In 2001, Tim Brennan invented the Vivobarefoot concept whilst studying for an MA at the Royal College of Art & Imperial College, London. The idea had come to him four years earlier when studying the Alexander technique - a method for improving posture and movement. Walking home from the class, Tim realised that the walking technique he had just been performing perfectly well without shoes on had become very difficult because of his trainers. He then wondered if the trainers were also a factor in the twisted ankles he kept suffering while playing tennis.
It was at that point that he imagined a shoe that would allow the foot to feel the ground and flex freely – like a second skin that allowed a completely natural interaction with the ground.
In the spring of 2001, Tim’s idea finally took shape for the first time when he took an old running shoe, cut off the sole and replaced it with thin, flexible material. Not having anything else to hand, he cut up an old tennis racket cover for the replacement soles.
Walking over the pavement outside felt to Tim like a crucial moment in the inventing process. His gut feeling was that he possessed something that not only could help him play tennis without injuries but might also prove to be highly valuable for the wider population, allowing people to discover the health benefits associated with the foot working as it had evolved to do.
To fully comprehend his findings and expand his knowledge of foot health, he devoted his entire 8-week summer break to research at the British Library. During that time, he reviewed 41 scientific papers spanning the past 70 years. In a pivotal 1949 paper, it was noted that large populations living without shoes were entirely free from the foot ailments commonly experienced in the Western world. Among those studied, the individuals with the most perfect feet were rickshaw pullers, who spent long hours daily running on hard cobblestones. This information was crucial as it established a valid scientific case for a shoe that could emulate the experience of being barefoot.
Throughout the research, five key problem areas were identified: ankle twists, compressed feet and toes, restricted foot movement, misaligned posture, and impact injuries from sports. Tim formulated a design brief to create a shoe capable of addressing each of these issues.
The next challenge was puncture resistance, an issue repeatedly raised in focus groups. Tim embarked on a quest to find a space-age material that would not only provide puncture resistance but also remain thin, lightweight, and flexible. After extensive internet research, he discovered that law enforcement gloves successfully used woven Kevlar to protect police officers when frisking suspects with needles. The Kevlar weave was so fine that it increased the puncture resistance of a thin sole tenfold, significantly alleviating people’s concerns about stepping on sharp glass on the streets.
Tim wore the original prototype for various activities such as standing, walking, running, and playing tennis. Each time the 1 mm sole unit wore through, a slightly different material was chosen and the same activities were repeated. The feel of the shoe along with durability and grip were monitored. It was at this point that the name “Vivo” came to mind. “In vivo” was a term used in medical papers to describe research that was carried out “in a living thing”. It seemed a fitting name since the way that the materials and form of the prototypes came about were very much guided by the feet and the way each affected the barefoot feel.
Two more rounds of prototypes followed. The first introduced a lace-on 3mm sole that could be replaced without the need for glue. Over 50 tennis matches were played in these shoes with the sole unit being replaced on public transport while travelling to and from the tennis court.
The soft rubber gave excellent grip and feel, but limited durability. So, the second round of prototypes featured a zip-off sole for quick replacement. The upper was designed to be as flexible as possible whilst being very quick to manufacture - to get as many made as possible to try out on test subjects. It was important to the project to try the concept on as many people as possible to get feedback.
In preparation for the final degree show, a range of shoes was created to demonstrate that the principle could be applied to any type of shoe, whether casual, formal, or sports. The zip-off sole allowed for different uppers to be swapped out for the replacement of worn parts and provided the added benefit of allowing users to mix and match the colours of the sole and upper.
A custom 3mm sole was 3D printed and then vacuum-cast with resin to give it the properties of soft rubber, making it completely flexible. The sole’s design provided ample room for the toes to spread, and three layers of finely woven Kevlar were used in the footbed to protect against broken glass injuring the foot.
Less than a year later, in March 2003, Tim approached the Clarks family, who asked him to collaborate immediately to launch the shoe at a trade show in Italy, just three months away.
Following the successful launch, Tim continued for a total of 18 months to develop line extensions, promote the concept, and train retail staff.
In 2018, it was identified that slicing vegetables with a mandoline poses a significant risk to the end user. While many of these products were supplied with handguards, people were still getting injured. Some of the most popular designs on the market had not changed much in more than 50 years. Looking into the details of the injuries, mostly the handguard was not being used at the time. Looking into these products in detail, it became obvious to Tim that while the handguards worked well for some vegetables, such as small potatoes and onions, they didn't work for others such as celery, peppers and carrots.
It was clear that a new versatile handguard was needed, and so Tim set about a 6 month experimental project to design and build over 20 different handguards with the aim of giving the user an intuitive direct grip.
The process created a food gripper that wrapped around the food so it can adapted to different shapes and sizes of vegetable. The design caught the attention of Joseph Joseph and was launched as the Multi-Grip Mandoline in 2020.