Imelda Marcos might have been the queen of shoes, with a closet lined with more than 3,000 pairs of the finest designer labels money could buy, but Julie Lopez reins supreme in her quest to make heels not only fashionable, but comfortable as well. “A great pair of high heels makes a woman feel beautiful,” says Lopez. That feeling, unfortunately, is often associated with another one: pain. Finding a comfortable pair of four-inch heels is like discovering your foot slides into the glass slipper.
A self-proclaimed “high heel girl,” Lopez discovered that as she grew older it became more difficult to find a pair of heels she could wear for any length of time. But that didn’t prevent her from trying. “You don’t care what you feel like as long as you look good,” she proclaims.
I Feel Your Pain
Lopez’s high-heel mantra faded during one of the most important events in her life: her daughter Lauren’s wedding. Lopez’s feet ached so badly that she was forced to greet reception guests barefoot. After the wedding, Lopez still refused to put on a flat shoe. “I wasn’t ready to stop wearing heels,” Lopez says, “so I needed to find a way to make them comfortable.”
A former orthopedic nurse, Lopez understands the causes of foot pain. Many of her patients had worn ill-fitting shoes, particularly high heels, which affect the foot in two potentially problematic ways: They put pressure on the ball of the foot, which causes the bones to splay, which in turn, increases compression on the sides of the foot. Lopez’s main problem was bunions.
Through experience, Lopez knew there was nothing on the market to soothe her aching soles, so she began searching the Internet. She was led to Wenco International Footwear Consultants Inc. in Canada, where she met Phillip Nutt, a veteran shoe-industry designer, legal expert and consultant. He was able to translate Lopez’s vision into reality. With Nutt’s experience and expertise, the two developed Lopez’s patent-pending Flex Innovation Technology, or FIT.
Lopez wanted to create a shoe that was flexible enough to accommodate a bunion. She knew that the box of the shoe needed to be broad enough to accommodate the toes spread in their normal anatomical position, and she did not want the top part of the shoe to impact the metatarsals, the bony part of the foot.
Nutt designed the shoe according to Lopez’s specifications, developing FIT as the two progressed. While most comfort elements in shoes work from the bottom (rubber soles and squishy bottoms), Lopez’s innovative technology works from the top. FIT includes three basic components that have to work together for the shoe to perform correctly: a wide toe box to accommodate problems such as bunions or arthritis; tiny slits cut through the leather on the front sides of the shoe for added flexibility; and designing the upper construction of the shoe so it doesn’t impinge upon the bony part of the foot. A layer of Lycra is sandwiched between the leather and lining, and a pad offers increased comfort in the area where the ball of the foot rests.
With Nutt’s knowledge of shoe construction technology, Lopez was able to file for a patent. Her attorney is in the process of defending the claims.
Lopez knew that FIT would work best in combination with fine Italian leather. She took her idea to Michael Brasini, an Italian-born product developer and shoe designer based in New York. “He was the first person who immediately understood the importance of the upper-foot technology,” says Lopez. Brasini also thought that FIT was worthy of Italian craftsmanship, and the two began collaborating on designs. Lopez showed Brasini styles she liked, and he let her know the possibilities. By 2012, the new owner of Julie Lopez Shoes was ready to take her first steps into the business world.
The fashion industry evolves in a whirlwind of rapidly changing styles and colors. To stay au courant, the two analyze fashion trends at runway shows and peruse magazines and boutiques. “I have a strong hand in everything we do,” says Lopez, “yet I have to trust his knowledge of shoemaking and design.”
Brasini sketches styles, which evolve into prototypes at the Tuscan manufacturer. These are shipped back and forth from Italy to Lopez’s warehouse in Concord, N.C., several times, with adjustments made at each location before going into production. Lopez makes certain the size 7 prototypes she receives are tested for comfort and are aesthetically pleasing before placing an order.
Each shoe is composed of four or five parts, or lasts, the plastic molds that provide the basics of the shoe design. The final leather versions are handmade with the use of a machine. Lopez chooses the leather for each style and has the shoe produced in a variety of colors. This month she will attend Lineapelle, an international exhibition of leather in Milan, which she also does each February, to scope out upcoming trends.
The turnaround time from the initial design to a finished product is six to eight months, an eternity for a small business owner. Lopez waits anxiously to open the boxes from Italy and examine the contents.
Despite the emphasis on comfort, Lopez wants her shoes to also be fashionable, which, in the shoe world, is often an oxymoron. Most comfortable shoes are simply not fashionable. For that reason, Lopez refers to the shoe line as “fashionable shoes with comfortable features.”
Lopez’s original idea for marketing the line was through retail outlets, but the markup was going to make them too expensive. “I want the shoes to be accessible to as many women as possible,” she says, noting that her website has been a valuable vehicle for reaching women across the country.
While her online business is growing daily, shoes are a tough sell on the Internet, as most women want to try on shoes before purchasing them. To offset this potential deterrent, Lopez offers free shipping and exchanges. She hopes that when enough women are happy with their purchases, word will spread. “I really want women to try on a pair of shoes and say, ‘I didn’t have to take them off.’ ”
The shoes are true to size in terms of length, but wider in the toe box, and many women have never experienced this type of shoe fit. Mistakes in ordering, says Lopez, are made when women, who for years wore shoes a size larger than their foot to accommodate foot problems, order a size larger than they need.
Lopez admits that while she loves her shoes, with their intoxicating textures and colors, one of her biggest challenges is running a business—and getting brand recognition with Internet-only sales. “I love the product; choosing leather,” Lopez says. “Running a business is not my favorite activity. It’s hard to persevere through starting something new. Success doesn’t come easily. It’s a daunting task to run a business and promote it at the same time.”
Lopez hired a public relations company to generate interest in her products and a social media company to conduct a sophisticated campaign. This past January, to Lopez’s delight, Julie Lopez Shoes made Oprah’s O List, a process that required shipping approximately 30 pairs of shoes back and forth to the editorial staff at O The Oprah Magazine. Lopez hopes her shoes will be considered for another O feature.
Even though Lopez and Brasini work diligently to fashion a variety of styles and colors to accommodate different wardrobes and tastes, Lopez finds that basics sell best. She ultimately sells “more blacks and neutrals, which is what women need,” she says. Pumps are available with three-and four-inch heels, but peep toes, wedges and booties are also offered. Prices of $198 to $250 reflect the Italian craftsmanship.
Lopez’s immediate goal is to increase sales, but ultimately she hopes to find a factory in the United States that can maintain the quality of her shoes at a reduced cost. In the meantime, Lopez wakes up each morning eager to get to the office. She keeps a plaque on her desk that reads “Cinderella—proof that a new pair of shoes can change your life.”