Applied Fashion Special: sick of searching for the boot to end all boots, Rebecca Willis went to the top: shoe designer Tracey Neuls. Together they created the perfect answer—well, almost

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From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2014

As the door to the street opens and closes, the shoes move slightly in the breeze. They hang from the ceiling on bright orange ribbons; the walls around them are white. One pair, steel-blue and frilled with a row of tiny leather oak leaves, has a curved heel, tapering like an animal’s claw. Another has the slightly worn shagginess of a much-loved teddy bear. I could be in an art gallery, but in fact I’m in a shop in central London. It’s one of two belonging to Tracey Neuls, a footwear designer garlanded by the fashion industry. I have come to meet her in the hope that she will be able to make—for once and for all, so that I never have to shop for them again—the perfect pair of boots.

The word “perfect” is, I know, a trope used by marketing people, journalists and retailers to make you take notice, so I admit to using it tongue-in-cheek. No piece of clothing can be perfect for every­one. So let me define exactly what, on this occasion, I mean by it. When we asked some of our readers, for our Fashion Manifesto last year, whether you have to suffer to look good, the groundswell of opinion was, “No…except for high heels.” Wearing heels is a bit like childbirth—for some women it’s a breeze, but for most of us it hurts. Still, is it really so impossible to make a pair that are truly comfortable? Heels that you can walk around in all day without wanting to take them off and put your feet up? We decided to find out.

We make no apology for choosing boots rather than shoes: boots are warmer, more supportive and harder-wearing. In the cooler latitudes they are a contemporary uniform. Yet the quest for the Holy Grail looks like a walk in the park compared with finding a pair that ticks all the required boxes. Boots that work with jeans don’t work with a skirt. Boots that look right in the day look wrong in the evening. If they’re stable they’re clumpy, and if they’re low they’re frumpy. And if you do eventually find the pair of your dreams, you’ll wear them to death and won’t be able to replace them. It’s not famine in Africa, I know, but it would be nice to find a solution.

So we asked Tracey Neuls to work with us to create a comfortable boot with a heel—the Intelligent Life boot—which would go on sale to the public. It would have to be stable, stylish, interesting and relatively fashion-proof. Also, the boots would need to pass what I call the Gallery Test: can you wander in a pair round an exhibition without thinking about your feet? All of which is, if you’ll forgive the expression, a tall order.

Neuls, 46, is a gentle-voiced Canadian with an infectious laugh, pale skin and long red hair, which she often wears in schoolgirl plaits or on top of her head, Heidi-style. We approached her not just because it is her stated mission to make footwear that is “individual, timeless and comfortable”—a promising trio of adjectives—but because she cares about feet themselves as much as what we put on them. “I design from the inside out,” she tells me. “I always start with the foot.” One reason that she suspends her wares from the ceiling is so that you can see them from all angles. “Sometimes the best view is from the back,” she 
explains. But also she wants them to move, to remind us what footwear is for: boots are made for walking. Or should be. She wants women to be “empowered, not impeded” by their footwear. And impeded is the right word, since its roots are in the Latin impedio, to shackle—literally, to un-foot.

We begin with me showing her photographs of my collection of boots past and present—I could start a small museum. She dates them all with uncanny accuracy (“that’s from the mid-1990s”, she says and she is right; I’d told myself they were timeless). And although she doesn’t actually say the word “boring”, I’m pretty sure it’s what she’s thinking. Neuls worked in big-brand fashion for ten years (Nike and Falke are on her CV), but since she set up her own label in 2000 she has shown no signs of swimming in the fast-moving mainstream, and she eschews its methods, too. Most shoes on sale in the high street are mass-produced. They are, in effect, assembled from a kit of parts offered by manufacturers each season in response to the trends decreed by fashion forecasters: gladiator sandals, biker boots, whatever. That’s why the stock in shoe shops appears to move as one body, like a shoal of fish. Neuls, by contrast, starts the design process from scratch, modelling organic shapes from a piece of plasticine, Zaha Hadid-style. All her shoes are hand-made. The more I hear about her methods, the more I feel like someone who has just discovered fresh food after years of living on ready meals.

On the subject of heels, Neuls gives me fair warning. “Something happens between 5cm and 7cm. We’ve found that once you go beyond a certain height—about 5.5cm, I’d say—the foot is always going to be less comfortable. But let’s see what we can do.” She talks me through some of her past creations. There are court shoes in knitted woolly overcoats and others covered with a filigree of orangey-pink fishing net. There are boots made of hand-knitted leather strips that look like chain mail, and others with a transparent PVC panel at the toe—change your socks and you change your look. Some knee-length boots are unlined to allow the leather to stretch to the calf, others are buckled, with expandable panels for the same reason.

Then Neuls shows me a piece of charcoal she found which gave her an idea for boots with burnt heels, burnished and black. The Italian factory she used didn’t want the fire risk (and who can blame them?), so Neuls burnt the heels herself with a blow-torch, in her back garden. That’s about as far from mass production as it gets. Whether or not wearing our boot feels like walking on air, it is unlikely to be dull.

Above right Walk this way: The Intelligent Life boots—things of beauty even from below