Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vivobarefoot Ra Dress Shoe Review

Like most barefoot/minimalist runners, I prefer to wear as little on my feet as possible and refuse to wear constrictive dress shoes except when absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, as an attorney who has to be in court most weekdays, "when absolutely necessary" usually translates to five days a week. That's a lot of hours spent allowing my Achilles tendons to shorten and the muscles in my feet to atrophy, so when Vivobarefoot sent me a pair of their Ra zero drop dress shoe for me to review I had high hopes. Would this be the pair of shoes that would allow me to feel almost barefoot in the courtroom? Read on and find out.

Vivobarefoot (technically VIVOBAREFOOT, but I refuse to enable companies that insist on writing their names in all caps) makes a number of shoes in their "lifestyle" line, the most formal of which is the Ra. The Ra comes in three different versions: pull up (smooth) leather, suede, and canvas. I'm only reviewing the pull up leather version (since that's the only one I've tried), which retails for $130 and comes in black, dark brown, or red brown. I chose black.

The shoe is zero drop (no raised heel), with a 3mm TPU sole. It comes with a 5mm EVA removable insole, which I never used (for reasons that I will go into later). Without the insole, the shoe weighs 6.7 ounces. Construction seems good.
With the insole out (left), and in (right) 

I usually don't dwell much on the aesthetics of the shoes I review (as far as I'm concerned, anything without separated toes is GQ material), but since I was going to be wearing these to court I needed to be a bit more critical. The acid test for me was this: could these pass as dress shoes, and when I spoke in court would people be distracted by my shoes?

The Ra passed this test with flying colors. To my eye (and apparently, to other people's eyes as well), the Ra looks more or less like any other leather dress shoe. It goes well with a suit, and I wore them in court and in a four day jury trial without incident or comment. The only potential issue I can see is that the wide toebox gives the shoe a little bit of that "clown shoe" look that some people complain about in minimalist shoes. I don't consider it a problem, but the Ra definitely doesn't have that pointy look that seems to be in vogue these days.

Vivobarefoot uses European sizes, but fortunately for U.S. customers there is a very cool app on the Vivobarefoot website call "shoefitr." You select a shoe you currently own (say, the Merrell Trail Glove) and input your size in that shoe (9.5), and voila!--it tells you what size you need for the Ra (42). I used the app to select my size (I'd never worn a pair of Vivobarefoot shoes before) and it picked my size perfectly. Very helpful.

The Ra is built on a foot-shaped last and fits my foot pretty well. The toebox is very wide, although the stiffness of the leather means that what you see is what you get--the upper isn't going to stretch to give your toes some extra room like many shoes do.

My one major complaint about the fit of the shoe is that although the toebox is very wide, it's also very low. In fact, with the insole in I found the toebox to be unpleasantly constrictive, which is why I've never used the insole. Without the insole, there is sufficient space above the toes, but just barely. I'd prefer a higher toebox.

So, is the Ra comfortable? I've been debating how to answer that. The short answer is, no, not really. The leather is very stiff, so although the sole is thin and flexible, the shoe as a whole doesn't move with your foot very well. But then, maybe I'm not being fair; maybe the fair question is, is the Ra comfortable for a dress shoe? Well, that depends on what you're comparing it to.

Prior to getting the Ra, I had two pairs of dress shoes that I wore to work, both leather shoes made by Rockport, one black, the other brown.
My black Rockports
My black Rockports are smooth leather, very dressy, and very stiff and uncomfortable. Compared to these shoes, the Ra is a huge step up in comfort.

My brown Rockports
My brown Rockports are more casual looking than my black Rockports, softer, and actually pretty comfortable. In fact, for the past year or so I've been wearing them a lot as a casual shoe. Compared to these shoes, the Ra is much less comfortable. However, the Ra is a more formal looking shoe, so maybe it's only fair to compare it to my other dressy shoes.

I should mention a couple other things. First, aside from the stiffness of the leather, there aren't any major problems with the comfort of the Ra. Even out of the box, it didn't pinch at all. Second, the shoe is designed to be worn without the insoles. The stitching is smooth, so even wearing thin dress socks there wasn't any problem wearing the shoe without the insole. In fact, until I sat down to write this review I'd forgotten that there was an insole to begin with.

Third, I've only had the shoe a few weeks. It's possible that the leather will break down over time and become more flexible (though I can't imagine it breaking down enough to reach a sneaker level of comfort).

Okay, enough whining. There's more to footwear than having your footsies pampered, and there are some real health benefits to wearing minimalist shoes. So how does the Ra stack up in that regard? Pretty well, actually.

First, there is the zero drop heel, which keeps my Achilles tendons lengthened (instead of allowing them to shorten and tighten, which is what a raised heel does) and my spine aligned while I'm on my feet . One strange aspect of the shoe is that it has a bit of a toe spring, which makes that shoe feel like it has a slightly negative drop. It feels a little unusual at first but I don't consider it a problem.

The sole is very thin and flexible, though as I mentioned, the stiffness of the upper prevents the shoe from being very flexible as a whole, which is too bad since I like the sole. Groundfeel is quite good and I can feel the muscles in my feet activating in response to stimuli. Traction is excellent; this is a pair of shoes you could sprint for a cab in without worrying too much about slipping. In fact, I have to say that I've been a lot more solid on my feet while I've been wearing the Ra. Usually when wearing dress shoes I have two left feet, tripping or kicking things a lot, but in the Ra I'm lighter on my feet and less clumsy. It's nice to be able to focus on what I'm saying in court instead of worrying about falling on my face.

You knew this was coming, didn't you? Given I have a hard time trying on a pair of shoes without wondering if I could run in them, I can't imagine doing a shoe review and leaving this important question unanswered. So, in the interest of science, I did an easy 3 mile road run in the Ra.

All in all, the shoe did pretty well. The stiff upper was again its weak point, making the shoe fairly uncomfortable and causing an annoying "clop clop" sound with every step. That notwithstanding, the Ra is a surprisingly passable running shoe. Once again, the upper, though stiff, didn't pinch. The sole is really well made, with good traction, groundfeel, and flexibility. There isn't enough protection for most trails, but if you could stand the "clop clop" sound and the inevitable odd looks, you could probably run a marathon in this shoe if you wanted to. (Why you'd want to, I don't know, but there it is).

The Ra isn't quite my dream shoe (I'm still hoping that someday someone will invent a shoe with the formality of a dress shoe and the comfort of a sneaker), but if you need a true dress shoe and want something zero drop with good groundfeel and a wide toebox, it gets the job done.

This just in: between now and November 1, Vivobarefoot is offering readers of this blog 20% your entire purchase (not just the Ra) if you go to the Vivobarefoot website and use the promotional code BAREFOOTINAZ20.


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?


  1. Hi John,
    Have you continued wearing these over the past 5 months?
    how have they worn?
    Has the leather upper softened?

    thanks for your reviews.

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