Way back in August, 2011 and immediately after my presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA, I was approached by a young man, Mountain Evan Chang, about shoes. It was ironic, because I was barefoot at the time. But Mountain knew of my thing for minimalist shoes.
Turned out that he was trying to develop a line of minimalist men’s dress shoes. In other words, develop hyper-quality dress shoes you could wear with pride in any formal or even business-casual setting—ones with a thinner sole and no heal platform, and very light. By that time, many of us had had quite a few laughs seeing pictures and videos of people wearing monkey-footed Vibrams with a suit—even getting married in them. So, he asked me a bunch of questions, took notes, and asked if I’d be willing to try them once in production.
I forgot about it. Figured: big long shot anyway. It must have been a couple of year and low & behold, he did it, and mine were on the way.
Version 1.0 to the right, in black, the new v4.0 to the left, in brown. Initially, they were branded “The Primal Professional,” but he has expanded his reach and rebranded them “Carets.” Here’s the website. One would hope that a colloquial branding occurs such that in business or dating gigs, they become referred to as Carrots. Get it?
But how impressive, right? Young man takes on the daunting task of developing, manufacturing, marketing and directly distributing his own high-quality dress shoe for men in a cobbling tradition centuries old. Something that can be worn with any suit in any formal setting, or, looking good with a pair of blue jeans or khakis?
On that latter point, back when I lived in France in the early 90s, the thing was to wear brown wingtips with un jean. And, the highest standard for that was handmade English wingtips. Yep, Frenchmen in an Englishman’s shoe.
Mountain has continued to refine his shoe product, so let’s take a look at the evolution between the launch version and the current iteration, the fourth. All the photos will have v1.0 to the left, v4.0 to the right. This is all from Mountain himself to fully highlight and explain all the thought and refinements. Amazing. You’ll even learn something about what goes into designing a fine men’s shoe in terms of style, durability, and longevity.
#1 Proportion of Cap : Vamp : Quarter
The first thing you probably noticed is the change in the cap to vamp to quarter proportions.
This area in Oxford shoes tends to have a gap between the 2 quarters. It’s usually solved with either stitching or a flap like this. I think this flap would be the more durable out of the 2.
#3 Sharper Lines & Angles
In combination with the longer cap, these sharper lines and angles make the redesign look more masculine.
#4 From 6 Eyelets to 5
I think they removed an eyelet for aesthetic reasons when they shortened the quarters. Functionally, having less lacing makes it easier to slip into the shoes with our elastic laces.
#5 New Stitch Line Detail
I’m not sure if there’s a function to this, but I’ve seen it on other dress shoes and it looks nice.
#6 More Finished Footbed
I think the stitching looks much better, and it also keeps the 3 components of the insole—leather, Poron, and cellulose board—together.
#7 Gold Heat Stamped Logo
#8 Suede-Lined Heel Counter
Suede has more friction than smooth leather. This should help prevent the back of the foot from slipping up.
#9 Less Toe Spring
The toe upturn is called toe spring. It’s a useful feature if done right, as it helps you not kick the front of your shoes, especially on dress shoes where there’s extra length in the front. However, it was a bit too much on our versions prior to 4. It’s strange because our last (the plastic mold around which shoes are built) doesn’t have that much toe spring, but the shoes do.
I think the reason why these Mexico-made version 4 shoes have less toe spring has to do with the next point.
#10 Cork Filler Removed
With our USA-made shoes, there was a cork filler between the insole and the outsole. Our Mexican shoemaker asked, “Is this really necessary?” and the answer is no. With the cork filler removed, the shoes are lighter, softer, and more flexible right out the box, and I think it’s the reason why there’s less toe spring.
#11 Finer Topline
This part tended to bother some people’s ankles. It’s much finer in the redesign and as a result much softer.
#12 Lower Topline
As a further measure to spare people’s ankles, I had them strategically lower the topline. Note: It can still be lowered further, and we will in version 5.
#13 New Heel Counter Design
Thanks to your feedback to our March newsletter, I redesigned our heel counter. This design is most often seen on wingtips, where extra panels allows for the shoe to showcase more of its intricate detailing. I saw it on an Oxford though, and I said whoa.
#14 Closer Stitching Rows
The stitching on our shoes got a lot tighter between v2 and v3, as we moved cut-and-sew from Wisconsin to the Dominican.
Between v3 and v4, the individual stitches appear to be the same size. However, the rows of stitching are closer in v4, and what a huge difference that makes in refinement. Everything’s better in Mexico!
#15 Round Elastic Laces
Elastic laces turn your lace-up Oxfords into slip-ons! These are the coolest thing! People have asked if I’d make a slip-on shoe and the answer was always no because of longevity concerns. I’ve had slip-on’s before. The elasticized parts get stretched out and the shoe becomes too loose. But with these elastic laces, it’s okay if they get stretched out, because you can just replace them! Hat tip to a customer Jerome for telling me about them!
V4 has round elastic laces, which look more traditional than the flat elastic laces from V3. The round laces glide through the eyelets more easily, which makes tightening and loosening them easier. I also expect the round elastic laces to be more durable (think of flat fabric vs rope).
