Style

Concord woman sells shoes with a twist: They hurt less

Julie Lopez’s company aims at a high heel that’s more comfortable, designed specifically to accommodate bunions. Lopez, of Concord, has them made in Italy and sells them, online, from Concord.
Julie Lopez’s company aims at a high heel that’s more comfortable, designed specifically to accommodate bunions. Lopez, of Concord, has them made in Italy and sells them, online, from Concord. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Oh, the mystery of high heels. They lengthen any leg, glamorize any workaday ensemble, make any humble pair of jeans into a statement.

And they can hurt.

Julie Lopez loves high heels. Though she developed a bunion when she was 18, the Concord resident wore them anyway: She was “a shoe girl.”

But when her pleasure at her daughter Lauren’s wedding in 2010 was disrupted by the pain her heels caused, she decided it was time to devise a solution.

But when her pleasure at her daughter Lauren’s wedding in 2010 was disrupted by the pain her heels caused, she decided it was time to devise a solution.

She wasn’t exactly envisioning an eponymous online company that sells handmade Italian leather heels, flats, wedges and kitten heels, all designed to feel better than the average high heel.

The start

Lopez, 57, graduated from the Presbyterian School of Nursing in 1979, and went to work for orthopedists at High Point Regional Hospital. There, she met patients with all manners of problem feet. Many of them wore ill-fitting shoes, she says.

Though she stopped working when she had the first of three children, in 1986, she eventually returned to nursing part-time -- and kept wearing heels.

“For many, many years it didn’t matter,” she says, “because you don’t care what you feel like, as long as you look OK.”

By the time she did start caring, “I wasn’t ready to stop wearing heels yet. So I needed to find a way to make them comfortable.”

She decided a handmade Italian leather shoe would provide the quality and comfort she sought, but wanted them to be as affordable as possible. She didn’t want a heel that wobbled. She wanted a well balanced, beautiful shoe.

So she headed to the Internet.

This led her to Wenco International Footwear Consultants Inc. in Canada, where she solicited the help of Phillip Nutt, a veteran industry consultant. Together they developed a patent-pending technology they named FIT, for Flex Innovation Technology.

“So much of what I determined needed to happen was because of how my own foot felt,” says Lopez.

The difference

Dr. Kent Picklesimer is a podiatrist at Eastover Foot and Ankle in Charlotte. He explains that a high heel does two potentially problematic things: It “not only loads the structures (of the forefoot) physically, but also causes ... a splaying within the forefoot bones. This in turn increases side to side compression inside the shoe.”

It’s the second issue that the Lopez shoe addresses.

Her idea was to change the top part of the shoe, so it didn’t hit the bony part of the foot. She thought the “box” that toes fit into should be broader. She wanted to create an “upper” (the part above the sole) that was flexible enough to accommodate a bunion.

She bounced her ideas off Nutt, who developed a design to add elasticity to the upper by making tiny laser cuts in the leather.

Next they sandwiched elastane (a synthetic fiber called spandex in the United States; Lycra is DuPont’s trademark name for it) between the lining and the leather. The lasered slits are often incorporated into the entire shoe for decorative flair.

Combining that stretchiness with a broader toe box decreases crowding of the toes, says Lopez, and she and Nutt also added non-slip pads to the sole of the shoe for traction.

What’s most innovative about the technology is that it works with the top of the shoe instead of the bottom, she says, though there are a few millimeters of Texon, a padding, on the sole.

Picklesimer says he’s seen similar technologies employed in flats that use Lycra to create a stretchy upper. “We use those a lot with diabetic patients, to help with digital deformities, with the idea that it will reduce ulceration and tissue breakdown,” he says.

‘Fashion with comfortable features’

Lopez took the FIT idea to Michael Brasini, an Italian-born product developer and designer based in New York.

“When Julie told me about her idea to make fashion footwear for women with a specific foot condition, I knew it had value and meaning, and most importantly, a reason for being,” emailed Brasini.

