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If the boot fits

Sick of searching for the boot to end all boots? Here’s the perfect answer – well, almost

Rebecca Willis | September/October 2014

As the door to the street opens and closes, the shoes move slightly in the breeze. They hang from the ceiling on bright orange ribbons; the walls around them are white. One pair, steel-blue and frilled with a row of tiny leather oak leaves, has a curved heel, tapering like an animal’s claw. Another has the slightly worn shagginess of a much-loved teddy bear. I could be in an art gallery, but in fact I’m in a shop in central London. It’s one of two belonging to Tracey Neuls, a footwear designer garlanded by the fashion industry. I have come to meet her in the hope that she will be able to make—for once and for all, so that I never have to shop for them again—the perfect pair of boots.

The word “perfect” is, I know, a trope used by marketing people, journalists and retailers to make you take notice, so I admit to using it tongue-in-cheek. No piece of clothing can be perfect for every­one. So let me define exactly what, on this occasion, I mean by it. When we asked some of our readers, for our Fashion Manifesto last year, whether you have to suffer to look good, the groundswell of opinion was, “No…except for high heels.” Wearing heels is a bit like childbirth—for some women it’s a breeze, but for most of us it hurts. Still, is it really so impossible to make a pair that are truly comfortable? Heels that you can walk around in all day without wanting to take them off and put your feet up? We decided to find out.

We make no apology for choosing boots rather than shoes: boots are warmer, more supportive and harder-wearing. In the cooler latitudes they are a contemporary uniform. Yet the quest for the Holy Grail looks like a walk in the park compared with finding a pair that ticks all the required boxes. Boots that work with jeans don’t work with a skirt. Boots that look right in the day look wrong in the evening. If they’re stable they’re clumpy, and if they’re low they’re frumpy. And if you do eventually find the pair of your dreams, you’ll wear them to death and won’t be able to replace them. It’s not famine in Africa, I know, but it would be nice to find a solution.

So we asked Tracey Neuls to work with us to create a comfortable boot with a heel—the Intelligent Life boot—which would go on sale to the public. It would have to be stable, stylish, interesting and relatively fashion-proof. Also, the boots would need to pass what I call the Gallery Test: can you wander in a pair round an exhibition without thinking about your feet? All of which is, if you’ll forgive the expression, a tall order.

Neuls, 46, is a gentle-voiced Canadian with an infectious laugh, pale skin and long red hair, which she often wears in schoolgirl plaits or on top of her head, Heidi-style. We approached her not just because it is her stated mission to make footwear that is “individual, timeless and comfortable”—a promising trio of adjectives—but because she cares about feet themselves as much as what we put on them. “I design from the inside out,” she tells me. “I always start with the foot.” One reason that she suspends her wares from the ceiling is so that you can see them from all angles. “Sometimes the best view is from the back,” she 
explains. But also she wants them to move, to remind us what footwear is for: boots are made for walking. Or should be. She wants women to be “empowered, not impeded” by their footwear. And impeded is the right word, since its roots are in the Latin impedio, to shackle—literally, to un-foot.

We begin with me showing her photographs of my collection of boots past and present—I could start a small museum. She dates them all with uncanny accuracy (“that’s from the mid-1990s”, she says and she is right; I’d told myself they were timeless). And although she doesn’t actually say the word “boring”, I’m pretty sure it’s what she’s thinking. Neuls worked in big-brand fashion for ten years (Nike and Falke are on her CV), but since she set up her own label in 2000 she has shown no signs of swimming in the fast-moving mainstream, and she eschews its methods, too. Most shoes on sale in the high street are mass-produced. They are, in effect, assembled from a kit of parts offered by manufacturers each season in response to the trends decreed by fashion forecasters: gladiator sandals, biker boots, whatever. That’s why the stock in shoe shops appears to move as one body, like a shoal of fish. Neuls, by contrast, starts the design process from scratch, modelling organic shapes from a piece of plasticine, Zaha Hadid-style. All her shoes are hand-made. The more I hear about her methods, the more I feel like someone who has just discovered fresh food after years of living on ready meals.

