April 18, 2024

Behind the scenes of a decade of intensive development

Behind the scenes of a decade of intensive development

Wild stakes

The ESC collection is built to thrive in the planet’s wildest places, where the stakes are high. If your footwear fails you deep in the forest, jungle, aquatic, tundra, or desert biomes, the consequences will be serious. Reliable performance is paramount.

As Asher explained in the first blog in this series, performance is one of four core ESC principles. ESC is also committed to Traditional Ecological Knowledge, to working with nature, and to barefoot.

When the ESC seed was sown in 2013, creating expedition-grade barefootwear while balancing these commitments was uncharted territory. We were at a trailhead without a trail. Now, as we release the Jungle ESC and prepare to launch the last two Vivos in the collection, we are over a decade into the work of forging one.

In conversation with ESC designers Jenny Fraser and Lee Kingston-Spiteri, and ESC advisors and Wilderness Skills experts Ben McNutt and Deborah Nickolls, this blog takes you behind the scenes of the uniquely rigorous research and testing process required. 

Jenny Fraser - Footwear development & Lee Kingston-Spiteri - Footwear design

A global expedition team

A typical Vivo production process, explains Jenny, involves a pretty clean handover from the design team, which creates the vision, to the procurement and engineering teams, which source and build the footwear. Testing and iteration is important, but designers usually have a solid sense of how prototypes will perform.

Not with ESC.

Breaking trail across five biomes involves massive complexity and uncertainty. This demanded much wider, deeper collaboration than usual.

Indigenous and other local communities (more on this below) offered indispensable insight into local ecology, materials, and requirements. Survival experts like Ben and Debs brought an expert understanding of the functionality required – including many features designers would miss – and testing rigour. And the Vivo team possessed the design and engineering chops to translate expertise into footwear.

The ESC design process was a constant dance between the drawing board and the wild, involving everybody at every stage. “It’s hard to talk about one person without the other,” says Jenny, “because we really did work very closely together. Ben would challenge us by saying ‘It would be really helpful if it could do X, Y or X.’ And I’d be like, ‘God, that sounds difficult and expensive!’”

Moving at jungle speed

Nobody knew exactly how ideas, materials, and features would hold up in the field. With so many moving parts, this resulted in extended periods of trial and error. The best example is the new Jungle ESC, built (as Asher explained) for arguably the toughest environment for human exploration.

“To say the jungle destroys everything would be an understatement,” says Jenny. The upper was particularly challenging. It needed to protect against thorny undergrowth, flex for sensitive movement in treacherous terrain, and breathe and drain efficiently to manage relentless moisture. But these attributes “don't necessarily come hand in hand very naturally.” Through exhaustive testing, the team settled on a ‘cage’ overlay that offers all three.

It took over a year of sending prototypes to jungle guides working in Borneo before the design team, on Lee’s very first week, flew out to start testing the most promising designs themselves. It was a baptism of fire, Lee recalls. “I got woken up in my hammock by something that must have been the size of my fist. It was flying at full speed and just walloped me in the kidney!”

Among the features Lee and Asher were testing: a rugged Michelin sole, with added heel brakes for slippery rocks; a fluoro lining that is bright enough to identify critters; triple-row stitching in key areas and Dyneema yarn for added strength; capability for quick drying and drainage to help avoid trench foot; and a range of deliberately synthetic (and vegan*) materials that resist fungal decomposition.

The result, many years later, is groundbreaking jungle footwear that departs radically from the classic Panama Sole boot: a stiff, waterproof, military-issue boot traditionally used for jungle combat and exploration. Interestingly, the team experienced considerable scepticism among jungle experts accustomed to the Panama-style boot – until they tried them on. “Whenever I’ve been testing these, people with heavy leather boots on have asked to try them out,” says Deborah Nickolls, an ESC advisor and a Guide on VivoHealth’s Jungle Course. “They’ve all wanted them instantly, because they are so much more lightweight.”

Local learning and listening

If learning how to thrive in an environment, it would be foolish to ignore the wisdom of those who have long thrived there in ecological harmony. However, colonial and anthropocentric mindsets prevail in the world of exploration and the wider outdoor industry.

ESC is committed to honouring and learning from Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK): knowledge developed over centuries, typically among Indigenous communities, through intimate co-evolution with an ecosystem. TEK holds critical insights for unlocking performance and modelling a reciprocal, humble relationship with the natural world. For both reasons, and also to help redress historical oppression, preserving traditional knowledge and culture is essential.

ESC’s engagement with TEK has been different in each biome. The ESC team travelled with the Ju/'hoansi San Bushmen in Namibia for the Desert ESC. For the Tundra ESC, they worked with non-Indigenous Canadian guides who honour traditional First Nations skills. In Borneo they collaborated with non-Indigenous jungle guides who work with local Indigenous communities. (Interestingly, the jungle biome is unique in that its Indigenous communities generally go barefoot – a testament to the shoemaking challenges of tropical forests.)

The ESC team’s TEK learning goes beyond direct interactions. The collection applies common principles they have learned by studying TEK systems around the world, and through survival experts who have worked with Indigenous communities. These include natural materials, local resources, simplicity, and the importance of working with nature reciprocally (something we explore in our next ESC blog). The more the team learned about using natural materials and traditional technologies, Lee says, the more they identified surprising similarities, from a design perspective, spanning seemingly diverse biomes.

Beyond footwear

A decade of collaborative learning, testing, and iterating has been deeply educational. Even if the team didn’t envision quite such a rich journey, the opportunity to test and stretch Vivo’s values and ambitions was central to the ESC project from the start. Although ESC footwear so far has been popular, Lee admits that ESC didn’t make sense as a purely commercial initiative. Suffice to say, there were much easier and faster ways to bring barefootwear to market!

For Jenny, one of the most exciting aspects of ESC is how its learnings will cascade through how Vivo, and hopefully the wider footwear industry, operates. In particular, ESC has helped challenge conventions that inhibit performance and ecological sensitivity, prioritising environmentally specific functionality and foot health throughout the process.

One example is waterproof membranes – a counterproductive feature (and classic hiking myth) rejected by outdoor professionals but desired by many customers. Why, Jenny asks, “have we got a waterproof membrane in any of our footwear if we're saying that our pinnacle performance boots shouldn't have one?” The Outdoor development team has already started engineering waterproof membranes out of Vivo trail footwear, while still achieving or exceeding benchmarks set by industry standard testing.

Our drive to continuously improve, challenge conventions, and push the boundaries of barefoot performance won’t stop with the launch of the ESC collection. Here’s to another decade of intensive research, thoughtful development, and wild adventure!