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Comfort on a High: How Brands are Re-Imagining the Luxury Heel

Heels. They hurt. Anyone who’s had their feet held hostage in a pair of sky-high stilettos would not list comfort as a reason why they wear them, and yet heels have remained an enduring icon of women’s footwear. A sexy pair of heels make an immediate statement, and any discomfort is just a necessary evil. Or at least that’s how the story usually goes.

But comfort—a word that on first brush seems diametrically opposed to the idea of luxury heels—has never been hotter. While Kanye West’s Yeezy’s may serve to highlight the ridiculous hype-driven, celebrity top-end of luxury athleisure, the category itself is no joke.

From the explosion of activewear from fast fashion retailers such as H&M, to the introduction of the athleisure-focused Net-a-Sporter from e-retailer Net-a-Porter, to the continued relevance of sports brands like Nike and Under Armour; athleisure doesn’t just indicate a change in tastes, but a change in lifestyles.

The number of Americans who practiced yoga in 2015 was nearly double the 2002 amount, according to an NCCIH study, while gym memberships were up 18.6 percent between 2008 and 2014. The global sports apparel market, worth more than $149 billion today, is projected to grow by 23 percent to $184 billion by 2020, according to data from Allied Market Research.

And women are an increasingly larger part of the puzzle for athletic brands. By 2020, Nike wants to double sales of its shoes to women to $11 billion, up from $5.7 billion last year. The brand is even piloting stores exclusively for women in San Francisco and Newport Beach, Calif. Puma, meanwhile, grew sales of its women’s products by 40 percent last year according to The NPD Group, and reported that their deal with Rihanna played a key part in attracting female consumers.

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Activewear that serves the needs for both fitness and fashion has become a wardrobe essential, and like the rest of the apparel business, a status symbol as well. Bergdorf Goodman sells $470 sweatpants from Callens. Even Beyonce has her own line of comfy activewear. Round off the look with a pair of designer sneakers—say a $400 pair of Raf Simons for Adidas—and one is looking at a cool grand just to go to the gym. Or look like they’re going there.

Easily dressed up or down, the sneaker is functional while running around, and increasingly considered acceptable in many work environments. So where does that leave the heel? To be sure, there’s no suggestion here that the heel as we know it is facing sudden extinction, but what is interesting is how the boom in athletic footwear in the luxury market has created more space for comfort in luxury heels.

A void in the market for women who have become accustomed to the comfort sneakers provide, but who are unwilling to compromise on style, is slowly opening, due in part to customer demand, and also because of innovative thinking on the part of brands. Joan Oloff, designer of her eponymous brand, says that rather trying to gussy up comfort heels with more stylish details, she approached the heel from a luxury-first perspective, and then figured out how to re-engineer the heel construction without taking away from the high-end look or feel.

“Women for years have had that mantra of fashion over function, and I think that has been created and fostered by a lot of luxury shoe designers, who have said things like ‘heels are pleasure with pain’, and women have come to accept pain as a natural course of wearing a high fashion luxury shoe, and that just makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” said Oloff. “The idea of being in pain for anything—it doesn’t [make sense] to me. So that’s really what motivated me with my line, and it’s taken time to perfect it.”

But it’s not just a new way of thinking of heels that is fostering a change in the way brands are designing their shoes; technology too is allowing for risque styles that are more comfortable than they appear. The influence of athletic footwear is felt at Eight Fifteen, which is utilizing padding previously only found in performance sneakers in its heels.

“The most important part of making our shoes is creating a last for each style,” said Sari Ratsula, president of Eight Fifteen. “A last is the form that a shoe is built around and creates the shape for it. We believe that high heels can be comfortable only if the last helps you balance your weight between the balls of your feet and your heels. After years of testing different variations, we perfected and patented a last shape called SeyCal. In addition, each pair of Eight Fifteen shoes is made with innovative Ortholite padding system, previously only found in performance athletic shoes.”

“It’s the 21st century, women shouldn’t have to compromise anymore—we deserve better.”

This padding helps protect the foot from the normal pains of heels, which have been shown to have long-term negative consequences on foot health, according to Dr. Emily Splichal, celebrity podiatrist and author of “Everyday Is Your Runway: A Shoe Lover’s Guide to Healthy Feet & Legs”.

“Heels put excessive stress on the joints of the feet, knees and lower back. Due to position of the foot in a high heel, called plantarflexion, there is a shift in body weight forward which increases the stress on the ball of the foot,” said Dr. Splichal. “From a long term perspective increased stress to joints can lead to arthritis which the knees at greatest risk of arthritis associated to high heel wear.”

Because making high heel shoes with these comfort elements requires special attention to detail—and added cost—most luxury designers choose not to incorporate them, something which Eight Fifteen found challenging when trying to develop their heels.

“Making high heel shoes comfortable requires specialty components and a different manufacturing process than regular shoe making,” said Ratsula. “It is more time consuming and more expensive. Up till now, luxury brands have probably not asked for it so manufacturers have been making shoes the way they have done for decades. When we started developing our concept six years ago, we visited about a dozen great factories globally. To our surprise, the biggest challenge was to help them understand why comfort is so important in high heel shoes.”

This may be why designers are also turning to traditional techniques to make the heel more comfortable. Anyi Lu incorporates several modern technologies into her shoe, including Vibram, XL Extralight, and PORON, a technology developed by NASA for shock absorption which she uses in the insoles of all of her shoes. At the same time, she’s also utilized sacchetto, a traditional Italian construction method, to make her heels softer and fit better.

“Due to my background as a chemical engineer in my past career and as a former competitive ballroom dancer, technology and construction are extremely important to me. While we are seeing more and more shoe companies incorporating technology into their shoes, it was really the foundation of how I started Anyi Lu more than 10 years ago,” said Lu. “I incorporated sacchetto construction into select styles. Italian for “little bag,” this is a rare old-world shoemaking art practiced by only a few factories in Italy. It requires the painstaking technique of hand-stitching the lining and the insole together and then sewing the whole piece to the upper before shaping on a last for days. Much like the process of wearing two socks while hiking to avoid blisters, the inner sock molds to the foot and moves independently from the outer shoe leather allowing for an unparalleled fit and comfort.”

So far, the reaction from consumers to this hybrid of luxury heel with comfort elements has been very positive, according to Joan Oloff, who describes the need for comfort in heels as a three-part story: at once a tale about fashion, empowering women, and women’s health.

“To me this was a big void in the market and its kind of exciting,” said Oloff. “When I started people thought I was crazy. I remember going to Italy and talking to all kinds of people, and I had a forum with some male designers and one of them looked at me and said ‘My wife doesn’t care how they feel’—but they don’t tell you they care because there’s no choice! It’s the 21st century, women shouldn’t have to compromise anymore—we deserve better.”