Mountaineers, hikers, and everyday walkers alike have Turin, Italy, native and inventor Vitale Bramani to thank for creating the world's first rubber lug sole, a shoe component that has become standard among outdoorsmen worldwide.
An avid climber, well-known guide and member of the Italian Alpine Club, Bramani lead an expedition into the Italian Alps in 1935. As the group climbed Mount Rasica, they were overcome by a severe snow storm and heavy fog. Tragically, six of Bramani's fellow climbers died from frostbite and exposure.
At that time, climbers typically wore standard, hefty, hobnailed boots during the early stages of a climb, and changed into thin, felt-bottomed climbing shoes as they closed in on the steeper ascent portion of an expedition. These shoes were not well insulated; they protected climbers from neither moisture nor cold. Further, when they froze, they became dangerously slippery, which could delay or even prevent a safe and swift descent.
Bramani began to ponder the problem and concluded that his friends may have survived had they been wearing footwear that would have lessened the risk of hypothermia and frostbite. He designed a hard, rubber sole using a water- and winter-proof type of rubber ("vulcanized rubber") patented by Charles Goodyear. Bramani created a unique tread pattern for his soles and fine-tuned rubber compounds to give them excellent traction and abrasion resistance. He tested the soles on several climbs of his own.
With backing from the Pirelli Tire Company, Bramani started his own company to develop the soles. He patented his designs and produced his first soles for use by fellow alpinists in the early 1950s, dubbing them "Vibram," a combination of his own first and last names. In 1954, Italian climbers assembled for the first ascent of K2 in the Himalayas equipped with six types of Vibram soles.
Over the next decade, Vibram soles won popularity among mountaineers around the world; Jim Whittaker, the first North American to scale Mount Everest, wore them on that summit and began an endorsement contract for the soles' North American distributor (Quabaug Corp.) in 1975 that sent sales soaring.
Vibram, S.p.A., continues to operate out of its headquarters in Albizzate, Italy, and, though public, is still managed by members of the Bramani family as of this 2007 writing. The company's bright yellow, oval logo is found on millions of pairs of boots and shoes around the world, with soles manufactured in Italy, the United States, Brazil, and China. More than a thousand footwear makers use them on a range of athletic, casual, as well as military and industrial styles of footwear. Vibram makes and distributes more than 34 million soles per year.
Most recently, the company began distributing FiveFingers footwear, thin, rubber foot coverings shaped complete with five toes for better grip in activities such as water sports and boating.