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It may seem like all the designers of women's shoes are men

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3 women stepping into the male-dominated world of high-end shoe design

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan on April 8, 2015

Think of women’s shoes and few names typically come to mind: Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo — the list goes on.

What’s often striking about the list is just how few female names are on it. Sure, there are some — Tory Burch, Tamara Mellon and Kate Spade. And fashion designers Diane von Furstenberg and Stella McCartney among others have high-end shoe lines. By and large though, the list tends to be populated with men.

Part of the reason for the disparity is that the shoe business can be particularly difficult to break into, compared to other categories in fashion. “The barriers to entry are very high — of all the fashion products, it’s the most technical and expensive, and you need a lot of experience,” says Ruthie Davis, whose line of designer shoes, which typically start at about $645 a pair, are sold at retailers such as Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus. “With a T-shirt, you’re not going to fail because it fits poorly, but making shoes is almost like building a car. The costs can get out of control and it’s not easy — that can weed a lot of people out.”

Despite that, however, there are a few female names in the high-end shoe business that are making some waves. Sarah Easley, co-owner of Kirna Zabête in New York City, says she’s loved a few in particular — British Fashion Award-winner Tabitha Simmons and Londoners Charlotte Olympia and Sophia Webster, for example.

“Sophia Webster used to work with Nicholas Kirkwood and has branched out into very festive, flirty and cheeky designs which are wonderful and priced at about 25 percent below very luxury shoe designers — we’ve had it now for five seasons and it’s done very well,” says Ms. Easley, who notes that Sophia Webster shoes start at about $295 a pair while most established designer shoes would begin at $650, for example. “It’s right next to luxury shoes from Valentino and it has so much attitude and style. It’s so much fashion for that price.”

To offer some sense of who to watch, here are three names:

Ruthie Davis

Ruthie Davis had an unconventional start in shoe design — marketing.

Armed with an English degree from Bowdoin College and an MBA from Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Business, the New York City-based Davis first worked on the marketing of shoes at Reebok, UGG Australia and Tommy Hilfiger before launching her own line in 2006. Her shoes are designed in Manhattan, made in Italy and sold in high-end retailers including Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s.

“They’re modern, edgy, linear, sculptural, aggressive and empowering,” said Davis in an interview with Women in the World. Davis is careful to point out that she does have some low heels in her line for “modern women on the go — there’s a sporty aspect to it. I’m a big athlete and I like to come at it from a sports point of view.” Indeed, her spring line includes sneakers with a high wedge heel alongside striking gold and black styles, alongside the strappy stilettos and sexy platformed booties.

“Any female shoe designer is going to tell you that she was obsessed with shoes at an early age,” Davis said, explaining why she got into the business. Her inspiration these days though is “architecture — mid-century modern in particular. I love the forms, the shapes, the materials. I’m also inspired by living in New York City — I love looking at the downtown cool girl. I live in West Chelsea, in the art gallery district and I love to see the style of the girls walking around.”

Davis likes to take inspiration from “Danger: Diabolik,” the 1968 Italian-French action film starring Marisa Mell as the thieving Eva Kant. “She’s a mod ‘60s cool girl and my girl is definitely powerful, strong, independent,” she added. “She wants to walk in the room and own the room.” For spring, she has some of that bright pop influence in her colors — stark white patent leather mixed with lavender and black or acid yellow, for example.

As for male versus female designers, Davis feels there is one way in which she has an edge. “When I design my shoes, I design them for myself, and I know that I have my go-to black skinny jeans, that black A-line skirt that goes below the knee, another shorter one, and I know how to make the shoes work with those outfits,” she says. “I don’t know how a man would know that.”

Malone Souliers, designed by Mary Alice Malone

Born in Pennsylvania and trained in art, Mary Alice Malone first dabbled in furniture design before turning to shoes. “I like making structures; I’m really interested in building things,” Malone, whose line is based in London, told Women in the World. “Shoe design blends both those things.”

After studying shoe-making at the prestigious Cordwainers program at the London College of Fashion, Malone co-founded her own line, Malone Souliers, with business partner Roy Luwolt, in 2013 and is now creative director. Her lines of of sleek stilettos and made-to-measure shoes are sold at high-end retailers internationally including Harvey Nichols in London and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City.

“We have a very clean, ladylike and not minimal aesthetic — it’s a very feminine line,” Malone said. Her spring collection includes everything from fuchsia pony-hair high-heeled booties to staid pumps and heels in terracotta suede or emerald-hued leather.

“I draw inspiration from a lot of incredible women around me — it’s the woman that, you can feel their presence when they walk into a room,” Malone said. “It’s that aura of confidence, that self assurance, that everyone can really feel their presence.” This season, she said she was particularly inspired by the campy works of writer and film director Russ Meyer. “It’s this highly sexualized woman — but they’re very in control of their destiny, they’re deadly, fearsome creatures.”

While Malone says many women may find “something very beautiful about having a man design something that he wants to see you in,” she notes that male shoe designers are “clearly not designing for themselves,” which is what makes female designers different. “I’m very proud to be a female shoe designer — I get to look and enjoy the product from two aspects,” she said. “I know how it looks but I also know how it feels on the foot — if the straps are pinching, I’ll make the back a little bit more open. Being the person that gets to wear them and the one that makes it — for me, the full experience is what I really enjoy.”

Sophia Webster

After a few years as an assistant with luxury shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood, Sophia Webster broke out and debuted her own line in 2013. That same year, she won the British Fashion Award for Emerging Accessories Designer.

(That accolade is only one of many the young designer has under her belt — she’s also won the Conde Nast Footwear Emerging Designer of the Year award for 2012 and was given the prestigious New Gen Award for all of her first three seasons by the British Fashion Council.)

“I knew I wanted to be a shoe designer when I was studying for my foundation in art at Camberwell College of Art,” said the London-based Ms. Webster in an interview. “After sketching still life, I found I loved drawing shoes most of all and with guidance from my tutor at the time I enrolled onto a BA in Footwear Design at Cordwainers College. I was then lucky enough to be selected to study on MA course at the Royal College of Art.”

Describing her line as “fun, sassy and colorful,” Webster said her spring collection was inspired by (French post-Impressionist painter) Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings. “Throughout the collection I’ve used fruit, jungle vegetation and animals be it in prints or silhouettes and these have informed the acidic palette,” said Webster, who launched her first line of bridal shoes last month.

In addition to animal skin and feather prints done in bright tropical colors paired with crisp whites, Webster’s spring shoes feature the jungle motif in other whimsical ways as well. One strappy stiletto comes with a faux butterfly, with its wings just spreading, attached to the back heel.

As for women in her game, Webster notes that there may not be as much of a dearth as it might seem. “There are plenty of female designers out there,” she said. “They may not have their own names on the labels but they are out there.”