“You’ve seen the five-toed running shoes?” This was political commentator Keith Olbermann during an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman in May. He had limped onto the stage with a cane and his left foot in an orthotic boot. When Letterman asked about the injury, Olbermann blamed it on the toe shoes. “They’re great for your knees. They’re great for your hips. They make you actually feel younger,” he said. “Unfortunately, if you try to run in them and you weigh more than 175 pounds, you will break something.”
Olbermann was talking about Vibram FiveFingers, a kind of glove for the foot made by the Italian rubber-sole specialist. For Vibram, this talk-show banter was a small public relations headache. It also was a signal of how popular its toe shoes had become since the company began peddling them six years ago. Back then nobody was interested, says Tony Post, chief executive officer of Vibram’s U.S. division. He first showed the design to his biggest sole customers to see if they wanted to partner on a product. They passed, so he brought it directly to retailers. They also balked. “It was just a little too strange,” says Post. This year the company is on pace to sell some $100 million worth of FiveFingers—a sum that will account for more than half of its North American revenue.