I knew that if I was going to interview a high-end shoe designer, I should probably wear something other than my lime-green sneakers.
It was a tough sacrifice, however. I cherish those sneakers. I think of them wistfully every time I have to wear something else, such as shoes with high heels to an elegant dinner. Inevitably, however, by the time I’ve wobbled and limped to my table, I give up and slip them off, only to have to try, discretely, to find them without crawling under the table, when I have to get up again.
And I watch other women, teetering away on much higher, skinny, stylish heels wondering: how do they do it? And also, why? Why do we all do it?
That is why the invitation to meet the shoe designer Joan Oloff intrigued me: Come and see her comfortable, made-in-Italy shoes. A photo showed a dashing pair of red and black stiletto heels.
Comfortable? Really? Ha. I own one pair of Italian shoes with four-inch heels; I’ve lost them under countless dining room tables around the valley.
So, on a recent afternoon, I unearthed a pair of Italian flats from my closet — not particularly comfortable, but not killers — and drove to Joan Oloff’s Los Gatos office to meet her and her comfortable shoes.
I was surprised, however, when my GPS brought me to a medical office building, and more surprised, after double-checking that it was the right place, to find on the directory the office Dr. Joan Oloff, podiatrist.
I walked into the waiting room of a typical medical office with a receptionist, chairs, tables, magazines. The only difference was one pair of elegant pumps on display on the counter.
Oloff came in in her white coat, and she invited me into a back room. There, on shelves filling a wall, were row after row of red shoe boxes — and shoes: black stilettos with the needle-fine heels, pointy-toed patent leather shoes, not stilettos, but with heels that could topple a person used to her sneakers. Elegant, fashionable, sexy shoes, they looked exactly like those shoes that look gorgeous and appealing on a non-living model, until you put them on and wonder how you are supposed to walk.
“It’s a start-up,” Oloff said. “It’s either this or my garage. But you do what you have to do.”
In her case, this meant designing women’s shoes made for women’s feet that combined her scientific background, her experience of patients, and her own love of shoes.
“They’re comfortable shoes,” she said. “What is special about this is we’ve done it in a way to still create high- fashion shoes.”
What I was about to discover is that Oloff’s shoes may look like any Manolo Blahnik or Fabrizio Viti torture device, because you can’t see the difference. It’s hidden inside.
A better sole
“There was a time when foot-binding was commonplace in China so that women would have small feet,” Oloff said. “It sounds crazy now, but traditional women’s shoe-making is just one step above that.”
Women’s shoes, the high-fashion ones, are not made for feet as nature designed them, she explained. “Women’s shoes are designed by male designers, who make them the way male designers typically want a woman’s foot to look.”
Women either wear them and suffer or they turn to “comfort” shoes, such as lime-green sneakers, for example.
“Most women get to the point where they can’t wear these (high-heeled) shoes any more,” she said. “They come into my office and apologize for what they’ve done to their feet. They say, ‘I just liked high heels in the past.’ And I tell them, it’s not their fault. People are being trained to design shoes by people who have no respect for how they harm feet or the rest of the body.”
She explained the problems of the typical, fashionable woman’s shoe. “The danger is the typical shoes puts pressure on the balls of the feet. It’s an unstable shoe. What happens is the toes will try to grip to create stability, and this gripping causes hammer toes.”
The resulting, unnatural pressure on the balls of of the feet affects the metatarsal bones (five long bones between the mid-foot and the phalanges of the toes) and the nerves between these bones. “The long-term damage is not, however, just to your feet but your knees and your back,” she said.
“I’d seen the need for long time,” Oloff said. “I decided I was going to build a better mouse trap.”
She approached the challenge from a dual perspective. “I think what makes me unique is that I have experience on both sides,” she said. “I grew up in the shoes business. My grandfather started my family in the retail shoe business in Brooklyn. My father expanded the business to shoe stores on Long Island. But he never wanted his kids to go into the shoes business.”
Oloff became a doctor, specializing in feet. “I’d seen this problem in my father’s shoe store. I’d watched women trying on heels and they looked incredibly uncomfortable. I never understood why they did it. And then I’ve been treating women for so many years. I could see their issues. I see women in my office who come in killing their feet, but they will not wear comfort shoes.”
Four years ago, she decided, “I knew I could create a better sole.”
She created, in essence, a new design that “offloads the pressure (on the foot) at key points as the foot flexes and bears the body’s weight, a design that supports the body in a new way.