#16 Lasted Shoe Trees made from Varnished Pine
Our old shoe trees were of a stock shape, made from red aromatic cedar.
When I first visited the shoe tree maker in León, I was concerned about the material and the price. Their most affordable option, pine, was 1.5x what I was paying for shoe trees before. The price for cedar was so high that I don’t even remember it.
So I spent an evening digging through articles and forums about shoe tree material. Red aromatic cedar has one clear advantage over other shoe tree woods, and its in the name: aromatic. They smell great. Cedar repels pests and resists rot very well, often used outdoors with no treatment necessary.
There are claims that cedar is better at managing moisture by absorbing it, but this seems up for debate by people with a stronger grasp on science than myself. After all, luxury shoemakers use varnished woods for their shoe trees, and varnished wood is basically waterproof. It seems that the most important thing is that you use shoe trees, period.
The new shoe trees included with v4 are made from varnished pine. They look great and they should last longer than the untreated cedar ones, which can splinter. The new shoe trees are customized to our shoe shape, so that it fits perfectly. I was really excited when they told me I could provide custom-lasted shoe trees for you. This is typically only available with shoes that are $1,000+.
In the end, all things considered, I decided the higher price was worth it.
#17 Poron Cushioning (added in v3)
I was first introduced to the idea of cushion when Justin @BirthdayShoes reviewed Xero Shoes’ Amuri Cloud. Steven Sashen @Xero Shoes is a true barefoot connoisseur. So when he released a sandal with EVA cushioning, it piqued my interest.
Months later, in August, Andrew @LEMS Shoes gave me a call. He had just read our newsletter introducing our new V3. I had given him a pair of our V2 shoes, and he had some feedback on that, too. One thing he recommended was making things softer underfoot.
If Steven and Andrew are both saying a bit of cushion is the way to go, I had to check it out.
We tend to think of cushioning in the context of thick, marshmallow-like, traditional running shoes. This has a number of issues. First, the heel stack throws off our posture and form. Second, that much foam cuts off proprioceptive feedback and groundfeel. Third, EVA is not very durable, so when that much material gets pounded over and over, it will degrade, change shape, and cause even more posture and form issues (see an example on The Gait Guys here).
However, if you’re using a thin layer, everything changes. First, we’re still zero-drop, and there is no heel stack. Second, soft foam actually allows quite a bit of proprioceptive data to come through. Third, it’s so thin that even if degrades, the relative change is negligible.
For us, using the more expensive high-performance Poron over EVA means that our cushioning will last much longer.
Another benefit that I’ve found is that Poron counteracts the slight slip that is inevitable when you wear smooth socks over a smooth leather footbed. It allows your foot to sink in just the slightest, keeping it in place.
#18 Dressier Leather (added in v2)
The leather we used in v1 was the softest full-grain cowhide I could find, one that was typically used for comfort shoe brands. Our current leather is still a soft and durable full-grain cowhide, but with a dressier appearance: more structure and a smoother, shinier surface.
So I asked Mountain a couple of additional questions, about resole restoration and also if he had any data on wear, tear, and longevity. Here’s his responses.
- Not only is a resole possible, but we provide an official service through a 3rd party. Here’s more info. You want to be able to resole a high-end quality men’s shoe with a classic look that never goes out of style.
- With any shoe and outsole, it’s hard to say how long the outsoles will last. Many variables come into play, including but not limited to the wearer’s weight, gait, mileage, walking surfaces, etc. I have not collected data on this but this is a good idea and I will include the question in future surveys. Anecdotally, the shortest I’ve heard is 1.5 years, and the longest is 4 years.
OK, I know you want a pair. That’s a given. They aren’t inexpensive, of course, nor should they be. Superior quality costs money and you get what you pay for. I think you’ve seen that a lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into this design, production, and continual improvements. The price is very competitive for something like that.
From a personal perspective, I love them on many levels. While I have not yet had an opportunity to go out with the v4s yet—but I will in about 3 weeks, a trip to Seattle (I’m arranging a meetup with various channel peeps via Facebook)—let me give you my simple levels of take on them.
- They are very, very light; but since made of minimally thin but top-quality leather, the durability is superior.
- The quality is fine, by which I mean fine in the sense of fine, not adequate. Again, superior. There’s nothing more annoying than seeing stitching begin to unravel.
- The soles are thin enough to actually get feedback to your human firmware. Of course, you can never duplicate actual barefoot (fun fact: you have more nerve endings in your feet than in your male “membership”), but it’s also of a material of sufficient thickness that you’re not going to be resoling them every few months.
- Best for last: no heel platform. It’s the most noticeable thing for me. You stand normal and it’s quite a thing when you notice and embrace it. It feel slightly odd at first because you’re so used to being vaulted an inch in so many brands. You’ll embrace it. Trust me.
So here’s the special deal Mountain has offered. Go to CaretsCo.Com and when you order and check out, use discount code 1803-FTA for $35 off.