How high can a killer heel go—without killing your feet?
As heels continue to hold center stage in fashion, designers like Francesco Russo are exploring ways to push a shoe to the foot’s limits. At shoe maker Sergio Rossi, best known for its va-va-voom heels, Mr. Russo’s task is to engineer a structure atop lofty heels that can comfortably support the weight of a woman’s body. “It’s like architecture,” he says.
High heels can exact a heavy toll on the body, pushing weight forward onto the ball of the foot and toes and stressing the back and legs. Most doctors recommend a maximum height of 2 inches.
But with heels, many women trade comfort for style. Women spent $38.5 billion on shoes in the U.S. last year, according to NPD Group, and more than half of those sales were for heels over 3 inches high. High heels are seen as sexy and powerful. Stars on the red carpet clamor for the highest heels possible–leading designers who want their shoes photographed into an arms race for height.
It falls to shoe designers to reconcile the demand for drama with a woman’s need to walk in her shoes. Sergio Rossi, owned by luxury giant PPR, manufactures its shoes here in the Emilia-Romagna region, where many of the design world’s best—and most expensive—shoes are made. Orchards and cabbage fields are interspersed with small factories serving the most famous names in shoes—Louboutin, Ferragamo, Chanel, Armani, Prada, Alexander McQueen and Gucci among them.
.Recently, to create a design for the $995 Empire, a shoe in Rossi’s pre-fall collection, Mr. Russo sketched a sideways ‘S’ on paper with a No. 2 pencil. That’s the shape of a woman’s foot when it slips into a very high heel, arch flexed, toes bent. Then he sketched a heel—a structural beam—to hold it up.
The highest heel Mr. Russo has ever constructed on a shoe—not counting platforms—was 115 mm, or about 4½ inches, when he was designing shoes at Yves Saint Laurent several years ago. At Sergio Rossi, he has held that maximum to about 4.1 inches, because it’s about as high as most women’s feet can manage. Their feet can’t flex much further. “After that, the woman starts to walk weirdly,” he says, demonstrating a clomping step.
A platform, however, permits a shoe to be higher without requiring the foot to bend more—one reason the style continues to be popular. A bestseller for the brand these days is Mr. Russo’s “Cachet” peep-toe pump. Originally designed for Salma Hayek’s Venice wedding to PPR chief executive François Pinault, the shoe has a rounded. 1.6-inch platform that allows the heel to rise to a gravity-defying height of more than 5½ inches.
A good shoe must be anchored by a sturdy, invisible shank, supported by a steely heel and coddled by a cushy footbed. There are myriad things that can go wrong. Most good heels use tempered steel in the shank—a piece of metal in the inner sole—and in the heel. A shoe should be very rigid so that the wearer can rest weight on her heel, without having to balance on the ball of her foot. But some shoe makers insert a weak metal shank or use cheaper materials such as plastic.
“When you see a woman and her heel is shaking, it’s normally because the steel isn’t strong enough,” Mr. Russo says.
The shoe must meet the ground directly under the center of the heel bone, which carries a woman’s weight. To find the right spot, Mr. Russo follows the “plumb line” from the bone to the ground. While most shoe heels follow that line, some designers have experimented with other possibilities. Marc Jacobs in 2008 tried heels extending from the ball of the foot. Walter Steiger has heels for this fall that arc out before returning to rest under the heel bone. Alexander McQueen and others have dispensed with a heel entirely, drawing the sole back under the heel bone.
At the front of the shoe is the toe box—a difficult area to fit. Designers develop measurements that aim “to reach as many people as possible,” Mr. Russo says. But he has a friend who can never wear the label’s Cachet model: Her first three toes are the same length, and her middle toe juts through the peep-toe hole.
The shape of the cup that cradles the foot’s heel is also key, so that shoes don’t hurt or feel too loose in the heel. Each label develops its own shape—one reason many people find that certain shoe brands fit better than others. “It’s what makes the shoe comfortable,” Mr. Russo says.
The heel area, the toe box, the overall stability and support for the foot, and the feel of the straps are essential to consider when trying shoes on. Shoe experts advise trying both of the shoes in a pair—and disregarding any salesperson who tells you the leather will stretch to your foot.
To design a shoe, Mr. Russo makes two sketches, an artistic drawing and a more technical illustration on which he scribbles directions for the pattern makers. He defines the strength of thread, the last—the form that the shoe body is molded around—and the type of leather or other materials. These drawings are used to create prototypes in inexpensive black leather. Mr. Russo designs about 700 shoe models a year.
It takes, on average, 110 steps to build a typical shoe—and more for something elaborate. At Sergio Rossi’s factory, which produces 1,000 pairs of shoes a day, building a shoe involves high-pressure nail guns, screws, heat-dried glues, sanding, painting, buffing, chiseling, and plenty of loud machinery.
Leather and other materials are stretched around the lasts, then nailed, glued and molded in layers. When a shoe is nearly complete, it is peeled off the last. The inner sole must be shaved free of debris from nails, glue or other materials; a flaw there could bruise the wearer’s foot.
Tiny adjustments make all the difference and are part of the price of these shoes, which range from $500 to several thousand dollars. If a shoe requires a different shape, Lorenzo Pistocchi—whom Mr. Russo calls “golden hands”—will file down the last prototype or build it up with fast-drying automotive putty. On a recent day, Messrs. Russo and Pistocci discussed altering a boot with too much volume at the toe—”not elegant, like a rain boot,” Mr. Russo said.
At various stages, Sandy Gradara, a factory employee with a perfect size 37 foot, strips off her sneakers and models prototype shoes. Mr. Russo marks adjustments on the leather with a tiny gold-inked pen.
Several months ago, a mere week before Sergio Rossi’s early fall collection was unveiled, Mr. Russo decided the prototypes were “horrible.” He wanted a rougher, more artisanal look. He locked himself in his office and changed the entire collection—40 prototypes—in four days.
“People were crying,” Mr. Russo said. “I didn’t cry. I just panicked.”
(Via Wall Street Journal)