The longtime footwear executive who helped launch Vibram FiveFingers recently launched his own line of shoes.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Tony Post, but you’ve certainly seen his handiwork in the shoe industry. A footwear industry executive for many years, Post cut his teeth at Reebok and Rockport before helping launch Vibram USA in 2001. A longtime believer in shoes that allow for uninhibited foot movement, he helped Vibram launch FiveFingers shoes and, by default, the mainstream minimalist movement that followed. After leading Vibram to amazing growth, he left in 2012 to pursue a new path that ultimately led to the formation of Topo Athletic, a year-old company based in Newton, Mass., that incorporates natural fit and some minimalist traits into a wide range of running, trail running and gym-oriented training shoes. Post, 56, had a good collegiate running career at the University of Tulsa and owns PRs of 14:24 for 5K and 30:02 for 10K. We caught up with Post at the recent Outdoor Retailer trade show to discuss Topo Athletic shoes and industry trends.
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Start from the top and tell us about Topo and what kind of shoes the brand is making.
Topo Athletic really is a company that makes shoes for people who are interested in road running, trail running and functional fitness. We like the integration of all three of those things. All of our shoes are built around three core values: shape, platform and weight. We build our shoes with a shape that is very roomy in the toe, but snug through the waist and the heel. The Platform in our shoes is neutral, without much heel-toe drop and a design aimed at moving and flexing with the foot in a more natural way. We do a lot of things to keep the shoes very lightweight. All of the shoes in the sample sizes weigh between 5 and 10 ounces. So we think that all three of these things come together to give the athlete a better experience and it allows the athlete to move or run or work in a more natural way.
You had a good career as a distance runner. Is that how you got into the running shoe industry?
I ran at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and then ran for a couple years after that. I was a good runner, but not a world-class runner. I learned about the industry because Nike used to have a development facility in Exeter, N.H., and that is where I started to go to see things and learn a little. I was interested in footwear then and started my career with Rockport, a casual shoe company that was using athletic footwear technology and they had Bill Rodgers as a spokesperson in the early 1980s, so that appealed to me. I ended up starting and developing my career there and had a great teachers and mentors and ended up running all of the product and marketing eventually and stayed there until 1999. I then spent a couple years working outside the footwear industry working in venture capital and actually web software projects which was really interesting. But I missed consumer products and in 2001 I came back to the footwear industry. I knew the family that owns Vibram and they were interested in starting a U.S. subsidiary. The company was previously in the U.S., but managed through a licensee, so I started Vibram USA in 2001. We were an outsole business (that made soles for other brands) and I always had some other ideas, because I always thought the brand could always be more than just soles and so we launched the FiveFingers business in 2005.
Were you ever overwhelmed or amazed at the growth of FiveFingers, not only as a product, but how it changed the way people thought?
I think that was one of the best things that happened in the athletic industry in a long time. It is not whether people believe in minimalism or not, it just got people to open their eyes and consider things and different ideas. Even though I am often a person that is associated with founding the concept of minimalism, I really believe in different stack heights, different types of footwear for different uses. There might be times when you need a little bit more protection, but what I do like is allowing the body to move or work or develop in a more natural way and FiveFingers was something that certainly helped start that. People were kind of intrigued and interested. That business was amazing in that it was really driven by the consumer. We found that consumers were really interested and liked a more natural sensation and business grew over the years.
When you left Vibram, did you know what you wanted to do next?
I knew I wanted to stay in footwear. You know, my wife encouraged me to take a little more time off, but I love the industry, I love coming to the Outdoor Retailer trade show and being a part of this, and I just love the athletic marketplace and everything about the experience. I am a user and consumer so it is something that I am passionate about and is close to my heart. I would love to tell you that I had this really clear, grand vision for Topo, but I wasn’t sure, and I think it has really evolved and been refined as we have worked on it over the years. What we really believe in is making products that are designed by athletes and for athletes, that utilize ingredients that allow the body to move and work in a natural way.
The first Topo shoes had a tabi toe, or split-toe, design in which the big toe was offset from the other toes. What was the thinking behind that?
You know, I love the split toe, it has literally been around for centuries. In Japan they have used split-toe footwear for a long time. The truth is, it didn’t resonate very well with consumers. People loved a lot of things about Topo, they loved our shape and our fit, they loved the lightweight, but not everybody liked the split toe. They didn’t like the idea of having to have special socks, so we just decided we were going to keep the brand alive by using all those things that people loved. Being a small company, the advantage you have is that you can be very nimble and if you’re like we are, in the market day-in, day-out and you see and recognize opportunities, you can change and evolve. We weren’t so arrogant to say that everybody is going to love the split-toe design. When we saw that there were challenges, but we also saw the good things that people liked in the brand, we made a decision to grow and evolve into the position where we are today. We still love a generous toe box, we still like allowing the big toe to move and work as an important stabilizer. It adds sense of agility, control and power. In our newer models we use a lot of same tooling and designs. We are using a lot of the same shapes, so we did not really fundamentally change, but we didn’t want to be defined by the split-toe and that was never part of the vision to only make split-toe shoes.
You spoke about the best thing to happen about minimalism, but what are some of the things about minimalism that have transcended the original shoes? Certainly shoes are lighter and they are designed smarter with better materials, but what else?
You know, I believe that everyone could benefit from being in shoes that have a little less structure and a little less support. If you’re doing things that stimulate muscles and range of motion in the body, that is a good thing. Being barefoot every once in a while is a good thing. Wearing shoes that don’t have a lot structure and support, that is probably a good thing. I am in stores sometimes and people are asking, “Can I use my orthotics inside your Topos?” And I say well you probably could, but we design shoes that are trying to help you strengthen the muscles in your feet and lower legs. So maybe five days a week use your shoes with your orthotics, but a couple days a week try something else and gradually what you’re going to find is that you will strengthen those muscles and you are treating the problem, not just treating the symptom.
Do you still run a lot?
I still run a lot, I bike, I ski, so I like to do a lot of different things. I love to mountain bike and road ride and I still run. So you know I think part of what Topo is about is trying to help athletes through strength and mobility as well as endurance training, be able to enjoy all these different sports. So I try to live the life myself.
So what is next? Obviously Topo is just starting, but also how can the shoe industry, how can shoes continually change and go forward?
You know it is interesting. There are always new ideas, always things that are changing and evolving and I think in Topo we are open-minded to where we see opportunities. I don’t think that there is any one shoe, whether you say I am a minimalist person or maximalist or whatever your philosophy is, I don’t think there is just one single shoe or one single idea. I think it is about having a quiver of products and using different types of products for different activities and different purposes. That is the healthiest and best way to approach it.