VIBRAM CONNECTION LAB – Exchange, Experiment, Research
[Lab tour + interview]
Everyone knows the iconic yellow Vibram logo: from the most coveted fashion releases of the last decade to the peaks of most mountains around the globe – Vibram is there.
When we got a call from their team in Italy, with an opportunity to come and geek out about the technology and design in the heart of Milan at the Vibram Connection Lab – to say we were excited is an understatement.

We got a tour of the archive and facilities, which are immense, had coffee and a long chat into the night together with Vibram's team.

Today we would like to share that story with you.
VIBRAM: This is where the Connection Lab project is based. Basically our idea is to have a factory inside the city: we would like to have our innovation department and a place where we can make our prototypes and develop new technologies, but also make projects about repairs.

Our idea is to have the full, complete process, from printing the soles to getting it all glued and assembled.

In September we did an event with Linus Nutland, Nike Server. We spent the entire week here. We selected 20 of our lifestyle soles, and invited people to bring their sneakers for resoling and thanks to the suggestions given by Linus and our Vibram cobbler, people chose their own Vibram soles to add to their kicks. With the Vibram cobbler, and with Linus as a designer giving suggestions about how to assemble the kicks.

[TH: It is an amazing experience for people, and the result itself is so cool, some of those sneakers just fit so well with Vibram soles. Like they were made to be like that.]
And also it was a great way to involve the community, involve our audience. To create a direct connection, which I think is important, with the consumers.

And we are lucky here in Milan to have this kind of connection.

We are also working on a project to map your feet and understand how it is you are walking, to study the perfect sole. So we are really developing a lot of projects inside this space. Repair is only one of them.

We also made it in Paris, maybe you saw that, inside the Vibram Academy. We repeated the same format with Linus. In two days we had more than 70 people visit us with vintage sneakers, it was a lot of fun. We saw super vintage ACG Nike, old school Adidas, Vans and so on.

There is a strong message around our shoe repair, which is "give your shoes another life". Because you know, sometimes people say – "the sole is ruined, I'll throw it out". No! You can give them a second and third life.

That's why we say "repair if you care".
[People used to be able to just come and redo the resin part of the sole to any shoemaker. Ivan's grandfather has a couple of pairs of shoes that are 50 years old. And you are more connected to those shoes. Being able to come in and do this, to continue the longevity of the things that people love – it is incredibly important. For both the consumer and eco/sustainability aspect.]

Yes, that is the point, the perfect mashup. Another interesting thing also, is that people recognize the soles.

Vibram is a component brand, but people know us.

Our founder was able to think not just about a simple component production business, but a real brand that can match perfectly with any shoe. He started putting logos on a visible spot of the sole. Our yellow logo, that is now iconic.
[We think by now, you don't have to know specific shoes, but you could know the Vibram sole, and if you see a shoe rack, you know that the shoe with a Vibram badge is tough. Because it has this yellow logo.]

Yeah, it is a standard of quality. The important thing in all of this is to maintain authenticity.

Vibram is a global brand, but we don't want to go too far from our origins. It is important to stay in the outdoor world. Of course we can also collaborate into lifestyle, safety, fashion, but outdoor is our core. It started there.

Inside the Vibram Connection Lab we also have the design department. The designers here study and develop new ideas to improve some of our projects, such as Vibram Furoshiki, Vibram FiveFingers, Vibram Component, and any new technologies and designs we are working on.
[Is it the main innovation lab at Vibram?]

No, we have many… At our HQ in Albizzate we work more on developing soles for the outdoors or our current clients. But here in Milan we work specifically on new designs and technology.

For example the new Vibram ELM: We start from this outsole where laces are co-molded into the mold itself. It was really difficult to develop and utilize this kind of outsole before.

The idea is that the outsole wraps totally around the midsole and the upper, and works together to compress the foot and stabilize it. And also there is micro regulation on every part of the upper, like this here.

And after all this, the upper has knitted eyelets, so it is possible to put the strings where you want them. These are thermoformed with our luxury rubber. This is expanded rubber, that we thermoformed directly on the last.
Vibram Component: This project is based on the sole, which is always a Carrarmato sole, which was the first and most iconic Vibram sole. The idea behind this project is that you can assemble the shoe using any material you want - either what is already provided by Vibram or something else. You simply assemble the pieces like a constructor, and make your own shoe, reusing your denim, or leather jacket, or anything.

And the important thing is that you don't use glue. We did some prototypes with amazing young designers from Italy and Belgium. But this project is actually really useful for workshops. We organized more than 6 workshops in Milano with guest designers working on the shapes. And we invited 10-12 people to work on the shoes. And everybody was doing something completely different from each other. So it is very interesting to see the results, and all the possible solutions to make your own shoe.

You can actually build a shoe, with zero glue, starting from the sole. That is the concept.
We go upstairs through a lovely courtyard and sit down in the office space,
surrounded by a myriad of archival pieces
and some of the most insane releases.
We go upstairs through a lovely courtyard and sit down in the office space, surrounded by a myriad of archival pieces and some of the most insane releases.
[Our question is, how do you feel about the outdoor industry colliding with the fashion industry, if we take Vibram as an example?]

