stepping out in high-tech heels

By Pam Houghton

If a vacuum cleaner could be successfully reengineered into a self-propelled cleaning machine (think Roomba robot) and the phone now doubles as a mini-computer, why hasn’t anyone figured out how to make a woman’s high-heeled shoe more comfortable while maintaining a fashion forward look?

Dolly Singh, a recruiter for Elon Musk’s California-based rocket industry startup, SpaceX, did more than just wonder — she took action. After years of taking new recruits on tours that required her to traverse miles of hard factory floors in stilettos, the heels had taken their toll. Yet, there she was, surrounded by the best engineering talent in the world. It was high time to reconfigure the stiletto into a shoe that was kinder to the female foot. 

To get the high-heeled wheels of re-invention rolling, she tapped the skills of a former astronaut, rocket scientist, orthopedic surgeon and fashion scientist. 

Together, they “broke the problem down to the fundamental laws of physics,” according to a 2016 Business Insider story on Singh. “When it comes to high heels, there are three: how the shoe distributes weight, what happens when it hits the ground and the friction between your foot and the shoe,” the article reported. The “basic shape of the high heel and its materials — a metal plate, a metal shank and compressed cardboard — haven’t changed in many years.”

With the engineering challenge addressed, Singh launched her Los Angeles-based startup, Thesis Couture, in 2013. She recruited an MIT- and Stanford-educated designer to make sure style wasn’t sacrificed for substance and comfort. 

Another recruit with a manufacturing background convinced the team to make the heel out of plastic instead of the old metal and cardboard.

In a traditional high heel, 80 percent of your weight is on the toes, Singh told CBS News in June 2015. “By creating more surface area and matching it to the shape of the foot’s bottom surface, we were able to change how the load distributes.” The re-designed shoe reduces weight on the toes to 50 percent.

Not only are the shoes more comfortable, people are less likely to experience health risks associated with high heels. 

Consumers who long for a good looking pair of stilettos that are easy on their feet will pay a price. The shoes expect to debut this spring for $350 to $950.

But Singh isn’t the only one to re-think the stiletto. 

London College of Fashion graduate Silvia Fado Moreno designed a hydraulic high heel using sports footwear for inspiration. While no one would run a marathon in these shoes, Moreno worked with an architect and an engineer to create a comfortable high-heeled shoe with the help of springs, rubber balls and pneumatic hydraulics.

There’s also a stiletto that taps into the Internet, thanks to Lithuanian startup iShuu Tech. Bored with the color or pattern of your shoes? The Volvorii Smart Shoe lets you change either with the click of a smartphone app. Believe it or not, the shoe has a built-in circuit board, Bluetooth and battery components.

What’s next? A shoe phone? A certain character on a 1960s TV show had that covered.

Still, Maxwell Smart would be impressed.