MBT Kaya c£145

Fashion v Function

19th July 2008

It’s not easy being a woman. And over the summer months it becomes infinitely more problematic, particularly when it comes to fashion. Wear too little and you risk looking unprofessional at the office, and feeling uncomfortable outside of it. Wear too much and you spend your days desperately trying to stay sweat-free. With so much to think about it’s not surprising that your health takes a back seat as soon as the mercury starts to rise. You might think that you’ve covered all the bases by slapping on the suntan lotion and your floppy sun hat, but there is another part of you that’s in just as much danger as your skin: your feet.
Sarah Shepherd investigates.

The minute you free your feet from the wintry homes in which they have been safely ensconced since last summer, and place them instead into a pair of flat and flimsy summery sandals, you are exposing them to a whole host of perils. Not only are your toes now at increased risk of being stubbed on a table leg or crushed beneath the wheels of a speeding pushchair, but, according to podiatrists, summer shoes could leave you with longer term health problems than a bruised big toe.

Barry Francis, a foot surgeon on Harley Street, is convinced that wearing flip flops can lead to tendonitis and shin splints. “When people wear them all the time, they are constantly scrunching their toes up into a claw,” he explains. So when, as is often the case we slip into them for a whole day of flip-flopping around town, the lack of support and minimal cushioning offered by such shoes is a recipe for disaster.

And they’re not the only shoes which could be doing damage to our delicate feet. The trendy ballet pump with its flat sole and rounded toe seems to offer little cause for concern, but they too make it into the bad books of most podiatrists. Mike O’Neill, a Windsor-based foot surgeon, says that in many cases, our feet are so well adapted to wearing shoes with a heel that “wearing a flat shoe stretches the calf muscle hugely and strains the Achilles tendon.”

So if flat is bad, flip flopping is worse and high heels are out of the question, what exactly should we be wearing over the summer months? One option is the FitFlop – sandals which not only promise to give you a 'workout while you walk' but also claim to alleviate back and joint pain at the same time. They result from spa-entrepreneur Marcia Kilgore's desire to find a way to stay slim without the gym. After collaborating with leading biomechanist Dr David Cook, the thick soled flip-flop with a cushioned midsole was born. Within this midsole, Cook injected his 'microwobbleboard' technology, which, as Kilgore explains, is crucial… “because you are destabilised, the muscles have to work harder as they push you on to the toe.”

While FitFlops are a fairly recent phenomenon, launched in the UK in May 2007, there is also another option which has been in development for more than 10 years. MBT – or Masai Barefoot Technology – boasts of being the world's first example of physiological footwear and was the invention of Swiss engineer, Karl Muller. While on a trip to Korea, Muller discovered that walking barefoot over paddy fields had a healing effect on his back pain and returned home with a determined plan: to develop footwear that would bring the natural instability of soft ground to those of us who spend too much of our lives walking on flat, hard surfaces. The result is an unusual-looking shoe not entirely dissimilar to the hefty platforms worn by the Spice Girls in their 1990s heyday. But don’t let that put you off; it’s the shoes’ thick curved sole which is said to help relieve stress on the joints and activate an increased number of stabilising muscles in the whole body. And if your MBTs leave you with a flat, toned midriff a la Sporty Spice circa 1990, who cares what they look like?

The question is, do they deliver on their promises? Can a pair of shoes really improve your posture and gait, tone your buttock, thigh and calf muscles and help alleviate joint and back pain? Oprah Winfrey is a believer. One of Time Magazine’s ‘most influential people’ for four years running, she has the power to make an instant bestseller of anything she endorses (a quality which US presidential nominee Barack Obama has recently come to appreciate). So when Oprah listed FitFlops as one of her summer 'must-haves,' it sent thousands of women scurrying out to get a pair. Since their launch, more than a million pairs of FitFlops have been sold, and, with new designs released this summer, sales are set to soar further still.