“It has shock absorption. There is support for the arch, there’s a false bottom that heels can sink into, an internal platform so that there’s space to off-load the weight on the balls of the feet. You don’t lean forward on these heels, the way you do with other shoes.”
“Now that I’ve done it, I know why it hasn’t been done before. It’s technically challenging and very expensive — eight to 10 times the usual cost. I’m asking women to buy something where the value is something they can’t see. They can see we use the best materials, but what they can’t see is the value of the insoles.”
With a wry grin, she added, “I don’t know if my father would be happy or kill me for doing this.”
“I’m asking women to buy something where the value is something they can’t see. They can see we use the best materials, but what they can’t see is the value of the insoles.
She first tried making her shoe in Los Angeles, “but they were so far off, I had to search further for someone to make them. You need really good shoemakers; these are not easy shoes to make. So I went to Italy. Still, there are challenges. Italy is a machismo society, and here I was, an American, a female, telling men, ‘You are making shoes the wrong way.’”
The last is the shape on which the shoe is made, she explained, and the lasts for women’s shoes were not shaped like a foot. The Italian shoemakers had to create new ‘lasts’ for Oloff’s shoes. “They label them ‘anatomic,” she said.
And they questioned what she was doing. “I hired a man designer to help make the shoes look pretty,” she said. “He said to me, ‘Women don’t care how they feel. They only care how they look.’ This was a man, making women’s shoes, who said, ‘You are crazy. Women don’t care how they feel.’
“I said, ‘You think they don’t care because they have no choice.’ Once a woman realizes that shoes can be made to look good and be functional, they will gravitate toward that shoe. “
And since she began selling them, online and at special events, three years ago, women have done just that.
“Doctors have been some of my biggest fans,” she said. “I have a friend who said to me, ‘I could do surgery in your shoes.’
“A vascular surgeon came to see me. She bought a pair of four-inch heels. She said, “They’re really pretty. I go to church every Sunday, and see women who are older than I am, wearing heels.” But she had just had back surgery. When she asked me, ‘Can I wear these now?’ I had to say “I am still a doctor. Wait.’
“A few weeks later she called to say, ‘I wore your shoes and I had no pain. They look like regular heels. What do you do to make them different?’”
Oloff is also reaching younger women. “I thought younger women wouldn’t care until they begin to experience problems. I think they’re ready to listen.” At a recent event in New York, she said, a 20-something woman said to her, “I’m wearing flats today because I went to a party in heels over the weekend and my feet are still killing me. Why do your heels feel better than my flats?”
“I think people are ready to listen,” Oloff said. “It’s time to stop all the abuse, verbal, sexual — and stop abusing your body. Your feet don’t deserve that kind of abuse.”
What worries her, however, is that “because women want this, I think you are going to hear from big companies about their new comfortable shoes, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. They’re not really putting technology into the design. They’ll throw in a pad and call it ‘comfortable.’ They’ll change the marketing but not the shoe; that’s my fear.”
“I’ve been preaching: Women pay thousands of dollars to male designers who intentionally harm their feet,” Oloff said. “It drives me crazy.’I’m saying stop. Now is the time to change. I feel like the world is finally starting to get it.”
All of this sounded quite compelling, but the proof, of course, lay in the test: trying them on. I began cautiously with a pair of Joan Oloff flats, nifty red ones with black fur pompoms. I could feel something one doesn’t usually feel in flats, and not just a cushy inside, but a genuine arch. “Even in my flats, there’s a lot going on that you don’t see,” she explained.
I graduated to a conservative heel, her proprietary design, a triangular heel, that narrows to the back, creating a long, slender line, an optical illusion that looks higher than it is. They were genuinely, sublimely comfortable.
I took the plunge. “I’ll try a high heel,” I said. If I crashed, at least I was in a medical office, in the company of a doctor. She found a box with four-inch heels. I put them on and stood up. This is the truth: if my feet had been injected with Novocain, I could have not felt less pain. Also, I could walk. I walked around in wonder. And I left the interview with a box of the most expensive shoes I’d ever owned, and the most comfortable. My justification was: I had to see how they felt, in the long run.
So far, so fine.
Oloff’s shoes now occupy a place of honor in my closet, next to the lime-green sneakers. Those old four-inch heels, I think I’ll spray paint gold and give to my daughter, a memorial sculpture called, “Weird things my mom used to wear.”
RESOURCE - Sasha Paulsen firstname.lastname@example.org Jan 26, 2018 / http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/a-shoe-revelation-revolution-dr-joan-oloff-designs-high-fashion/article_6e34cd1d-7b8d-5743-ae08-61f2428d8fa7.html