On the subject of heels, Neuls gives me fair warning. “Something happens between 5cm and 7cm. We’ve found that once you go beyond a certain height—about 5.5cm, I’d say—the foot is always going to be less comfortable. But let’s see what we can do.” She talks me through some of her past creations. There are court shoes in knitted woolly overcoats and others covered with a filigree of orangey-pink fishing net. There are boots made of hand-knitted leather strips that look like chain mail, and others with a transparent PVC panel at the toe—change your socks and you change your look. Some knee-length boots are unlined to allow the leather to stretch to the calf, others are buckled, with expandable panels for the same reason.

Then Neuls shows me a piece of charcoal she found which gave her an idea for boots with burnt heels, burnished and black. The Italian factory she used didn’t want the fire risk (and who can blame them?), so Neuls burnt the heels herself with a blow-torch, in her back garden. That’s about as far from mass production as it gets. Whether or not wearing our boot feels like walking on air, it is unlikely to be dull.

I know, I know, it’s crazy to want to wear heels in the first place. And this magazine calls itself Intelligent Life. We’ve heard it all before and it is, of course, a conundrum. Women say they feel empowered in heels—perhaps because they can look men in the eye—when in reality they are physically handicapped by them. A lot of ink has been spent over the years trying to explain why we still wear them. To summarise: a high heel is sexual, changing the way we move, signalling passivity and availability. It’s misogynist, rendering women decorative and in need of a strong arm to hold. It’s a sign that we’ve escaped the prison of domesticity—have you tried doing housework in heels? And it’s a status symbol, as tallness is associated with privilege and good nutrition. Even so, many women, women with brains enough to understand that feet are a feminist issue, still want to wear heels. The long view may be that we’re going through a patch of cultural turbulence, but the close-up is that we really want that sense of lift. So for now let’s accept the existence of that desire, however ideologically unsound it may be.

Feet are at their most natural when unshod, and if we lived on a sandy beach it’s possible we could live without shoes. But the naked foot is vulnerable: humans realised quite early on that feet need protecting, partly from the cold but also because, before antibiotics, a wounded foot could prove fatal. Our long preoccupation with footwear is woven into folklore, as witnessed by our fairy tales: Cinderella’s dainty foot fits into the glass slipper, the 12 Dancing Princesses wear out their shoes every night, and, most pertinently, the Little Mermaid suffers the pain of knives to walk on dry land. It’s tempting to read her story as an allegory for enduring painful high heels to try to get your man.

You have only to go to the chemist’s and stand in front of the shelves of gel insoles, corn pads, blister plasters and heel grips to see that footwear can be torture. And women are more tortured than men: according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, women are two to four times more likely to have hallux valgus (that’s bunions to you and me) and four to five times more likely to have hammer toes. If we could make ourselves immune to fashion and novelty, we’d be better off spending our money on a couple of custom-made pairs of shoes rather than lots of the off-the-shelf, one-shape-fits-all variety.

So before Neuls began designing our “perfect” boot, I wanted to understand more about what makes feet comfortable. In terms of engineering, footwear is our most complex item of clothing: it has to protect and support a mobile and articulated body part that is also load-bearing and subject to impact shock. That’s quite a job description, but it’s not allthe way our feet meet the ground affects how the rest of our body works. “Our feet are our foundations,” says Liza Cawthorn, a pilates instructor and health blogger, “and, as with all vertical structures, if the foundations aren’t sound, the structures above are at risk.” Knee- and back-pain, shoulder problems, neck-ache, even cardiovascular strain—you name it, it can originate in your feet.

