What Makes A High Heel Comfortable?

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating story about the Sergio Rossi shoe factory. Don't you want to take a trip to the Sergio Rossi shoe factory? Apparently, designing and building a high-heeled shoe the Sergio Rossi way involves plumb lines, automotive putty, leather, and a guy nicknamed "Golden Hands."

Designer Francesco Russo — who designs around 700 shoes that reach at least the prototype stage each year — thinks a lot about the structural elements of shoes.

A good shoe must be anchored by a sturdy, invisible shank, supported by a steely heel and coddled by a cushy footbed. There are myriad things that can go wrong. Most good heels use tempered steel in the shank — a piece of metal in the inner sole — and in the heel. A shoe should be very rigid so that the wearer can rest weight on her heel, without having to balance on the ball of her foot. But some shoe makers insert a weak metal shank or use cheaper materials such as plastic.

There are three basic elements that define a shoe's comfort. The first is the strength and rigidity of the heel and its position. In order to feel balanced, writes the Journal, "the shoe must meet the ground directly under the center of the heel bone, which carries a woman's weight. To find the right spot, Mr. Russo follows the 'plumb line' from the bone to the ground." It's like finding the foot's center of gravity. Heels that are off center will feel wobbly.

The second is the fit of the toe box, where the ball of the foot touches the sole. That's a key area because even with perfectly positioned and strong heels, a lot of a heel wearer's weight will still rest on the ball. And because a toe box that doesn't fit can result in toe blisters in the short term — not to mention corns, bunions, hammer toes, and other foot problems in the long.

And the third is the fit of the part of the shoe that, to use the Journal's word, "cradles" the heel of the wearer's foot. "It's what makes the shoe comfortable," says Russo. Differences of a millimeter can make or break a shoe's comfort. The good-slash-bad news is that everyone's feet are different, which means some women will swear by a given brand and others will hate it. But brands do tend to manufacture to a consistent last, so if you find one pair of shoes that fits you well, you can probably replicate your luck.

Actually making the shoes is very complex.

It takes, on average, 110 steps to build a typical shoe — and more for something elaborate. At Sergio Rossi's factory, which produces 1,000 pairs of shoes a day, building a shoe involves high-pressure nail guns, screws, heat-dried glues, sanding, painting, buffing, chiseling, and plenty of loud machinery.

Leather and other materials are stretched around the lasts, then nailed, glued and molded in layers. When a shoe is nearly complete, it is peeled off the last. The inner sole must be shaved free of debris from nails, glue or other materials; a flaw there could bruise the wearer's foot.

Tiny adjustments make all the difference and are part of the price of these shoes, which range from $500 to several thousand dollars. If a shoe requires a different shape, Lorenzo Pistocchi — whom Mr. Russo calls "golden hands" — will file down the last prototype or build it up with fast-drying automotive putty...At various stages, Sandy Gradara, a factory employee with a perfect size 37 foot, strips off her sneakers and models prototype shoes. Mr. Russo marks adjustments on the leather with a tiny gold-inked pen.

I'm filing all of the above under "things to keep in mind for that future day when I finally have the time to learn to make my own shoes." (Cordwainery is the white whale in my DIY ocean.) Also, any story involving a dude named "Golden Hands" is automatically awesome.

Pushing High Heels to the Limit [WSJ]