so I can see that the hinge is not actually at the metatarsals, much closer to the end of the foot instead so it would be a different (and better) experience than the Vivos. Toe hinge would actually be required since you have a lot of empty space at the end of the shoe (an over-sized sandal is also what makes the Lunas snas the most).

        The men that I know that want foot-friendly shoes don’t care about having a slender shoe profile. They just want something that is passable in a dress context because men’s shoes don’t much attention anyway. The Vivos fail because they don’t have actual dress shoe leather and they have a silly brand marking on the back in red. So I think you can get rid of the false toe box (which would get rid of the need for toe spring) and otherwise shape your shoe wider and more like an actual human foot.

        • says

          The only way to avoid toe spring entirely is if the upper was fit like a glove over your toes (e.g. FiveFingers). If there is any slack, the shoe will be a couple degrees flatter than your toes during dorsiflexion, and there is the potential to trip because the shoe will be slightly longer than your foot.

          I don’t think my Lunas can be oversized, because I custom-fit and trim them to my feet.

          Shoes, being at the endpoint, draw a disproportionate amount of attention to their size. And, this may just be an urban legend, but I heard women look at what shoes a man is wearing. When I started this project, I had that same goal of making something “passable.” Being a complete noob to dress shoes, I put in a lot of research, learning all the different styles and variations thereof, different leathers, colors, features, and the significance of all these things that make great dress shoes great. Since I had a blank slate to work with–why not make it great? Something I can really be proud of? As time went on, our design philosophy shifted from making shoes that were “passable” to making shoes that are truly outstanding. It took us a whole extra year to get shoes…but it was well worth it.

          I don’t want to hear people say “It looks great,” only to qualify with “…for a barefoot shoe.” It’s kind of like having someone say “It tastes great…for a Paleo dish.”

          This is from a customer in Luxembourg: “I am working in an Italian financial institution and Style, with a big S, matters with Italians, trust me. I love them and I have already had several compliments about them (from people who does not know anything about barefoot, so true aesthetic compliments).” I have the same experience, and it’s mindblowing.

          We’ve taken it to the next level, and we’re not going back.

          • says

            The problem is that a false toe box to achieve a rounded look makes tripping much more likely. So a rounded toe isn’t a next level as much as an existing fashion trend. I would just like to see fashion meet form a little more, or from another perspective: influence fashion some instead of just mimic it.

            But I understand that others want the shoe that best matches the fashion of the day and glad you are fulfilling that role. Hopefully I will get to try a pair one day and see that it doesn’t put stress on the feet like the Vivos.

  9. Marie says

    You can’t beat Ariats for “on your feet all day” comfort. (Yes there is a heel, but these shoes are built for standing.)

    I wear paddock boots as my Winter shoe of choice and LOVE the fact that their toe box is one size larger than “normal” shoe sizing. My pair of Heritage Paddock boots still look new despite the 1.5 hour walking commute in snow and rain in Boston.

  10. Brent says

    They would have to be pretty flippin comfortable to justify the $300+ pricetag. Do they resole them for free? While I don’t doubt they are probably awesome, for us avg. folk, this price is way too steep…unless they were guaranteed to last 20 years :)

  11. Ham-bone says

    I’ve been wearing the Sanuk Boardroom for years. I love them. They look great when you’re standing and your dockers cover some of them. Otherwise they kind of look like slippers. :) But, they also kind of feel like slippers. They’re no VFFs, but otherwise a solid choice.

  12. Mister Worms says

    I’ve come across a few decent options for the ladies. They’re not inexpensive but a pair of Merrell or Vivo Barefoot flats should last a few years at least; I estimate 5+ for my own and I do a lot of city walking. Ballet flats still seem to be in style so the shoes look perfectly normal.

    The kids minimalist shoe prices are a little bit harder to choke down as they grow out of them so quickly. But better to get one great pair than a few not so good. I wish one of the manufacturers would offer kid styles that were less “sneaker”-like in appearance.

    And then there are boots/cold weather shoes. That’s another category that is lacking for everyone.

  13. Jennie Hernandez says

    Hi Chris,

    I was excited to see this information yet was quite disappointed when I only saw men’s shoes. I’m a professional woman so perhaps the headline could have said the “Primal Male Professional”.

    I’m just saying….

    Jennie

        • says

          We’d love to make one but we just honestly don’t know what to do. Dressy flats have been around, and some of the other minimalist shoe companies (Merrell, Vivo, Lems) have their own iterations, albeit not as dressy. So I’d like to ask, What styles do you like? And what do you find lacking about these options as they currently exist?

          • says

            A simple black flat is my professional staple. I own a barefoot-style pair from Merrell that I absolutely love (the Life Zest Glove in black, which they seem to be fazing out). The only problem I’ve found is the longevity. Since it is the only pair of professional shoes I own and overall it is a thin shoe (the upper and the footbed are wearing down, though the vibram outsole still has plenty of life) I feel like they won’t last as long as I want them to. I’m the kind of person that likes to save up for high-quality shoes so I don’t have to continually buy and get rid of shoes.

            Another niche I have yet to find fulfilled in the minimalist shoe world is a women’s boot that is A) Stylish (I can wear it with dresses and skirts) and B) waterproof (can wear it in the snow/rain). I love flats but they aren’t as practical in the winter. Vivobarefoot has come close (the Boxing Boot and, less so, the Brooklyn) but these styles never seem to stay on the market for very long. By the time I’ve saved up the money to buy a pair I can’t find them online anymore!

            Hope that helps!

              • Canadian says

                I tried the Lems Sweet Jane and they did not work for me at all. They fall off my feet at the heel. And they are not very dressy at all, super casual really. I preferred Vivo Barefoot Kali, but they seem to no longer make them — too bad, loved the simplicity.

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