Jodie Fox had a problem. “I’m Sicilian and spent a lot of time with gorgeous Italian women looking at beautiful leather shoes,” she says. “But I couldn’t find quite the right heel or the right bow, so my love was limited in many ways.”
Then while travelling overseas, the same way you can find a tailor, she found someone who could tailor shoes. She asked to commission some shoes she had designed. Friends started to notice, then they wanted their own custom shoes as well. And thus the seed was planted for Shoes of Prey, Fox’s Sydney-based bespoke shoe company.
Her soon-to-be co-founders, Michael Fox and Michael Knapp, were working at Google after having met in law school. One is a software engineer and the other in ad sales, and together they were looking for a good idea. “I hadn’t thought about turning this into a business,” Fox said, “but with the combination of all that, Shoes of Prey was born.”
The site launched in Oct 2009, and since then, people have spent more than 50 million minutes designing millions of pairs of shoes from 196 trillion options. Trillion.
That sounds like a lot, but when you start considering all the possible combinations of shapes, embellishments, heel heights, sizes, and more, it really adds up quickly. It also means Shoes of Prey needed a really robust technical solution that would make the designing process enjoyable, not laborious.
Most of the development of the 3D designer was done in-house. It’s critical to the process, so they’ve worked hard to improve it through several iterations of this software that bring your shoes to life as you create them. Knapp has a team of nine engineers who still push to better answers for that problem.
But beyond this impressive tool, I can attest that they’ve created so much more with Shoes of Prey.
Maybe you’ve bought shoes online–you browse through pages looking for something and trying to imagine what they’ll look like with your wardrobe, then click a submit button and receive a bland box in a process not particularly more exciting than ordering anything else online. Shoes of Prey, however, is nothing short of a shoe experience. I apologize for how absolutely marketing-speak that sounds, but it’s my word, not theirs. From start to finish, I felt like these were truly my shoes, made just for me, which is exactly what Shoes of Prey is aiming for.
The first step is creating the shoes. I can’t begin to guess how much time I spent playing with the designer like it was the latest, hottest video game. (Fortunately the designer lacks the feature a lot of video games include of telling you how long you’ve been using it. I don’t think I need to know.) I created a Pinterest board to store my ideas. I waffled between something fabulous and frilly that would be perfect for special occasions or something that I could wear every day. (Of course, the first thing my geek mind thought of when I learned about Shoes of Prey was, Awesome! A way to actually get the exact shoes you need for a costume! But I don’t have any such need in progress at the moment.)
I fell in love with one particular fabric–black letters and words on white leather–and I especially liked it accented with red leather. I designed a dozen iterations of shoes with that materials combination.
You can skip all of that part, although I can’t imagine why you’d want to. But Shoes of Prey does offer a gallery of pre-designed shoes you can select from or use as a starting point for inspiration. Either way, once you’ve chosen or created a design, you submit it, and a team of techs hand-draw the design.
Those a little less obsessed with shoes may never have considered what it takes to make a pair. Much like clothes are designed with a paper pattern, shoes are created on something called a last, which is the foot-shaped form a pair of shoes are designed around. You might think that given the finite number of shapes Shoes of Prey uses and a finite number of sizes, they have a supply of reusable lasts. But once you actually start considering the vast number of possibilities just from changing size (from 1 to 15), width, heel height, and toe shape, you realize why they make a custom last for every pair of shoes purchased. The last also changes depending on the material you choose for the shoe. For example, suede has a bit of stretch, which means the pattern used will be smaller. Leather does not stretch, so it’s designed bigger to make sure it all connects to the sole.
The actual manufacturing is done in Asia, including the original cobbler who inspired Fox and fuelled her custom shoe passion. “We looked globally,” she said, “and found that most extraordinary hand-making done accessibly was in Asia.” You can watch their video about the process:
Once the shoes are complete, they go through QA and packaging. And, oh, the packaging! My shoes arrived in a beautiful black box with a light shine to it. When I opened the box, I found my shoes wrapped in black Shoes of Prey tissue paper, tied with a wide black grosgrain bow. On top I found a black envelope, wax sealed with the Shoes of Prey pump logo. Inside that was a note written to me along with a photo of my shoes! (That photo was also emailed to me when the shoes were shipped to let me know they were on their way.)
Once I untied the bow, I found my shoes along with their own duster bag and a second, smaller bag that contained three types of shoe inserts to make sure they fit just right as well a spare pair of heel caps. The price for all of this ranges from $129 to $199: $129 for sandals, ballet flats, or flat oxfords; $179 for 1.5 to 3.5-inch heels; $179 for 4 to 6-inch heels; and $199 for ankle boots or heeled oxfords. At the price of a well-crafted pair of shoes off the rack, it feels like a steal for something hand-crafted from your own design.
All of this melds into the geek’s perfect shoe experience, one in which you get to use technology to achieve exactly what you want on your feet.
When I talked to Fox, she was enthusiastic about the personalization factor and how Shoes of Prey was inspired by “heritage brands like Hermes and Gucci where the thing that is special is that they’ve been crafted by hand by an artisan.” But what she talked about with even greater enthusiasm is where technology meets fashion, and where she sees them meeting in the future is with 3D printing technology.
“I’m really excited about contemplating distributing files–the possibilities are endless,” Fox said. The availability of 3D printing opens up design potential to so much more. “You can 3d print just about anything. You can have batwing, sequined, sandcastle shoes,” Fox said.
Or imagine a future where FedEx or UPS, rather than shipping you an order, prints it. Or with personal 3D printers becoming increasingly common, you could have the opportunity to print a model of your shoes before buying them–to actually see an online purchase in your hands before typing in your credit card number.
“While we shouldn’t have technology for technology’s sake; we should have the open-mindedness to truly solve our customers’ problems,” Fox said. “Once you hold your big, lofty, un-achievable vision at heart, like ‘every woman should have her perfect shoe’ and try to solve it without all the today-checklists but with tomorrow’s imagination instead, we can do really exciting things.”
Disclosure: I received a pair of Shoes of Prey shoes for this review.
By day, Ruth Suehle helps upstream open source software communities and tells people how to build fun things with a Raspberry Pi. By night, she fights crimes against craftiness. No, that's not true. She just makes things, which means her husband and kids know to watch out for stray pins and to ask before eating anything made of fondant. (Follow her on Twitter at @suehle.)