Will astronaut-designed footwear be a small step or a giant leap for woman-kind?
In the 1950s, aerospace engineers pioneered passenger jets. In the 1960s, they helped America win the space race. And today, they are finding ways to stick the landings on some of the first reusable rockets.
But Dolly Singh, a former head of talent at SpaceX, wants to bring their expertise back to Earth in a surprising fashion. The founder and CEO of Thesis Couture, a Los Angeles-based startup launched in 2013, Singh is hoping to put Space Age smarts into women’s footwear, because while rocket technology has taken off over the years, walking in heels is as painful as ever.
Those extra inches on the back end put extra stress on joints, shorten heel chords and can cause long-term back problems. Then add in the extra sway of the pelvis and the shorter steps the shoes require, and wearing heels isn’t just painful, it’s draining.
Part of the reason for that is buried deep in the architecture of the shoe (‘stiletto,’ which is Italian, comes from the word for a long, pointy dagger). The physics of all that dagger-like force being piled onto such a tiny point means that a stiletto heel can strike the ground with more force than an elephant’s foot—all that energy being dropped into a tiny area, instead of distributed over a massive paw. (If you’ve ever accidentally been stepped on by someone’s stiletto, you know what that can feel like.)
All this is because the runway-rocking stiletto basically has the same construction today as it did when it debuted more than half a century ago. Both then and now, the high heel gets its foundation from a stiff, violent looking, metal rod called the ‘shank.’ And it’s here where Singh hopes to make a giant leap for woman-kind.
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Taking a cue from materials science, Singh hopes to re-invent the shank by swapping it out with modern polymers. Thesis Couture’s idea is that mixing laminates into the body of the shoe can help distribute weight more evenly, working with the foot’s natural pitch and the mechanics of the body. “There’s no reason for a blade-like metal shank when we have all these polymers,” says Amanda Parkes, a mechanical engineer and self-described ‘fashion technologist,’ who helped Singh launch the company.
In addition to Parkes, who also runs fashion incubator Manufacture New York, Thesis Couture has also enlisted a former NASA astronaut to help re-think the ground-level aerodynamics, and an orthopedist to smooth out the ergonomics of the shoe. The idea, says Parkes, is to do for shoes what aerodynamics did for cars: make it a smoother ride.
The company got its start at The Founder Institute, an early-stage accelerator. After Singh’s initial investment, $250,000 of her own capital, she opened up the company’s first seed series funding round earlier this year. The $1 million dollar ask was funded to $1.5 million in 10 weeks, with SpaceX co-founder Tom Mueller as one of its first investors.
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Thesis Couture’s first shoe will be available for pre-order starting in January, when Spring 2016 collections debut. The company is planning a tightly-controlled rollout on their spring line, taking just 1,500 orders for the $925 shoes at VIP events and on their website. But the timing might make for a hard landing for the company, as an increasing amount of business women are starting to scorn traditional high heels.
Despite the pain, at least 10% of women still wear heels most days of the week says the American Osteopathic Association, so there is still a market for the futuristic footwear. But with prices for Thesis’s fall collection ranging from $350 for daytime models up to red carpet styles that could sell for as much as $1,200, it’s unclear if they will fly off the shelves. After all, nobody said space-age shoes would come cheap.