Female-led luxury shoe brand founders are pushing to merge style with comfort
As a former dancer, Tiffany Tuttle, founder of luxury shoe brand LD Tuttle, knows the importance of comfort-driven design in making or breaking a performance.
“I spent my whole life looking at feet, legs and movement, and shoes were such a part of that,” she said. “I was interested in how the footwear that we wear complements or changes a person’s silhouette, how they carry their body and how they feel, which all relates to comfort.”
After realizing her passion for sketching shoes during her dance downtime could translate to a more viable profession, she went to school in Italy to learn more about shoemaking and pattern construction. On her personal time, she conducted her own field studies, visiting local factories to see the manufacturing process firsthand, before deciding to start a luxury shoe company of her own in 2006. Her company specializes in unique takes on traditional models, and the shoes sell at retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue, Shopbop and The Dreslyn.
Tuttle is among a growing cabal of female founders breaking into the luxury footwear market with a mission to change how women’s shoes are designed, mainly by increasing comfort. While the mid-priced sector of the industry remains fairly saturated, luxury is a largely untapped frontier for rising brands. For one, it’s expensive: Higher-quality materials can be prohibitively costly for any emerging brand. However, it’s been a particularly difficult venture for women trying to push into the business and lend a fresh perspective on design, a trend mirrored by the fashion industry at large in which only 8 percent of CEOs are female.
Of the top ten most expensive luxury shoe companies, only Miu Miu has a woman at the helm. The rest of the list is dominated by brands including Jimmy Choo, Alexander McQueen, Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin, which are all run by men. But Tuttle, along with rising designers like Sophia Webster, Tabitha Simmons and Silvia Avanzi, are designing for a modern generation of footwear brands led by women.
Designing for comfort
While luxury shoes for men is a rapidly growing sector of the market, women’s shoes have long driven a majority of international and domestic sales. According to data compiled by Euromonitor, women’s designer footwear was a $17.6 billion global market in 2017, while men’s brought in nearly $9.7 billion.
While the numbers show women are clearly buying luxury shoes, Jaclyn Jones, founder of her eponymous Los Angeles-based luxury shoe label, said leading brands have long neglected designing for comfort. This oversight in shoe design is not only hurting the physical feet and legs of women, but it’s also fostering a stigma within luxury footwear that has made comfort synonymous with frumpy.
“Most of the other designers in this space are men, and they aren’t wearing the shoes,” Jones said. “They’re not having to walk blocks on cobblestone streets or go anywhere in a 4-inch heel. They don’t understand the necessity of having cushion or comfort in the shoes; they focus more on the aesthetics and commercial value of the shoes.”
Jones recalled visiting a Louboutin store on a recent business trip to New York City and being surprised at how stiff the insole was. (It’s worth noting that Louboutin himself was once quoted as saying “The core of my work is dedicated not to pleasing women but to pleasing men.”) While the industry average for the amount of cushioning inside a shoe is 1 to 2 millimeters, Jones designs using 4 millimeters to provide more ease to the feet upon impact. This is particularly crucial the higher the heel, she said, since the greater the elevation, the more pressure is placed on the balls of the feet.
An image from a Christian Louboutin spring/summer 2018 campaign
What sounds like a simple adjustment proved to be particularly challenging, less so for the extra resources required and more for the skepticism of male footwear manufacturers in Italy who doubted she could double the cushioning and still maintain the shape and style of the shoe. Jones eventually got to the point where she said she had to “beg and plead” before she found a manufacturer that agreed to work with her on a custom insole.
“Our vision is that if we’re putting this much money into creating these beautiful pieces of art and handcrafting these shoes, why not build in these extra comfort measures?” she said.
For both Jones and Tuttle, quality leather plays a significant role in design. Tuttle said a major focus for her products is making the leather feel like it’s already worn in, to avoid the uncomfortable practice of breaking in new shoes that often leads to blisters and foot pain. This is where entering the market at a luxury point is advantageous, she said, because it allows her to use more adaptable, higher-quality leather.
“You can make less expensive shoes in Italy, but you’re not getting the same kind of quality. [With higher quality leather shoes,] they’re softer, they feel freer and they break in differently,” she said.
Pushing boundaries in a male-dominated industry
Jones wasn’t the only one who struggled to have industry partners take her seriously. Jodie Fox, co-founder of Shoes of Prey, a mid-price brand that sells online and in select stores like Nordstrom, said her experience as the only female founder alongside two male counterparts has illuminated the difficulties of being a woman in a male-driven industry, even for an industry designing for female consumers.
“Sometimes there is definitely an assumption that you’re not the right person because you’re the woman on the team,” she said.
This hasn’t deterred Fox from playing a significant role in building a company that caters to the female consumer by putting her first — not only by considering comfort in material sourcing and manufacturing, but also by offering a unique customization program that allows consumers to build their own shoes. Shoppers have the ability to choose from a variety of styles, heel types and colors to create a product that best suits their body and an occasion.
The personalization feature also allows Fox and her team to gather data that helps identify trends and styles that are resonating, which helps them better understand their consumer demographic and informs future design.
“It allows us to see which heel sizes or toe shapes women are choosing, as well as what they’re asking us to introduce,” she said. “They can ask for specific components, and we absolutely hear from women that they want those lower shapes so they can walk in the shoes all day. From a customization perspective, it opens up a constant dialogue with our consumer.”
Designing shoes for an evolving lifestyle
Working in tandem with the efforts of these female-led shoe companies is the growth in popularity of wellness culture, said Fox. While this has led to a boom for the athleisure and activewear markets, it has also helped influence design beyond just sneakers and leggings to be more focused on comfort by overturning preconceived notions that designing for utility lacks style.
Fox said, as part of the obsession with wellness, consumers are looking to be outfitted in new ways to keep up with a way of living that includes bouncing to work lunches and yoga retreats, and maintaining small lifestyle changes like walking to work — an activity that is particularly difficult in 5-inch Jimmy Choos.
“Coming from a broader collective thought and trend perspective, people are gravitating around comfort while still caring about style,” Fox said. “The trend of wellness created a really great nexus to feel not only permission, but also encouragement from fashion to look at these silhouettes that we really can walk in all day.”
At the same time, offices are moving away from formal business attire, meaning less of a need for female professionals to wear expensive heels to the office. In recent years, clothing and footwear have continued to evolve to cater to a multi-functional lifestyle. In turn, workplaces are favoring more functional apparel.
“Dress codes have relaxed across the entire spectrum of social events and functionality, and ease and comfort have risen to the forefront,” Edited analyst Katie Smith told Glossy in a previous article.
Another pivotal moment to bringing comfort to luxury footwear was the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, during which several women were turned away from the premiere of the film “Carol” for showing up in flats, a prohibited form of shoes for the annual event. The incident prompted several celebrities to speak out against the rule, including actresses Emily Blunt, Kirsten Stewart and Rashida Jones.
The prevailing argument among celebrities and rising shoe designers alike is that, not only are many of the prevailing formal shoe brands and large organizations like Cannes owned and operated by men, but they also have no idea what it feels like to wear heels.
“If you’re not comfortable, you can’t walk and move with confidence. It shapes the way you stand,” Tuttle said.