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Thesis Couture Olympus One high heels.
Photo: Daniella Midenge

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Can Science Make a Wearable High Heel?

Heels are still bad for your feet, but they could be getting better.

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It's 2017 and high heels still feel like torture devices. But there are plenty of scientists working with new technologies to fix this dilemma. Thesis Couture CEO Dolly Singh, one of the entrepreneurs leading the charge, hates the old adage that “beauty is pain.”

“That’s bullshit,” Singh said. “We no longer need to accept the narrative that women should suffer to look good. I think that’s an outdated concept that in 15 years will hopefully sound archaic, like Chinese foot binding does now.”

Some women love the sex appeal of high heels despite the discomfort, while others are pressured by their employers to don the footwear as part of their professional dress codes. Either way, frequent wear comes with a range of health risks, including nerve damage in the foot and ankle, early arthritis, and long-term joint pain. So businesswomen like Singh and Dr. Joan Oloff, a podiatrist-turned-shoe designer in California, are now reinventing the style to prioritize women’s health.

Marion Parke high heels.
Photo: Marion Parke

Oloff is set to officially launch her ergonomic brand this year, after four years of beta testing while she sold shoes through her website and select boutiques across the United States. It’s been a long time coming. She grew up the daughter of a footwear shopkeeper in Brooklyn and moved out west to California, where she became a foot doctor and surgeon. “I saw so many women whose feet were ruined by shoes,” Oloff said. “We deserve to wear pretty shoes without hurting our bodies.”

Throughout her career, she has seen women with stress fractures in their foot bones similar to the kind that professional athletes get. And the consequences of high heels can even reach above the ankles. “There’s also a lot that happens in the back of the legs,” Oloff explained. “Your center of gravity is thrown forward; now all that stress is on your knees and it goes all the way up to your back. You can end up with back pain and arthritis in your back.”

So the stylish doctor went with Italian shoe designer Alessandro Vasini on an exodus to study the art of Italian shoemaking. She started by learning about insoles, the key to weight distribution. “You don’t hire an interior designer before you build the house,” she said. “The structure has to be sound. Everyone has ignored the structural engineering.” Today, she has sold thousands of shoes and counts anchorwomen Gayle King and Robin Roberts among her clients.

Her shoes generally cost around $400 a pair, including heels with all kinds of different heights and shapes. “A generalization is wider heels will be more stable than stiletto heels, but it’s complicated,” Oloff said. “Stability comes from the insole and not just the heel... it’s not just ‘wear flats and your feet are going to be healthy.’ It’s about the construction of the shoe.” Shoes by her namesake brand are designed by a team of four artisans, including herself, and made in a small Italian leather factory.

Oloff’s patented design uses a three-pronged approach: The mold the shoe is made on is crafted to make sure the full arch is supported and weight is more evenly distributed; the platform of the shoe is filled with soft materials, like memory foam; and the insole is equipped with a “false bottom” to absorb shock. Lastly, there is a slight dip scooped out of the heel so that the heel can drop down, making even stiletto heels feel more balanced.

Joan Oloff 4-inch stiletto ankle boots.
Photo: Guenter Knopp

Racked tried out a pair of Oloff’s 4-inch stiletto ankle boots, provided by the brand. They certainly felt more stable and cozy than regular heels — almost shockingly comfortable. But there is no magic that will turn heels into sneakers. Dr. Marsha Bienenstock, a Brooklyn podiatrist, inspected the shoes and still warns against dancing in them all night. “It’s comfortable in the heel area, but it does put a little bit of pressure on the knees, and the toe box is also very narrow,” she said. “It’s good as far as high heels go.”

The boot’s collar was also fitted unusually snug, which helped with stability yet tugged slightly at the ankle when walking on stairs. It’s still up to consumers to make smart choices about which shoe is best for different terrains. Bienenstock thinks it’s impossible for a stiletto heel, no matter how well-made, to not leave your feet screaming for mercy by the end of a long night. “The wedge heels can do that better,” she said.

It’s clear why wedges are easier to move around in than stilettos, but many women aren’t ready to abandon the latter style completely. They make the butt look perky while maintaining a long, slender line in the legs. Studies have shown onlookers find women in high heels more feminine, in part because the hips sway as the woman strives to keep her balance. One study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior proved men were more likely to help women wearing stilettos versus thick, low heels or flats. “I’m not telling women you can’t wear pretty shoes, but just to think about your body and your choices,” Oloff said. “They make shoes for men looking at women, not for women... we all deserve better.”

