Kickstarting The Sport Shoe Revolution
“From commute to cocktails” footwear designer Tracey Neuls creates versatile and beautiful shoes for active women
By Samantha Lewis
Footwear designer Tracey Neuls is a true master of her craft. She makes beautiful shoes for women that tell the world comfort makes sense – and it’s cool. “There is so much ugliness associated with comfort and design, and I think it doesn’t need to be like that at all,” she proclaims. The Canadian-born designer launched her first collection in 2000 and went on to create a line of cycling shoes with a difference. These sneaker-style shoes are smart enough to wear for the office yet practical for pedalling around town. The response to the line was incredible and earned her Geek Bike design a nomination for the Design Museum London’s Design of the Year 2014.
So where did the visionary get the idea from? “I was seeing women trying to use their everyday shoes for the commute and for biking around. I wanted to find a shoe that was great for cycling and you could wear all day,” she explains.
The Geek Bike shoe is made from buttery soft leather yet it has some robust features. “The back part of the little heel fits perfectly to hug the pedals and hidden inside is a metal shank that means your pedals aren’t pushing on your arches and your toes. It’s friendly to your feet,” Tracey continues. Of course, safety is paramount and she also gave that careful consideration. The entire shoe is made from a reflective material that provides high-vis impact when cycling after dark.
Then came something even more unique: the bike heel. She wanted to create a versatile shoe that gave women those extra inches without any pain. The shoe that emerged was a Chelsea boot with a mid-heel, suitable for commute and cocktails: “The heel has different densities of rubber so it’s spongy at the top, then the part that hooks around your pedal is firm and hard. It’s lovely to stand on as it’s shock-absorbing so you actually get a bounce.” Sports shoes don’t have to be blandly utilitarian, she continues: “You can be active and still feel like yourself. It’s not a trainers or nothing situation, there has to be something in between that you can function in and still feel original.”
Admittedly, Neuls isn’t especially sporty (except playing basketball and baseball as a kid) but she’s always on her feet. “I’m fairly busy and that’s who my shoes are for. They are for women who are active and have things to do. They can’t have anything that would impede them or take up unnecessary time.” She adds: “I think there’s such beauty in being active and building it into your life. Even if it’s just walking up the escalator; do it in a pair of shoes that make you feel good. You can have a great pair of shoes on but if they’re hurting, what use is that?”
Her loyal customer following includes the likes of Tracey Emin and Kiera Knightley, plus a number of brides: “We’ve had people get married in my reflective shoes because they like the glow and they use them on a regular basis to bike around. They really do span a lot of women.” But she has not always crafted from high-quality leather. Tracey came from humble beginnings and started making shoes out of toilet rolls and cereal boxes. “When I was a kid I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I remember sitting in my mum’s closet surrounded by her shoes and I used to steal my sister’s shoes,” she recalls. “When I was around nine years old, I made shoes out of toilet paper rolls and would ask my mum to save all the cornflake boxes. Then I would staple them together and walk into town wearing them as if they were a proper pair of shoes. I spent one whole summer doing that.”
FORM & FUNCTION
Shoemaking was clearly in her DNA but there was no suitable design school in Canada, so she ended up in fashion design. She worked as a swimwear designer for Nike, until a relocation to London saw her enroll at Cordwainers College (now London College of Fashion). After graduating she headed to Italy to make footwear for a clothing designer, a move that changed everything. “There came a point where I was working so hard and making so little money – it was ridiculous. That was when I started talking to the factories about doing my own range of shoes.” The rest is history and she now has a successful online business and two boutique stores in London (Marylebone and Coal Drops Yard).
While the detour delayed Tracey’s career, it has influenced how she works today. Her fascination with form and function harks back to her swimwear designing days. “I am really detail-orientated and I like the body. It’s important to me to have a minimal and streamlined design. I love a shadow, the outline, the shape and the form,” she says. “I don’t like it when you have shoes that have giant jewels on the top or something that distracts. I like to look at the shoes, the toe shapes and streamlining. Ultimately, they need to function. It drives me crazy when you buy a product that doesn’t work.”
In order for her shoes to have a sculptural element, first she moulds her shapes out of clay. “I love using Plasticine because the smell of it makes me feel like a kid again,” she grins. “My design process is a real translation from sketchbook to ideas to fingertips to moulding. I send the hardened piece of Plasticine to the factories, or I’ll take it with me, and we make the shape of the shoe. I started manufacturing in Italy but now I’m in Portugal where everybody is passionate about what they do.” Each component of the shoe goes into testing to ensure it’s just right, and she uses vegetable-dyed leather where possible as an eco-friendly solution.
Her artistry is also present in her gallery-like stores where she suspends her collection from the ceiling by ribbons. She says it’s so there’s movement and shoppers can admire the shoes from every angle. Tracey visits her stores regularly but reveals she’s shy when it comes to meeting customers: “I do like meeting them and having a chat but I also like to be a fly on the wall and hear what they have to say when they don’t know it’s me.”
She finds it hard to believe more designers aren’t making shoes like she does, given the vast numbers of women who lead busy and active lifestyles. “Currently, there are blurred boundaries between what is a fashion shoe choice and what is a performance one. What I hope for the future is an honest approach to shoe design, one that really considers what the modern woman needs for her day,” she comments.
As far as Tracey is concerned, comfort will always be key: “Rather than sport being a fashion trend that inspires, I would like to see the technology and comfort aspects be considered as a mainstay of the design – from flats to heels.”