When Tanya Heath moved to Paris from Toronto in 1996, the Ottawa-born entrepreneur experienced the kind of epiphany you'd expect to happen in a world capital of fashion: Why can't high heels be comfortable?
"I always felt it was outrageous that women either had to suffer to be beautiful or wear ugly footwear," says the mother of three, who worked for Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Canada before moving to France as a marketing and communications strategist for several startups. "I could not believe that the footwear industry had not [yet] created a high-heeled shoe that would reconcile mobility and comfort with style and glamour."
So she decided to invent one.
"I was convinced that having removable heels in a shoe that could go from a high heel to a low heel and back again was [the] solution," Heath recalls.
Everyone she told thought she was crazy – at first. After all, comfort or not, high heels have been around for centuries, worn by courtesans in 16th-century Venice to denote their status as street walkers, and have only increased in height since the 1980s, hobbling women just as they were starting to climb the corporate ladder.
But Heath, herself a 44-year-old businesswoman, likes heels. She simply wanted to minimize the hurt by making them practical as well as pretty. If that were possible, however, why hadn't anyone thought of it before?
Her plan kick-started at Super Investor 2008, a private equity love-in held at Hotel Crillion in Paris, where the Entrepreneur of Year Award had been given to the woman who created the British pre-cursor of Spanx. Heath shared with her her own idea for a multiheight shoe. The woman, who first marvelled at the difficulty of the task, ultimately encouraged Heath.
After talking it over with her husband, Heath's mind was made up. In January of 2009, she resolved to devote her energies to creating a shoe with an interchangeable heel. "For the first time in my life," she recalls, "I followed a crazy dream instead of following a safe path."
Made in France using high-quality French and Italian leathers, Tanya Heath Paris shoes are produced with a fit-for-Jane-Bond depressed button on the inside sole that you press to detach interchangeable heels of varying heights made of durable plastic. Locking them in place requires a slight karate chop of the hand to where the heel meets the shoe. (It doesn't hurt.)
The heels themselves come in four classic shapes, each named for a man who helped Heath bring her idea to fruition: Francois is a stiletto, Denis a chunky heel, Stephane a kitten heel and Christophe a low trotter. Prices start at $495 for a pair of shoes with two sets of heels each.
Heath spent about $1.4-million (€1-million) to launch Tanya Heath Paris, working with engineers, designers, technicians and factories over a four-year period. "The French are obsessed with comfort and they have shoe factories that could meet my quality expectations," Heath adds. "There is also a considerable fashion infrastructure, which is 100-per-cent necessary if you want your shoes to be beautiful, and in Paris, no one will buy a pair unless they are."
And the Parisians are certainly buying them. Since the opening of her first retail store on rue Dragon in the City of Light, Heath tripled her sales in the period ranging from September 2013 to September 2014. "To date," Heath says, "we have sold 3,000 pairs of shoes and almost 10,000 pairs of heels." Sales are expected to spike further since the launch in October of last year of the first North American Tanya Heath Paris boutique, in Toronto's tony Yorkville district. (Her business partner in Canada is Leslie-Ann Dominy Kirijian, whom Heath met when both were students at the the University of Toronto in the 1980s.) Another location is being planned for Los Angeles in the spring.
"Women love that they can wear low, comfortable heels at the office all day and then switch to a stiletto after work to meet friends," Heath says about her clientele. "Jet-setters tell me all the time that they take one pair of shoes with them on a trip, and four or five pairs of heels of different heights and colours, and they're set for a week!"