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Meet Thesis Couture, creator of a new kind of high heel

The company uses technology to create a shoe that both looks good and is also comfortable to wear

Entrepreneur interview by Steven Loeb
May 16, 2015
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/3dcf

As a man who has never worn high-heeled shoes, I've always wondered how women do it. How can it possibly be comfortable to walk around in those things? Their feet always look so squished, and sometimes the heels are so high, I imagine every step comes with the fear of toppling over.

Well, it turns out that it isn't comfortable to wear these shoes, and, somewhat surprisingly, nobody seems to have any interest in doing anything about it.

It's a problem begging for a solution, and now there is a company that has found the answer. That company is Thesis Couture, the winner of the Judges award at last month's Vator Splash Oakland.

It is a performance driven, fashion footwear brand, which has used technology to finally make a high heeled shoe that is both aesthetically pleasing and comfortable to wear.

I spoke to Dolly Singh,  Founder and CEO of Thesis Couture, about why this problem took so long to solve and what it means .

The problem

When it comes to high-heeled shoes, said Singh, the real issue isn't that nobody knows that there's a problem, it's that we've come to accept it as just the way things are.

"At a high level there's an accepted notion that beauty equals pain, and this is something that fashion footwear has accepted for a long time," she told me.  "We want to disassociate those two things, and show that you can have something beautiful without it being painful."

"Shoes for me, as a personal consumer, are a specific and acute pain point. I have an intimate relationship with shoes and the more I talked to other women the more they related to me about the lack of innovation in women's problems across the board. They haven't been innovated in 100 years, and it causes direct damage."

The pain that women experience comes from the internal architecture of the shoes. Inside the high heel there is usually a metal plate, called a shank (which, tellingly, is the name given to homemade knives that prisoners use to stab each other) made out of a flat metal plate. It's strong enough to put up the foot up on an angle, but it doesn't help redistribute the weight when the foot comes down. These shoes put 80% of weight on on the balls of the feet, and at an awkward angle.

Ultimately, this causes health issues, especially bunions, as toes get pushed into each other. Wearing these shoes can cause massive amounts of damage, so much so that millions are being spent on corrective foot surgeries. 

So why hasn't anyone come up with a solution before now?

"There are lot of layers to that," said Singh. "First is that we have convinced women that beauty is pain. They think it's normal, and they don’t fight for anything better. They've tricked consumer into thinking that is the standard of excellence."

Second is the size of the market, which is $40 billion. 

"Women love high heels and when you have consumers buying a product at that amount then you don't have any incentive to change it. If consumers are complacent about accepting product as it is, then the creators will be also," she said. 

And finally, it's a problem that simply comes from the fact that "you are working against physics and anatomy. We are not evolved to carry weight on our metatarsals."

"You are pitching yourself up, and trying to offset that is the biggest challenge. If you try to engineer around it the thought was that the only way to make it better was to compromise aesthetics," Singh said.

The solution

The shoes designed by Thesis Couture, however, have been made to correct these problems that have existed in high-heeled shoes for decades. They are intended to reduce the amount of shock every time the foot hits the ground, and redistribute the weight across the foot. They also reduce the friction that creates wear and tear.

"Italian artisans know that supporting the underside makes better shoe, and the reason is because they start flat metal plate, and the only way to support underside is to build up from plate into an arch. When they start to do that, it creates a wide line in the shoe that is unattractive," she explained to me. "What we were able to do is custom the form and shape of that curvature, and instead of building up, curve the primary structure itself. It's really hard to draw."

The company has so far been working on research and development for 15 months and still does not have a finished does. But it is close to finally being able to test one out.

"We wanted the architecture to be good and sound. In three months we will have a full shoe and the real validation will come in the testing over next three months. We have a simulation, and we have calculated what the load distribution should be, and done all the math. Now we're getting into real testing."

One of the most impressive aspects of Singh's Splash presentation was her road map for Thesis Couture; she already knows how many shoes she wants to sell in the coming years, and how much they will cost.

Thesis will operate on a reservation/pre-order model via e-commerce, offering limited quantities of its branded product for 2015, 2016 and then plans for significant expansion in 2017. 

