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Footwear Trailblazer Joan Helpern Dies at 89

These days we take for granted the array of comfortable footwear options available to us, but it wasn’t always that way. For women especially, it’s hard to imagine a world where they’d be “married to high heels”, but that’s just the world Joan Helpern, creative director of the trailblazing footwear brand Joan & David, helped change.

Helpern, who died Sunday of respiratory failure in Manhattan, as confirmed by her daughter Elizabeth Helpern, changed the game for women’s footwear when she first launched her eponymous footwear label with her husband and business partner David Helpern in the 1960’s.

Noticing women who would run through airports in high heels, Ms. Helpern decided she would make comfortable, practical shoes for the everyday woman.

“I was told women were married to high heels,” David Helpern, who died in 2012, told The New York Times in 1989. “I was told that soft, unstructured, lightweight shoes wouldn’t sell. People laughed. Especially the New England shoe manufacturers, who told me I’d be skinned alive.”

It all started in 1967, with a pair of navy blue and white oxford flats. It was an immediate success. By the 1980’s, Joan & David had grown into a $100 million dollar business, boasting nearly 100 outlets in the United States and Europe, including a flagship store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

While the Helperns later hit personal and financial difficulties (the pair legally separated in 1998, while their company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2000), Joan helped break down gender barriers in the footwear world, working with Italian factory managers who didn’t want to do business with a women.

“When it was time to do the final closing, they wanted to look in the eyes of a man,” she said.

Perhaps more importantly, Joan emphasized timeless, comfortable silhouettes that were both stylish and practical, helping to change the way the world thought about women’s footwear. If your feet are feeling comfortable today, you can thank Joan for that.

“I have made a dent in the fashion world,” she said, “and a step forward for women.”

Photo from