Katy Bowman is a biomechanist and the author of “Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief”. She is what you might call a foot fundamentalist. “Most women have spent their entire lives wearing shoes that are too small,” she says, “so the sensation of tightly held feet seems quite normal.” In fact, the shoes are pressing on the bones and tissues of the feet. To hammer this point home, Bowman suggests that you draw round your bare foot on a piece of paper, and then draw round your shoe. I’ve tried and it’s shocking to compare the two outlines: except with my wellies and some sandals, my foot overflowed my shoes. A quarter of our bones, muscles and motor nerves are dedicated to the feet, and apparently feet would be more dextrous if we didn’t wear shoes. If your hands had been encased in tight leather since you were two years old, Bowman asks, how mobile would they be? 

Bowman looks at four different design components of our footwear and explains where they let us down—sometimes literally. The sole is often too thick or too stiff, which means that our bodies have to compensate elsewhere, typically at the ankle. The uppers don’t always secure the sole to our feet, so we have to grip with our toes to keep them on—court shoes, ballet shoes and flip-flops are major offenders. The toe box is often too narrow or pointed, crushing the bones, weakening the muscles, and deforming soft tissue. But her greatest disapproval, you won’t be surprised to hear, is reserved for the heel. Even a low heel displaces you a number of degrees from the vertical, tipping you forward so that ankles, knees, pelvis and spine must compensate and try to function at unnatural angles. Heeled footwear shifts the weight to the front of the foot, instead of it bearing down through our own heels as nature intended.

Bowman believes that heels are “the new smoking”, because people continue to ignore the evidence that they do long-term damage. It might be that governments should conduct research to see if there’s a correlation between heel-wearing and working days lost to back pain. But heels aren’t fatal; I suspect it’ll be some time before there are health warnings on shoe-boxes. Still, after finishing her book, I’ve gone from wondering why so much footwear is uncomfortable, to being amazed that it is ever comfortable at all.

For now though, as women have done for centuries, I’m going to turn a blind eye to the facts. I put on my lowish-heeled (but nevertheless evil) boots, and stride back to Tracey Neuls’s magical emporium, putting phrases like “soft-tissue deformation” in a mental file marked “Another Inconvenient Truth”.

“I would never wear a heel from morning to night,” Neuls is saying. “The cocked foot is not a natural state.” We are sitting in the little office behind her shop in east London, surrounded by boxes and samples. I feel like a child exploring her mother’s cupboards. Neuls is urging me to try on this one and that; each time my instinct is to look in the mirror, but she keeps asking “How does it feel?” Work-in-progress samples come in a size 37, and I’m a 38, so there are some Ugly Sister moments, but I try on what seems like everything in the shop. It brings home with a vengeance the point about heels. As they get higher, there is a literal tipping point where suddenly I feel my posture change: my weight is thrown forward and my pelvis and spine have to adjust. I become more S-shaped.

Neuls has a nice turn of phrase. “I like to consider the passenger,” she says of her designs, or “that one’s a good walker.” But she is also fierce in her love for authentic craftsmanship, and she abhors the way that big brands diversify into all areas. We start to talk about the perfect boot, and we find that some decisions seem to make themselves. It is not difficult to choose the colour: we quickly agree on good old black, practical and versatile. And we decide without much debate that it should be an ankle boot, because calves vary so much—the Bath-based shop Duo sells knee-length boots in 21 different calf-sizes, the largest a startling 50cm in circumference.

Although laces help make a snug fit, we decide a zip gives a neater line—and anyway, for me, laced boots always have a touch of the Victorian about them, while Neuls finds they look more “sporty”; also, we want them to be quick to get on and off. Neuls insists on nylon zips, even though she prefers the look of metal ones, because they work better and last longer. Meanwhile, I have fallen in love with a pair of shimmering black boots made of leather with tiny glass beads bonded onto it, and with a moulded rubber sole and 5cm heel. I buy them; I knew this was going to be an expensive assignment. My new boots gleam gently as if there is a heavy dew on them. It is a beautiful material, and we agree to use it for our boot.

