Women who love buying luxury heels–the kind of sparkly, expensive, Italian-made shoes worn to red carpet events and black tie galas–have, until now, had to accept a few harsh realities.
First, the brands that specialize in this kind of footwear almost always bear the name of a man. (Think: Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, and Manolo Blahnik.) And second, the shoes are designed to be beautiful, rather than serve the purpose of, you know, walking. They have been known to cause blisters, chronic pain, and stumbles. Just ask Jennifer Lawrence, who has fallen at least three times at awards ceremonies.
Marion Parke, a former podiatric surgeon, doesn’t believe women should have to suffer for their heels. Two years ago, she launched a shoe startup that makes the kind of fabulous $650 heels that are meant to be worn with ball gowns and cocktail dresses. And importantly, she took a page from male shoe designers and named the new brand after herself. She’s part of a small but growing trend in the startup world of female-led luxury shoe brands. In 2016, Tamara Mellon, Jimmy Choo’s co-founder, launched an eponymous luxury shoe brand, and in 2014, Maria Gangemi founded an Italian-made shoe company called M.Gemi, an abbreviated version of her name.
On the surface, Marion Parke shoes are the stuff of fashion dreams. Parke has designed $650 3-inch rainbow glitter sandals, $665 open-toed booties with satin bows and mink trim, and $595 gold stilettos made from buttery nappa leather. But what you don’t see at first glance is that Parke has completely re-engineered the shoes from the ground up, to make them more comfortable and walkable.
Before launching her first collection in Spring 2016, Parke spent a decade training and working in reconstructive foot and ankle surgery. But over the years, women who came into her office often brought up the topic of shoes, and Parke was happy to oblige them. “I love shoes,” she says. “They make me happy. A beautiful heel can make a woman feel taller and more confident.”
But the problem, of course, is that heels cause pain. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) 87% of women have suffered due to uncomfortable shoes, as opposed to only 68% of men. Women also report blisters and heel pain in greater numbers than their male counterparts. Nearly half of all women wear high heels but 71% of these heel wearers report feeling pain from their shoes. In fact, some doctors recommend avoiding high heels altogether.
But Parke believes the data doesn’t reveal the nuances of the problem. “It’s hard to draw a direct line between heels and particular kinds of foot pain,” Parke says. “No study has made a group of women wear heels for an extended period of time and compared them to sample of women wearing flats. And it’s also important to remember that poorly constructed flat shoes can also cause pain.” Moreover, Parke points out that women like herself actually enjoy wearing high heels. So rather than simply forcing women to give up a shoe that they like, she decided to design more orthopedically sound heels.
As Parke spoke with her patients, it became clear to her that there were tweaks she could make to the fundamental design of the high heel to make them more comfortable and walkable. The insoles of heels, for instance, did not keep the foot in place, which created instability with every step, causing stress to the ankle. Heels often weren’t contoured to follow the shape of the bottom of the foot, which meant that they rarely provided arch support. And finally, it was possible to provide more padding throughout the shoe for comfort and to absorb impact, but in her market research, Parke noticed that most shoe brands did not do this.
In her spare time, Parke began sketching out designs for shoes that were both beautiful and comfortable. She was spurred on by her mother, who happens to be an artist, and had encouraged her throughout her childhood to pursue her creative passions. “You’d be surprised,” Parke says. “Surgeons tend to be very good with their hands, so many of us enjoy doing art when we’re not working.” AW!!
By 2015, Parke was ready to turn these shoe designs into reality. That year, she drove around Tuscany, Italy, with her sister to visit the factories where luxury shoe brands made their products. She visited workshops that make shoes for well-known brands like Gucci and Jimmy Choo. But observing the shoe manufacturing process closely made her realize how little attention many brands pay to making the shoes comfortable. “I was shocked,” Parke says. “The insole of heels is literally just a piece of cardboard that has been covered in a thin layer of leather.”
It’s typically difficult for a startup to break into the expert Italian shoe factories that make shoes for top brands because these are small, family-run businesses that don’t want to risk taking on new production unless it is for an established brand. But Parke brought her sketches and ideas for redesigning the interior of the high heel, and several factory owners were excited about the prospect of bringing innovation to a product that had been made the same way for decades.
Parke worked with the factory to create a patent-pending heel design that is shaped to follow the natural contour of a woman’s foot and supports the arch. There is cup under the heel that stabilizes the foot and ankle. And throughout the interior, there is padding both keep the foot in place and provide shock absorption. When you first see one of her heels, it looks virtually identical to any other pair you have in your closet. But upon closer inspection, each of the adjustment Parke has made becomes more obvious: The insole seems tailored to the shape of the human foot. Still, for all these comfortable features, Parke still encourages women to use common sense when wearing high heels. “I would recommend that women don’t wear heels for two days in a row,” she says. “You want to take pressure off your feet.”
Over the last two years, Parke’s business has grown significantly. Until now, Parke has bootstrapped the brand, growing the company organically to demonstrate her proof of concept. But this year, she’s received an angel investment of an undisclosed amount from David and Jennifer Miller, who run the 72-year-old family-owned shoe company Minnetonka Moccasin. The Millers will also come on as advisors, sharing their extensive experience with scaling a footwear business, from the production to the distribution process.
Before taking on this partnership, Jennifer Miller bought three pairs of Marion Parke shoes and pounded the pavement in them on a trip to Los Angeles. During this wear test, Miller noticed two things. First, people kept stopping her to ask her where she got her gorgeous shoes. And second, she didn’t end the day with painful, throbbing feet. And while Minnetonka Moccasin is a casual, affordable shoe brand, the Millers decided it was worth pouring some money into this innovative luxury heel brand, because it had the potential to yield major financial returns down the line–especially if they could provide guidance about how to turn Marion Parke into a household name.
Parke’s shoes are sold through her website, a network of high-end shoe boutiques, and larger retailers like Bloomingdale’s, goop, Moda Operandi, Farfetch, and Orchard Mile. While many of her counterparts, like Tamara Mellon and M.Gemi, have opted for a direct to consumer model to keep the price of the shoes lower, Parke believes that giving women the opportunity to try shoes on in person is crucial to helping her brand scale. “There are well-trained sales associates in these stores who can help women find the right size, which is crucial to the shoe fitting comfortably,” she says. “And I know that my customer enjoys buying luxury products and appreciates personalized service.”
But, in the end, Parke isn’t just trying to be another high-end shoe brand; she’s hoping to rewrite the rules of the luxury shoe industry. After all, the ultimate luxury is being able to walk without pain.