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Shoe Guy: 5 Questions With Tony Post

We caught up with the founder and CEO of Topo Athletic.

Tony Post is a longtime footwear industry executive and runner (he was the captain of the cross country and track teams at the University of Tulsa in college) who most recently helped Vibram gain huge acclaim with enormous sales and hype of FiveFingers toe shoes. But he left Vibram late last spring and has recently reemerged with his own footwear brand, Topo Athletic, a footwear company that makes “zero-drop” running and functional fitness shoes with a Tabi-fit that features an isolated big toe design. His company debuted three models at the recent Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City—the RR ($130, 5.3 oz. for a men’s size 8.5), a high-end performance trainer with a Boa closure system that wraps and secures around the midfoot and 12mm of material under the foot (6mm insole, 3mm sockliner, 4mm rubber outsole). Also in the initial line are the RX ($110, 6.7 oz. men’s size 8.5), a functional training or CrossFit shoe; and the RT ($100, 6.0 oz., men’s size 8.5), an everyday running trainer. Topo shoes are expected to debut at stores in May.

What’s the philosophy behind Topo Athletic shoes?

What we’ve done is taken a concept that has been around for a long time, which is a Tabi-inspired split-toe design, and made it a modern way. The Tabi fit goes back a long way. The guy who won the 1951 Boston Marathon —a Japanese runner named Shigeki Tanaka—won the race in a pair of Tabi, split-toe shoes. It’s been a concept that has been intriguing to us for a long time. The big toe is a key stabilizer for the entire body, so it’s important for balance and agility and it’s a key power source, so for the toe to work and move independently is a great benefit. But we also found that, while you can make a generous-fitting forefoot for your toes to spread and splay, one of the problems is that whenever you’re running downhill or around a corner, you foot moves inside the shoe and because of that the shoe doesn’t feel like it’s connected to your body. It feels sloppy and almost like it’s an extra appendage. I’ve never liked that feel; I like gear that feels like it’s connected to my body and always my body to work and move in a more natural way. But what we discovered was that the Tabi fit actually creates a unique anchor point down on the forefoot. So we’ve created shoes that give you all the benefits of a roomy last that gives your toes room to spread and splay and you get this nice anatomical fit, but at the same time, you have the security in the forefoot that allows it to feel more connected to your body. And that feels faster, more powerful, more balanced and more in control. And whether you’re running or whether you’re doing CrossFit or some other form of functional fitness, it just feels better, more connected.

Can these be properly pegged as part of the second generation of minimalist shoes?

None of these shoes are really minimalist shoes. I know that people will be saying I’m the minimalist guy and I’m making minimalist shoes, but I think there is an opportunity that hasn’t really been exploited and that’s taking some of the characteristics we all like about minimalism—namely the connectedness and that they’re incredibly lightweight—but at the same time we’re offering a little more protection and support under foot. I still believe in zero-drop, and I love the ability to mid-foot strike, but, in minimal shoes, I just can’t train as hard or do the amount of work the way I need to. I need more underfoot protection, and I think we’re offering shoes that strike the right balance. We wanted to make the shoes incredibly lightweight and add some other key details like foam around the collar and under the tongue and a notched heel at the Achilles. It has a little bit of protection and support where you need it, but it’s still incredibly lightweight and secure.

What are the benefits of isolating the big toe in a shoe?

The big toe is not only a key source of propulsion, but it’s also critical to balance and agility. That means it’s essential to all of your movements. We were trying to isolate that so that the big toe can move freely and I think the other thing that happens, when you “pocket” that big toe like that, it heightens your sensory awareness in that part of your foot and puts more emphasis on your big toe as you move.

Could the technology and design in Topo shoes wind up in other types of athletic footwear?

Of course it could, but I don’t want to give away our whole hand. We’ve positioned this as an athletic shoe company and we really want to use athletes to help us develop products. A lot of these features are really important. Every athlete needs to run and do some sort of functional training, but you can see how we could take this idea and apply it to other kinds of sports. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, though.

How has your previous experience at Rockport and Vibram helped you reach this point?

I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of smart, hard-working people in the shoe industry. I had a great education at Rockport and learned a lot in 15 years about how to build products, how to grow a company and how to build a culture, and I think that was essential to the success we would end up having at Vibram. The Vibram experience was a great experience, and I loved the people I worked with, which made it a very hard decision to resign because we were doing really well. But I had a desire to move on and take on the next chapter of my life and take on more direct responsibility myself. I don’t know how many more opportunities I’ll have to do something like that, so I wanted to do it while I have the energy and the passion for it. At this stage, I’m just trying to make sure we make good shoes, make sure we get the right fit and adhere to the values we’re trying to build into the shoes, and if we do that, I think everything else will take care of itself.