How it all started
Daniel writing here, co-founder of HiGH FEELS!
In case you don't know our story yet, here is the long version:
My wife Yamina developed bunions (hallux valgus) and it got so bad that it was even painful for her to walk just a couple of steps. The cause behind the trouble? All of her shoes she has ever worn squeezed the toes and the balls of her feet.
It was 2014 back then, when she heard the first time about "barefoot shoes". So Yamina got some barefoot shoes and they were an instant relief for her feet. She gained her mobility back and after a short while and some foot training, she could walk and even run without problems.
Naturally, there was no going back. Being painless and moving freely was priceless, but she also wanted to have some nice looking sandals. But there were only running shoes, sneakers, or outdoor-ish looking sandals and boots on the market.
Ergo she started to tinker with parachute cord and leather scraps to make her own minimalist sandals. Those worked quite well, but still looked a bit rough and also didn't last very long. But they were the most decent shoes to wear with a dress. And also, we were about to go travel the world, and those sandals were lightweight and small. So she made three pairs of them and off we went to Mexico.
It was a couple of months later, in Santa Marta (Colombia), when Yamina's last pair of DIY sandals died, when a tropical rain storm surprised us. We were on a hike and she had to walk back home barefoot.
The timing couldn’t have been better, because we had a great opportunity to get a replacement: In Mexico and Colombia, artisan shoe makers are a big part of the everyday street scene. They have their stalls in public areas where they make and sell their traditional sandals, which are usually artful and quite fancy.
The original spot where the very first HiGH FEELS prototypes were made:
It happened that Yamina convinced one of those guys on the beach of Santa Marta to custom make her a simple pair of sandals, according to her own design: Toering, strap over the instep, laces to tie around the ankle, and of course a thin sole without a heel. They were just finished on the day of departure!
Here they are — our very first protoypes:
Yamina posted the picture on her Instagram and people got pretty excited about the sandals. From this moment onwards, the idea to get them somehow manufactured was a constant companion.
At first, I wasn't very fond of the idea to build a physical product involving sourcing, factories, logistics and all that stuff, since I had only experience with digital products. Old-school manufacturing bore many unknowns for me and it felt like such a huge mountain to climb.
But eventually I was sold on the idea, because I knew we were going to build something amazing that really empowers people (especially women, who we believed needed a chic alternative to high heels). Hence the name "HiGH FEELS" ;)
That being said, HiGH FEELS is all about empowerment: feeling free and moving with ease, but also looking gorgeous while doing so. The connection to the ground is the foundation of everything. We want people to be able to stand their ground; secure and ready for anything that may come their way.
But we do not want the freedom of the one to the burden of the other: Yamina and I both love animals, and we don't want to be part of the animal exploitation chain or make profit from them. That's why we make our shoes vegan.
In 2016, after months refining the design and speaking with a couple of potential manufacturers in Asia and Europe, we went public and launched our crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. We've been funded with over 100000.- € and we were ready to run our first production in Portugal.
Why we've chosen European manufacturing
- The best materials for shoes come from Italy and Spain. We can visit the factories any time, the working conditions are nice and the managers happily show us around when we drop by.
- Portugal and Spain have a long tradition of quality shoe making. Besides Italy, these are the goto-places In Europe when it comes to shoes, as there are extensive networks of specialized manufacturers for all things related.
- The sandals have a shorter way from the factory to the warehouse, and from the warehouse to our customers. It takes us 4-5 days instead of a couple of weeks and it’s way better for the environment.
Making vegan shoes comes with its own trade-offs, of course
- Manufacturers often do not understand why someone would care (or don't believe that it is not just a marketing gag). We'll have to educate and spend some extra effort to monitor the supply chain, which slows things down sometimes.
- Synthetic materials are still not as durable as animal skin. But over time and rigorous testing, we found some really good ones.
- It was tough to accept that no matter what or how you produce, there's always some impact on the environment. We're following the latest trends in sustainable material tech and if an interesting project pops up, we're getting in contact with them. But mostly these projects researching alternative materials are not ready for production, or not available in industrial quantities, or … they just don't answer the phone or react to emails.
Our approach to sustainability is to design our sandals in a way that they will never go out of style (a.k.a. "slow fashion"), and making them modular/versatile, and as long lasting as possible. It happens quite often that customers tell us they're still wearing their first pair from 2016, which is really cool :)
Oh, and what about the bunions?
Well, they haven't completely disappeared, but they are hardly visible any more and no longer cause any discomfort.