In 2015, Thesis Couture will launch with a single style, offering 1,500 pairs of its Founders Edition shoe at $925 per pair. In 2016, it will offer two small collections, Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, of three styles each: Day, Evening and Couture.

Each style will be offered in three color variations and will be available in sizes 6-10. Each collection will offer 5,000 units. It will sell 2,500 of the Day style, priced at $395; 1,750 of the Evening style, priced at $695; and 750 of the Couture style, priced at $925.

The company also two actively considering two potential designers for the shoes, which it plans to announce later this summer. Each shoe will be numbered and signed.

"We have not settled for less than awesomeness, and we have the same standard of excellence when it comes to designers," said Singh.

The limited rollout of the shoes is a deliberate strategy on the company's part to create buzz around its product.

"We are doing this for a couple of reasons. Any time there is limited availability it helps create demand. More demand than supply is good, especially in early stages," said Singh.

"Also, we are a new product, and we are changing manufacturing, so its important to be very pragmatic and disciplined about how we scale up. We dont want to jump from 1,000 to 100,000. We want to go from one to 10, then 50, then 100, so the process is different . You have to give yourself the opportunity to make mistakes," she told me.

The company is also taking a conversation approach to its distribution mode, doing its first two years entirely online, before looking at retail and licensing relationships in year three.

Who is Dolly Singh?

Another standout of Singh's presentation was her impressive resume.

She was formerly the Head of Talent at Oculus VR, the gaming and virtual reality technology company that was recently acquired by Facebook for over $2 billion. While there worked directly with the company founders to help build out the team and also its talent practices.

Prior to that she was the Head of Talent Acquisition at SpaceX, where she was responsible for talent across all engineering operations, including software, hardware, electronics, propulsion, structures, launch and test, as well as its business teams.

"I’ve been in tech for the last 15 years, and my primary role has always been to build teams, get them to
 be effective, and functionally 
diagnose why and if they are  not," said Singh.

The idea for Thesis Couture came from her own personal problems as she got  older. When she joined SpaceX, she was 30 and when she left she was 36. "Your  body changes a lot in that time," she told me. 

 Plus, being around rockets and Elon Musk showed her that anything was possible.

"I worked in a rocket factory, so I was very aware about how amazing things can happen. I saw something very complex being done and I thought shoes should be easier," she said.

"I was complaining for two years, and then I thought of this Gandhi quote, 'Be the change you wish to see in the world.' I hate when my kids complain; don't just bitch about something, come to me with solution. I needed to hold myself to same standard that I held to my kids. Plus, it doesn't seem like anyone else is going to do it, and had assets at my disposal, including a network that was very rich at that point, so I was better equipped to solve the problem."

The goal

Thesis Couture wants to fundamentally change a massive industry that has been resistant to change. If it succeeds it will have heralded a massive shift for the space.

"This is not an e-commerce play, but a product utility play. What we want to do is dramatically restandardize the excellence of shoes, and own highly innovative research and development and high fashion aesthetic," Singh said.

"We want to change the standard of excellence for how shoes are designed and made. Right now it takes four hours to make a shoe, while a BMW takes 42 minutes. That's insane and the entire world of fashion footwear has largely been left out of the industrial revolution. Everything is about being lean and efficient and optimization. I want to take what I see as laggard industry and help drive it forward very quickly."

Founded in 2013, the Los Angeles-based company has raised around $700,000 from Singh's former colleagues at SpaceX and Oculus, which is roughly half its round. The company is oversubscribed on the rest of the round, and it currently taking meetings from investors.

"We are getting tons of interest and we are actively finalizing who we want our partners to be. We are happy to talk to additional people," said Singh. "Winning Vator kicked in a lot of interest for us."

Watch Singh's presentation at Splash below:


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Thesis Couture
Startup/Business
Description: Thesis couture is the world’s first performance driven, fashion footwear brand within the $40B global high heel market. We’ve...
Bio: I build wicked-smart, diverse, high performing teams that solve big problems and disrupt market paradigms.

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