Wearing heels from dawn to dusk usually means choosing between inevitable pain or numbness by day's end (even in your comfiest pair) or having to haul around a pair of flats you can actually walk in. Shoe label Tanya Heath Paris has an enticing alternative to both scenarios: a wide array of stand-alone heels that seamlessly click into a variety of styles. Thus, one style — be it a bootie or a strappy sandal — can be paired with a plethora of heel heights, rendering the same shoes apropos for, say, a morning company meeting, a midday errand run, and a nighttime date. Heath, a Canadian who's been living in Paris for more than two decades, certainly doesn't have a traditional design background. Prior to starting her eponymous label, she taught business courses on disruptive innovation at tony French engineering colleges. "I've always been a high heel wearer, and that became painful at a certain point," Health told Refinery29. "As time went on, I'd bring flats in my bag everywhere — or, I'd plan my activities around the kind of shoes I was wearing." She started scheming about a flats-free way to don heels for the long haul, sans pain: "I thought it would be so much more convenient if I could just carry the heels around" in lieu of dragging a second pair of shoes everywhere. It took two and a half years, working with five different types of engineering specialists (a team of 14 engineers in total) and six shoe designers, to create Heath's interchangeable heels, which first debuted in 2013.
The biggest hurdle fell on the project's miniaturization team, which was tasked with figuring out how to make the swappable heels as sleek and compact as possible, "but strong enough so the heel wouldn't slip out," Heath explains. To wit, the initial prototype was three times larger in scale than the current product. The heels themselves are scaled for specific shoe-size ranges — for example, an interchangeable 8.5-centimeter heel would, in actuality, measure 8 centimeters for a size-5 shoe and 9 centimeters for a size-11 shoe. Once the technicalities were sussed out, the challenge lay in actually making the shoe look good. "It was so difficult! With a 'normal' shoe, everyone is using traditional ratios that have been used for over 140 years in the design process, but you can't do that with a multi-height shoe," Heath says. "There was a lot of trial and error, and it was a highly mathematical process." Check out the video below for a better idea of how the high-tech kicks work:
The first store opened in Paris, and now there are locations in Heath’s Canadian home turf (Toronto) as well as two locations in Portugal, plus a sole stateside outpost in Los Angeles, which opened in April. Miami is next on Heath's radar, followed by a store in Bogota, Colombia, "within the next six months," she estimates. After that, expect two additional locations in Latin America. Toronto is currently the label's highest-grossing store location, followed by Paris. As for funding, "the initial startup capital came from me — I sold my apartment" to support the line, Heath says of the "really small-scale" brand's early days. She plans to go out for a funding round in roughly three months. Though Heath says she "never had a doubt" the business would succeed, it was absolutely a labor of love: "This is not a hardship story, but I hadn't realized how long it would take, how difficult it would be, or the psychological impacts." They're certainly an investment buy, considering that the heel-less shoes cost north of $300 a pop, some styles hover closer to $450, and the heels themselves price between $27 and $75 per pair, depending on how intricate the heel design. (Some styles, like these chunky, high, glitter-inlayed ones, are on the steeper side.) Slightly more affordable shoe styles are available in the outlet section of the label's site, starting at $118 per pair. Next up, Heath plans to roll out a handbag, which will be a wearable technology offering, the details of which are still top secret. The product is already designed, but she's currently searching for a supplier. There isn't a cheaper diffusion line in the works yet, though it isn't entirely out of the question. "I've thought about [a diffusion line] a lot; at this moment, it seems risky," Heath explains. The most technologically sophisticated component — the swappable heels themselves — poses the most challenging to cut costs on. Heath says her interchangeable heels are "17 times more expensive than a Prada or Dior heel" (referring solely to the heels used in the manufacturing process, not the entire shoe). Why? The molds needed to make her heels are "200 times more precise, to make sure their sliding mechanism slides together perfectly," Heath says. A commitment to using European leather that doesn't harm animals as well as "insisting on having the shoes produced in France, to maintain quality levels," Heath says, also contribute to the current pricing structure (and explain why it would be tricky to do a cheaper offshoot line).
The unique nature of Heath's shoes (and the specific training a salesperson needs in order to sell them) makes it risky to be carried by department stores or other multi-brand brick-and-mortar retailers. But shop-in-shops, which will house Heath's signature "heel walls" found in her boutiques as well as the properly versed staffers to sell them, are slated to arrive at "well-known luxury retailers" in Rome and Chile come March, she says. As for Heath's fan base, she says there are at least 10 customers that own 20 or more pairs of her shoes. One woman wrote "hate mail," as Heath playfully terms it, that read, "Your shoes are so comfortable and pragmatic, I now can only buy from you." The prices might render these novel kicks "long-term wish list" status, but that’s quite the ringing endorsement to give any single shoe brand.