"You will look weird wearing them, but who cares?" read the email. "You'll be wearing the footwear of the future. Shoes are for Luddites anyways."
This was a pitch for a product called Skinners that initially grabbed my attention with the subject line "These modern socks replace shoes entirely. No more shoes." I get a ton of product pitches every day that I usually have to ignore, but that claim — along with the rep's willingness to admit that they do look kind of stupid — made me want to give this one a shot.
Skinners are basically stretchy socks with a super-tough rubbery material on the undersides. The claim is that they offer a more natural walking or running experience, similar to "barefoot" running shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers, and they also serve as a really portable form of footwear that you can just roll up and shove in a bag or pocket. You can wear them with or without socks.
Can they replace shoes entirely, like the pitch email suggested? "Skinners are not a full-time substitute for your regular footwear," says the first thing I read on the accompanying information sheet. Oh.
But I resolved to wear them as much as possible for about a week, only resorting to more traditional footwear when I really had to — playing soccer, for example, or taking a meeting at the Grand Hyatt. And what surprised me is that I actually liked them a lot. It does feel very liberating to walk around a city in what are basically socks; you become much more aware of the ground beneath your feet, but Skinners' construction is strong enough that they're never less than comfortable.
I also found that they made more sense than either shoes or socks in certain situations. On a plane, for instance, they're the perfect thing to slip into. At the gym, they offer more grip than socks and a more natural position for lifting weights, which can be thrown off by shoe heels. And while I wouldn't play soccer in them, they're certainly easier to carry to the pitch and back than a second pair of shoes.
They somehow didn't smell
The biggest surprise was that even after a few days' wear, they somehow didn't smell, even in a humid Japanese summer. I ended up washing them — you can put them in a regular washing machine inside-out — just because I felt weird not doing so rather than because of any, um, noticeable side-effects of their usage. This is a selling point of the product, with its primary material described as "odor-resistant and antibacterial with cooling effect," and at least for the early weeks of ownership I've found it to hold true. And while the rough underside surface does smooth out a bit eventually, this is said to be intentional as excess material rubs away. I can't see Skinners developing holes or tears without extreme, extended use.
I do have to emphasize, however, that Skinners look truly ridiculous in public situations. While leaving the gym last week I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a year or so; his first question was "How's it going?" and his second was an incredulous "Why are you only wearing socks?" They're perhaps a little more subtle than Vibram FiveFingers, but at least those look like actual, deliberate footwear and not like you've just forgotten your shoes.
Skinners feel really good to walk around in
So no, Skinners can't replace shoes. I wouldn't want them to, anyway — I like shoes! But in situations where you're okay going for function over form, they're actually pretty great. They feel really good to walk around in, which is ultimately what matters.
Skinners are currently on Kickstarter — there's just over a day to go on the campaign, which at the time of writing has raised more than 55 times the $10,000 funding goal. Right now the cheapest option remaining gets you a single pair for $35 with December delivery; the retail price is estimated at $45.