As I was saying before, we are an outdoor brand at our core and DNA. Now we see this connection between outdoor and fashion as a big trend. I think it is not going away. We are seeing lots of inspiration taken from the outdoors - the materials, the lines, the cuts. And they really do work so well together.

I think that now we are in the boom phase of this trend, of course. As for Vibram, we are getting a bigger audience too thanks to this connection. However at the same time, we are not following it as a trend. Vibram always has authenticity at its core so we don't follow trends, but we do watch closely to see how we can better understand our consumer and create products for them. For example, our focus will always be the outdoors, so we are working with athletes in different sectors: climbing, freeride, running, skiing.
We are pushing ideas, evolving with new technologies and compounds that we have, whilst at the same time we also want to work with fashion brands, of course, because that allows us to be open to other markets too.

Fashion brands, at the same time, are searching for new technologies themselves. They are becoming more functional, because you have to wear a shoe for many hours a day. You don't want to change shoes between going to work, having an aperitivo, a fancy dinner and so on. You need something that is comfortable, technical, but at the same time fashionable.

So fashion is trying to evolve also and get closer to the needs of people.

After covid, people are changing the way they dress. They prefer to be comfortable, rather than just fashionable. You have a new discovery for many of going outdoors, staying in nature. So there are new values that are now inside people's minds, I think.
[And did you already find some new technologies at this intersection of fashion and outdoor?]

Yeah, we always work hard in this field. We are always trying to find a compound that can be lighter or more durable. Now, Vibram compounds, of course, are durable, but you can always improve your technologies depending on the needs of the consumer. Of course, what we are doing also is trying to find more sustainable compounds and work on more eco-friendly rubber. More than 20 years ago we did the first eco compound Vibram Ecostep using 30 percent recycled rubber.
And now we are trying to improve on this even more.

It is a way to improve compound technology, and also stay closer to nature, which is very important to Vibram.

[How did the project change after lockdowns and all the restrictions?]

At the beginning, we had to rearrange our way of work. We found our approach. Vibram is a company that is really based on connection, community and staying together so the lockdown was difficult in terms of maintaining real life connections.
Usually we have a lot of connections, people are coming to our spaces to better understand the process behind the sole production: designers, artists, magazines and so on.

[What is your agenda on doing those outdoor activities? Can you describe a couple of events that you do?]

We do a lot throughout the year and across our global markets. One month ago we sponsored the first B2B ski alpinism event, here in Italy. And at the same time, we organized a podcast about climbing, with two of our athletes. We do have athletes in competitions around the world. Right now the Freeride World Tour is one of the most important competitions in the snow world, and we are partners. We have lots of things related to trail running.

[You have a team at UTMB, we're pretty sure.]

Yes, we have some Vibram athletes at UTMB. We also have athletes that do mountain biking. Also Matteo Bordella and David Bacci are two well known famous alpinists, they opened a new route that they called "Brothers in arms'' in Patagonia at Cerro Torre, that is the first time that they did this wall with our support.
We also try to involve our community. Matteo is one of the best known climbers not just in Italy, but in Europe and around the world. And in December we organized an event here, at the Connection Lab, having Matteo present his movie, called "Greenland". And we invited guests and outdoor communities. It was super successful, because it is another way to tell the story with an athlete talking about it, his adventure, what and how he did it, while presenting the movie. So we do different kinds of events. Races, competition, events here at the lab, Lineapelle and ISPO, B2B events, B2C fairs.

We have a long, long list of the things we are involved in.

[It is interesting how the Connection Lab fits in the Vibram ecosystem in terms of what this place is. And well, it is in the name.]

Exactly. So it is in fact, like you were saying, a connection.
It is also a kind of hub, which really suits different kinds of events related to the Vibram world. Starting from workshops during fashion week, as one example, to athletes coming in and telling their stories. It is a way of gathering people together and making connections.

Another thing we are passionate about is our historical archive in Albizzate. We took part in the Milano Design Week presenting the multidisciplinary project "One with nature - twenty years of Vibram FiveFingers." The Vibram Connection Lab, from 6th to 18th June, hosted an exhibition presenting a selection of more than hundred Vibram FiveFingers prototypes, selected by the creator himself, Robert Fliri.

The first prototype was made in 2002, and now we are in 2022. So it is a 20 year celebration. To see how Vibram worked on FiveFingers is a good example of the company's values. Because we have so many different examples, experiments, technologies, ways to make uppers and soles.
It is fascinating to see a supplier, ingredient brand, being a brand with a capital B, rather than just a business.

Vibram today is not just a fancy rubber manufacturer, it's a community, a staple and a big yellow checkmark for toughness and outdoorsiness.

Vibram Connection Lab is a hub for this community, for all the creatives and ones interested in the industry of sports and fashion, which perfectly encapsulates the famous motto "your connection to Earth".

Stay tuned for more articles from our European tour soon.
Produced by TECHUNTER Media.

Questions: Alex Zabelin [TECHUNTER, chief editor], Ivan Dzhatiev [TECHUNTER, creative director].
Answers: Cecilia Dossan [VIBRAM, Special Projects coordinator].
Decryption: Artemii Kozak.
Edit: Ivan Dzhatiev [THM].
Layout: Alex Zabelin [THM].
Images: Ivan Dzhatiev, Alex Zabelin [THM].

Special thanks to FUJIFILM for the gear support during our trip.