She collaborated with him on design, and launched her company in 2012. It’s put out two spring and two winter collections, and she says they’ve sold 2,800 pairs of shoes in the last 12 months.

Lopez shows Brasini bits of shoes that she likes, then he lets her know what is possible.

The two analyze seasonal fashion trends at runway shows, and in magazines and retail stores. He creates sketches, which evolve into prototypes, which they have produced at a manufacturing plant in Italy.

The manufacturer is in the Tuscany region, and remains unnamed, Lopez says, because she believes their larger clients would not appreciate them working with a company as small as hers. The manufacturer creates “lasts,” which are plastic molds that provide the basis for the shoe design.

Each complete shoe requires four or five lasts for its various parts. The final products are handmade, though not hand-stitched: stitching machines are used.

In the shoe industry, the prototype is always made as a size 7, Lopez says (and “you never know what color it will be”). When one arrives, she has several women with size 7 feet test it, so she can see where the seams hit the foot and how the shoe looks aesthetically.

Typically the shoe will travel back and forth from Italy to Concord two or three times.

Before final production, Lopez chooses leathers for each style and gets samples made in various colors. “Sometimes you visually have to see them,” she says. She attends Lineapelle, an international exhibition of leather in Milan each February and September, keeping an eye out for new hot colors.

The turnaround time from initial design to finished product is 6 to 8 months.

While she aims for comfortable shoes, Lopez clarifies that hers are not “comfort” shoes. Those are often associated with a cushy sole. “In trying to keep with them being a fashionable shoe, they are considered fashion with comfortable features,” she says.

Finding customers

Lopez initially planned to sell her shoes on the retail market, but decided it was too expensive.

Instead, she invested in a website and rented a small office and warehouse in Concord. She hired a public relations company to generate news releases, and another group that specializes in maximizing hits to her website.

In January, Julie Lopez shoes made Oprah’s O list, a process that required shipping approximately 30 shoes back and forth to Oprah’s people. Her next goal is to be one of Oprah’s Favorite Things. The company ships shoes to the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Australia.

While being an online-only company has cost advantages, Lopez has sold her shoes directly to the public at two events – and loved it. This year she rented space at the High Point Market: “It was so much fun.”

Her biggest challenge as an online business is to get the shoes on women’s feet.

“When you do, you typically will have a sale,” she says. “At the furniture market, women would come and put on the shoes, and have a ‘Eureka!’ moment.”

At a charity event in Houston, Lopez says, she was gratified when a woman put on the shoes and didn’t take a step, but just stood there in silence. “You have no idea,” she finally said to Lopez, before buying the pair.

The inventory

All available Julie Lopez shoes are featured on the website’s lookbook. The company offers free shipping and free exchanges; there’s a restocking fee for returns.

Inventory is strictly a money issue and is designed to meet demand. “I see what is selling well. It’s always fun to have the snazzy and cute colors, but I ultimately stock more blacks and neutrals, which is what women need,” she says.

The shoes are true to size in terms of length, she says, but the forefoot is wider than most shoes. Lopez has found that when people make sizing mistakes, it’s because women with foot problems have learned to order a larger size to accommodate their toes. That leads to returns, but as exchanges are free, she hopes once women determine their correct fitting, they will become regular customers.

Pumps come with 3- or 4-heels. Lopez also offers peep toes, wedges, kitten heels and booties in the fall. Most styles come in four or five colors. Prices range from $198 to $250 or so. She employs herself and her daughter Erin full-time, and has two part-time warehouse workers.

Erin, 29, whose title is vice president of marketing, names every shoe. These include an all-day flat called Sloane, a wedge called Savannah and a 3-inch heel named Gracie, “because it’s just a prissy pretty shoe.”

“As hokey as it sounds,” says Lopez, “I really want people to try on a pair of heels and say, ‘I didn’t have to take them off.’ ”

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