Impressive sales are also boasted by MBT, whose shoes are now sold in more than 20 countries worldwide and shift around one million pairs every year. How do they fare when it comes to celebrity endorsements? Oprah is a tough act to follow, of course, but supermodels Heidi Klum and Gisele aren’t a bad alternative. They are both, reportedly, MBT wearers, but you're unlikely to spot them wearing a pair on a night out – while these shoes may be a winner in terms of wellbeing, they fall short of the finish line when it comes to fashion.

But if they’re good enough for the rich and famous, are they also good enough for you and me? And are they worth parting with our precious pennies for? In terms of cost, the FitFlop is affordable, with prices starting at £36, but a pair of MBTs will set you back at least £139 – so they’re not quite as pain-free as they purport to be. Aside from cost though, there is only one way to find out what separates these two examples of functional footwear. Put them on and start walking.

Which is what I have been doing for the past few weeks, much to my partner’s dismay. Apparently, walking to the pub increases his thirst and means he spends more money at the bar. But I have found it rather liberating. Leaving the car at home means no parking stress, no petrol costs. So I am immediately in favour of both styles, if only for encouraging me to sit less and walk more. The Sport Black MBTs are first to be tested. Hidden beneath a pair of wide leg jeans they could almost pass for a regular trainer, but on a first wearing they feel extremely odd, and I immediately rethink my plan to wear them for the journey home from work. Apart from their appearance, it’s their rocking motion that differentiates them the most from ‘normal’ footwear and, faced with an hour long tube journey, much of it standing, I can see myself taking an embarrassing tumble down the aisle. But, in the interests of a fair trial, I take the risk…

…And I survive. Then comes the steep uphill climb from tube station to home. On most days, it’s not a struggle; I’m (fairly) young and (quite) fit. But today it seems the hill has steepened and I am forced to march my way up to the top, with arms swinging and all. MBT’s own research concluded that wearing them increases lower body activity by 18%, thus converting a gentle stroll into something more challenging and with bigger physical gains. The feeling of achievement as I flop onto the couch that evening encourages me to put my new shoes through a more rigorous test: a walk to the pub, and home again, of course. It’s a 45 minute journey each way (much to the boyfriend’s chagrin), and the last half mile is uphill, but this time I am prepared for it. What I was not expecting was to feel my stomach muscles working as much as my legs. The uneven surface of the shoes means your core postural muscles are constantly called upon and you’re encouraged to walk with your head up and back straight – all of which feels mighty strange when you spend the hours of 9 to 5 lazily hunched over a keyboard.

I am impressed. The only problem comes when I fancy swapping my baggy jeans for a light and floaty skirt – not a good look when rounded off with a weighty pair of MBTs. Sandal style MBTs are available now, but at around £130; they’re an expensive addition to your summer wardrobe. Enter the FitFlop, then, which is cheaper and certainly looks less bizarre when worn with a skirt. Can it match the beneficial feeling of wearing MBTs?

FitFlop Walkstar c£36

FitFlops certainly don’t require as much adjusting to as MBTs and feel comfortable as I slip them on for the first time. With a sole similar in width to the MBT and thick straps across the bridge of your feet, they are different from the flip flops you will have worn in the past. I’m still not sure I want to wear them for anything more than a seaside stroll, though; I might get caught in the rain or encounter something nasty on the pavement. But again, I take the risk and don them for a mundane Monday at work. It doesn’t rain, which is good, and I don’t encounter any pavement ‘presents,’ which is even better. But while MBTs had an almost immediate impact on my muscles, the FitFlop’s effects were more subtle… by which I mean that I didn’t really feel much at all. Yes, they were more comfortable and supportive than regular flip flops, but I can’t say that I experienced the ‘workout while I walked’ promised by FitFlop’s makers.

With only one vacant slot in my shoe rack then, which pair go back in their box? The FitFlops, without a doubt. They’re cheaper, it’s true, but they are also less wearable – in a typically soggy British summer – and had negligible physical impact upon me. But if the price of MBTs is more than you’re willing to part with for a pair of shoes that would send your more fashion-conscious friends into shock, then you could do far worse than purchase the FitFlops. Fashion is getting functional, and it’s for our own good.

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