April 11, 2024

The Greatest story we’ve Never Told

The Greatest story we’ve Never Told

As we mark the launch of the Jungle ESC, the latest addition to our Ecological Survival Collection, it’s finally time to tell the ESC story in full. In this blog, the first of a series, Vivo Co-Founder and Design Director Asher Clark sets the scene.

Telling the ESC story in full for the first time is a really exciting moment, not least because it takes me back to my 2015 birthday. How better to celebrate, I thought, than with a short getaway in the Bornean jungle?

Birthday gatherings don’t typically begin with a safety briefing to ensure your survival. But even 36 hours in the jungle – Earth’s most alive, biodiverse land biome – can be treacherous. Snakes, leeches, and myriad other animals demand constant vigilance. The temperature hovers between 30°C and 35°C, at a sweltering 80% humidity. And rain infiltrates everything, feeding a maze of fast-flowing rivers requiring regular crossings. Immersion foot, which occurs when feet stay wet for long periods of time, usually gets people first.

These quibbles aside, it was all cakes and balloons.

Designer Lee's first week on the job, in the Bornean jungle

I was in Borneo with ESC designer Lee Kingston-Spiteri – his first week on the job! – to learn more about what it takes to build an expedition-grade barefoot jungle boot. After fourteen months of posting prototypes to Bornean jungle guides, it was time to test the footwear ourselves. The trip was an early leg of what has evolved into an epic journey, during which we’ve created our Ecological Survival Collection: barefootwear built to thrive in the planet’s wildest places, in harmony with nature.

Vivobarefoot has always aspired to create footwear that reconnects people with nature – that reminds us that we are nature, and nature is us. Thankfully this doesn’t normally require jungle expeditions. But as arguably the wildest, most challenging land biome for human exploration, the jungle does represent the ultimate test of our barefoot ambition and philosophy. 

This was the irresistible shoemaking challenge world-class survival expert Ben McNutt (now an ESC advisor, with his Wild Human Co-Founder Deborah Nickolls) presented to my cousin and fellow Vivo Co-Founder Galahad Clark in 2013. Ben was a fan of Vivos, but told us that they weren’t yet able to thrive in the toughest terrains. What would it take, he asked, to build barefootwear that not only helps you explore in the world’s most challenging environments, but enables you to connect to yourself and nature on a deeper level? With his question, ESC was born.

World-class survival experts, Wild Human Co-Founders, and ESC advisors Ben McNutt and Deborah Nickolls.

“It’s the macho-muscle types that break first,” said our Borneo guide during the briefing. “I tell all the heroes to leave their Western macho tendencies at the hotel. If you go in with an ‘I will beat the jungle’ mentality, you will get beaten by it – fast and hard.”

These wise, if ominous, words were promising from a barefoot perspective. It seemed that our determination to work with nature, rather than fight against it, would stand us in good stead. Which turned out to be true, but also the easy bit. Because a good jungle boot, put simply, needs to do everything well and nothing badly.

Jungle moisture and humidity breed fungi, which decompose anything organic. Thorny undergrowth and jagged riverbeds require rugged materials – which must also resist intense UV degradation. Relentless rain and running water permeate everything, making failproof waterproofing a pipedream and breathability and drainage critical. Abrasive sand tests every seam. Slippery mud and rocks demand excellent traction. And curious creepy crawlies explore every crevice.

These formidable design challenges explain why weeks of early prototypes were returned to us in piles of unrecognisable components. They also explain why indigenous jungle tribes generally go barefoot, unlike in other land biomes.

Putting (very) early Jungle ESC prototypes through their paces in Borneo.

To ensure we rise to these challenges, the ESC process FOLLOWS four core design principles.

To ensure we rise to these challenges, the ESC process FOLLOWS four core design principles.

01: tek

ESC honours, learns from, and helps to preserve Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). From First Nations communities in the Arctic tundra to Namibian bushmen in the Namib Desert, people with deep roots in a landscape possess deep understanding of its requirements. TEK is a crucial source of ESC expertise.

02: nature

ESC works with nature. In a sense this is part of the first principle, as it runs through all indigenous cultures. ESC footwear is nature-inspired biophilic design, and built on the understanding that resisting natural processes is almost always counterproductive. Reciprocity unlocks both performance and a healthier relationship with nature. ESC is for connection, not conquest.

03: barefoot

ESC is barefoot. The ESC collection equips you to explore even the most challenging environments with barefoot feeling, flexibility, and freedom. It brings you into a deeper relationship with the natural world - including your human nature.

04: performance

ESC offers uncompromising performance in the planet’s wildest places. ESC footwear is built not just to survive, but to thrive in the biome it is built for – and in other wild environments beyond. Our determination to offer expedition-grade performance is one reason the ESC journey has been so long and full of learning.

While it’s been a long and challenging journey, we’re delighted with the ESC collection so far, and super excited to finally give the project the attention it deserves. This blog will be followed by four more, each exploring ESC from a different perspective. You can read those, and learn more about ESC.

ESC footwear is already available for three biomes: the Forest ESC (in boot and fast-hike forms); the amphibious Hydra ESC, for the aquatic biome; and the Jungle ESC. The Tundra ESC is coming in winter 2024, and the Desert ESC in spring 2025.

The ESC story won’t end with the Desert ESC. Far from it. This journey has taught us so much, including how much we don’t know. Lots of unfinished business remains. We will keep refining the ESC collection. We will feed ESC learnings into how we make barefootwear more broadly. And we will do our bit to nurture the wider footwear industry to grow in more reciprocal directions, towards a regenerative future.