Fellow entrepreneur Singh had plenty of experience with the proverbial male gaze when she worked in hi-tech. The former recruiter for Oculus VR recalled how new virtual reality technologies were often developed to suit men. She sees a lot of parallels between tech and fashion in this regard. “The male eye, the physical anatomy, is fundamentally different from female eyes. We process visual information differently from men,” says Singh. “Even in the footwear industry, there are mostly male designers. So of course they don’t think about actually wearing the shoes.”

When Singh set out to start her own brand, Thesis Couture, she recruited rocket scientists from SpaceX, where she worked before Oculus VR, along with engineers and fashion technologist Amanda Parkes. Around 3,000 people have already pre-registered to buy the three-piece 2017 collection, set to launch this summer, even though the brand only plans to make up to 1,500 units per design. Designer Julia Thomas is collaborating with Singh to create the collection, which will include an office-friendly pump, a boot, and a red carpet shoe, in addition to the company’s earlier debut design, Olympus One. The 4-inch heels will range in price from $400 to $1,000. “I want women to look and feel sexy as hell,” Singh says. “But I want to design from a place where I’m also thinking about wearing the shoes.”

Thesis Couture Olympus One heels.
Photo: Bill Brown

These shoes will reduce the amount of pressure typically placed on the toes and the balls of the feet, using aerospace-grade foam and redesigned heels. “For almost 100 years, high heels have been structured around a metal strut called a shank, which runs up the inside of the shoe,” Singh said. “We threw the metal shank out the window and created a custom curve polymer architecture, like bones for a high heel. Those parts are made of advanced polymer and TPUs,” the softer plastic engineers call thermoplastic polyurethane. Instead of carrying 80 percent of the wearer’s body weight, like most stilettos, this design is supposed to mean the balls of the feet carry only 50 percent.

Yet despite all the innovations, these ergonomic collections are still steeped in the tradition of couture fashion. One of the two Italian factories producing Singh’s collection also makes shoes for brands ranging from Chanel to Rupert Sanderson, a favorite of British royal Kate Middleton. The second factory is one of the few manufacturers in the world certified to create Manolo Blahnik footwear. It also happens to be owned by the son of the shoemaker who worked with Roger Vivier and Dior to create the world’s first stiletto heel in the 1950s.

There is a third woman using her scientific prowess to design healthier shoes that still draw from the rich Italian heritage of couture fashion. Podiatrist Dr. Marion Parke launched her own line in 2015. It has since expanded to retailers like Bloomingdale’s and ShopBop. Her shoes are produced in the same Italian factory that makes Jimmy Choos.

Parke said her distribution has doubled over the past six months, with shoes generally ranging from $595 to $995 a pair. Her collection offers everything from stilettos to sandals with only a slight 10-millimeter heel. For stilettos, Parke’s design includes extra material along the sides of the foot to counteract the ankle’s propensity to roll or twist. Parke also invented her own unique insoles, handcrafted for an impeccable fit that molds to the contour of the foot using medical-grade foam similar to the type used in prosthetic limbs. Even so, she still shies away from promises of unequivocal comfort. She prefers to describe them as “wearable.”

Photo: Guenter Knopp

“I steer away from the word ‘comfort,’” Parke said. “It’s important for people to understand that depending on their foot type and biomechanics, for some people flats will be better and for others heels will feel better.” For example, women with acute tightness in their calf muscles will often find wearing heels more enjoyable than walking in flats. Parke’s collection includes different internal structures for unique designs, such as chunky Mary Janes versus strappy sandals, because cushioning is less important for usability than the shoe’s fit and frame.

Science can produce healthier shoes with less pressure on the toes and more stable structures swaddled in hi-tech materials. But it’s still crucial for women to be educated about their own bodies in order to choose healthy heels. Plus, handcrafted insoles make a big difference. All things considered, it’s unlikely that comfortable heels will be available at retailers with more affordable prices any time soon. “I don’t know. It’s possible,” Parke added. “There is a real need in the marketplace and there’s tremendous room for us to grow.”

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