The news that’s abuzz in the barefoot-running world this week is that Vibram S.p.A., the Italian parent of Vibram USA Inc. and manufacturer of its FiveFingers branded footwear, is suing Fila USA Inc. for patent infringement. It’s not hard to see why. Vibram owns patents that cover footwear “having individually articuable toe portions,” as seen in the company’s FiveFingers shoes, aka “VFFs.” Fila USA’s very similar Skele-Toes shoes also have articulated toes and an overall copycat look to VFFs.
The lawsuit claims Fila has simply ripped off the Vibram FiveFingers design. Says Tony Post, Vibram USA’s president, “With our success, copyists and counterfeiters have come out of the woodwork. We will continue to take aggressive action against all who infringe our intellectual property.”
On Fila’s side, the company has responded to the lawsuit, writing that it “will vigorously defend itself against the complaint” and that the allegations are “without merit.” A company spokesperson told GearJunkie that prior to developing and releasing its Skele-Toes shoes in February 2011 Fila “determined that they did not infringe any existing patents.” Further, Fila told us that its Skele-Toes “joins a long history of shoes with articulated toes,” though no examples were cited.
Beyond Fila, there is no word yet on whether Vibram has its sights on Inov-8 Ltd. The U.K. company this year unveiled a FiveFingers-like shoe with its Evoskin, a silicone shell with individual toes. There is almost no construction in the Evoskin, so it’s different than the Fila Skele-Toes. The Evoskin appears to have been spit out from a mold, and its skintight silicone fit has had some dubbing the shoe a “foot condom.”
Outright counterfeiters are additional troublemakers for Vibram. Factories cranking out fake Vibram FiveFingers shoes — complete with exactly mimicked shoe models and ersatz Vibram logos — have been the target of past attacks from the Italian shoemaker.
As some context, Vibram’s FiveFingers shoes, now available in a huge variety of models, debuted in 2005 and have since sold by the tens of millions. The company touts the VFF design as having shoved off the recent minimalist footwear and barefoot-running trends, citing that it was the “pioneer” company that popularized minimalist shoes, and that “the entire footwear industry has responded by entering the minimalist category.”
Minimalist shoes are indeed now everywhere you turn, including from most all major manufacturers as well as niche brands. Shoes with toes are a huge trend, too, and for the past couple years naysayers have predicted that the bubble will burst. But people keep buying VFFs and Evoskins and Skele-Toes by the boatload. Will additional companies jump on the “foot glove” wagon? With its lawsuit this week, Vibram hopes to stop the flow from at least one of its competitors for the five-toed market share.
—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.