Over the next few months, Neuls and I knock ideas back and forth by e-mail and in person. She’s a natural collaborator, constantly approaching problems from new angles, answering all my questions and listening to my suggestions even when, as I later realise, they are plainly absurd. Never once do I get the slightest whiff of defensiveness or diva-ishness. The fast-forward version went like this: should we have a platform, to give height without gradient? No, because it reduces flex in the front part of the foot, and is liable to date. Should we have a rounded toe, or use Neuls’s distinctive “elfin” toe? The rounded toe looks more ordinary, and everyone I ask to try out the pointier elfin toe finds it comfortable, so we go for the sharper look. Should we have an elastic panel to make it fit snugly around the ankle? Maybe. And, crucially, what shape should the heel be? Neuls tries shortening her dramatic hook heel, but finds it looks “a bit cowboy” and rejects it. In the end we go with a leather-covered block heel that she has just introduced to her collection. It has enough surface area in contact with the ground to make it feel properly stable.

When the first prototype arrives, it is too small for me. Neuls is undaunted. “You always get variations with handmade shoes,” she says. “Some craftsmen work with a tighter hand on the last than others.” A couple of months later, the second prototype arrives. It’s a 39 this time, although I am realising that sizing is a notional matter; what you call it and whether it fits are two different things. This version has “all the bells and whistles we can think of to compensate for the fact it’s a heel,” Neuls says. She has increased the room in the toe box, allowing for foam padding to cushion the front of the foot, and shaved 5mm off the heel, so now it’s 7.5cm high. She has also inserted a section of rubber into the leather sole for more flex, and added a “sole board”—a built-in silicon strip that cushions the ball of the foot. It feels like a limousine for the feet.

I “take them out for a spin”, as Neuls calls it. They are pillowy and soft, and I am hopeful we’ve cracked it. But after a while my toes feel squashed, and I realise my foot is sliding forward too much: it isn’t held back at the instep and I can fit two fingers quite far down the front of the boot. Neuls interrogates me for some time about exactly how the boot feels. When I next hear from her she has discovered that her boot last, which was remade recently when she moved production to a factory in Portugal, has “a slight grading issue”. The problem is in exactly the area I described. I feel like the Sherlock Holmes of the foot world.

After a couple more months, the third prototype is ready. My foot no longer slides forward into the toe box. And there are two design changes. First, there is a small panel of sparkly black elastic (who knew such a thing existed?) at the back, to accommodate all sizes of ankle and allow a full range of movement. Most strikingly, though, Neuls has made the glass-beaded upper flow down onto the heel. This is one of her hallmarks, but here she has stopped it short of the ground to make the heel more pavement-proof. It gives a distinctive look, and tricks the eye—it’s hard to read exactly how high the heel is now, so that a colleague exclaims “Oh, that’s a better height!”, even though it’s the same. To my eye, the boot has a hint of wild-west swagger.

Time for the test drive. I wear the boots all day, including a visit to the “Sensing Spaces” architecture show at the Royal Academy. Do they pass the Gallery Test? Well…they don’t stop me enjoying the exhibits—in fact they’re the most comfortable heels I’ve ever worn—but when I get home I’m still pleased to take them off. Tracey did warn me about this: the literal tipping-point above 5.5cm. As she says, “Some of us just can’t wear heels for long.” My feet were as cosseted as they could be at an angle which, if it were a ski slope, would be a red run, but my heel-averse, mid-century bones, muscles and ligaments will always feel the strain of compensating. Height plus total comfort: I’m as guilty as the rest of us of asking the impossible of fashion.

I love the boots, and will cherish them>—even if they can’t take me right through a whole day’s walking and into the evening, they can easily do one or the other. So if you are a die-hard heel-wearer, or just young, I’m confident you’ll find that these not stratospherically high boots are, indeed, perfect. If not, they’re as beautiful and comfortable—as almost perfect—as a heel can get. And I’ll feel a stab of envy if I see you wearing them on a weekday morning.

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