Many women will do anything for great-looking shoes—even suffer through pain and blisters when they don’t fit quite right.
A study by an independent shoe-testing organization found 77% of women have a non-standard shoe size, meaning their feet are either too long, too short, too wide, or too narrow to fit into mainstream sizes comfortably. And 80% don’t even realize they are not wearing the right size, because they’ve accepted the torture.
Adding to our sizing woes? The National Shoe Retailers Association says women’s feet are getting bigger because we’re getting taller and heavier. While our feet are changing, shoe brands haven’t kept pace with these shifts.
The hunt for an ideal shoe
Entrepreneur Jodie Fox had the female shoe trouble in mind when, eight years ago, she launched a customizable footwear brand provocatively named Shoes of Prey.
“I named the brand because women are like birds of prey, always on the hunt for a good pair of shoes,” the founder says. “It’s not just about finding a pair that meets their taste. Women want shoes that don’t leave their feet swollen and full of blisters.”
Shoes of Prey lets customers design heels, flats, and sneakers on its website to their specifications and gets the shoes on their feet in two weeks. Prices run from $89 to $299. Because the brand makes each shoe on demand, it does so in a range of sizes, from 2 to 15, including half sizes and width adjustments. Fox wants every woman who comes to the site to be able to create her dream shoe, regardless of the shape of her foot.
Women with particularly large or small feet have flocked to the site. Fox says she’s heard from customers who could only shop from children’s shoe brands and others stuck in men’s fuller-sized sneakers.
Shoes of Prey is one of many brands reacting to the size-inclusivity movement in fashion. The industry has been criticized for doing a bad job outfitting the 68% of the female population that wears size 14 and up. Startups like Universal Standard are working to make the same fashionable outfits available from size 6 to 32. And many–from designers like Prabal Gurung and Christian Siriano to brands like Old Navy, Modcloth, and Nike–are responding.
Yet, few brands have thought about inclusivity when it comes to women’s shoes—something Fox seized on.
“When you’re a woman with size 13 feet, you don’t look around when you go to a shoe store,” she says. “You go straight to the sales assistant and ask if they have your size. If you’re lucky and they do, you pick from the few shoes available. You’re never making a decision based on your style, and that’s sad to me.”
We change—so do our feet
Many women, she adds, don’t deal with the fact that their 40-year-old feet may be different from what they were at 25. “Most women assume that their shoe size is static,” Fox says. “But actually, women’s feet change over the course of their lives, especially during big changes like pregnancy. And yet we are wedded to the size we have been told we are.”
Women generally assume they are the size they are told that they were when they first had their foot measured by the Brannock device when they stopped growing as teenagers. To tackle this problem, Shoes of Prey created a Fit Quiz that takes the user through a series of questions to help identify what size they should be wearing.
For instance, I always thought that I was a size 9, but according to the quiz, I should be wearing a size 9.5 wide. (That would explain the many days I’ve spent with my feet resting on a cushion recovering from a tortuous day in heels.)
The reason shoe brands have done such a poor job for women is that they are focused on mass-producing product at low cost, rather than the needs of their customer, says Fox.
“To keep costs low, brands place large orders with factories, so it is in their interest to create shoes in a few standard sizes,” she says. “In other words, brands expect the customer to adapt to the shoe, and they aren’t interested in adapting to the needs of the customer.”
Since the foot-measuring Brannock device was invented in 1925, footwear has largely come in sizes of 5 through 10. A few large brands also make shoes in wide or narrow sizes, but most do not.
For Fox, that failure has meant success for Shoes of Prey.
Fox was inspired to come up with the brand while in Hong Kong. She found a cobbler there who could make shoes in any size, so she immediately had 12 pairs of shoes she dreamed about made to fit her perfectly. The sheer pleasure she experienced gave her the idea for Shoes of Prey.
“The idea of making customized shoes at scale seemed like an expensive, complicated, basically impossible thing to do when I first came up with the idea,” Fox says. “But I thought there had to be a way to do it.”
The future is customization
She joined forces with Michael Fox (her ex-husband) and Mike Knapp, both of whom were former Googlers. Together they built out a complex website that allowed women to design every part of a shoe, as well as an unconventional supply chain, so that each shoe could be made on demand.
Today, Shoes of Prey owns its own factory in China, where it manufactures each shoe as soon as the order comes in online. Each shoe order comes with a set of instructions that guides the worker through the process, so they can make all the tweaks and adaptations necessary.
Over the last few years, customization has become a major trend in the fashion industry, with luxury brands like Burberry and Gucci creating products that can be personalized or even designed from scratch. Creating customization at scale has been a major challenge within the industry, as companies have struggled to pivot their supply chains and factories from mass-producing the same product to making unique items for each customer.