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A Cinderella Story for Cville Doc Determined to Craft the Perfect Shoe

Sandy Hausman/Radio IQ

For some girls, the story of Cinderella was about that handsome prince, but for one Charlottesville woman it was always about the shoe.

And this fall she’s launching footwear that promises to revolutionize the walking experience. 

In a small industrial park near Charlottesville’s downtown mall, a dozen 3-D printers are working round the clock to produce shoes designed by Harvard educated, NIH-funded Dr. Casey Kerrigan.  

Kerrigan built a laboratory at the University of Virginia to study the way people move. “We put markers down the body, and then there are these cameras around the room, and they pick up on where these markers are," Kerrigan explained.  "So we know exactly where the hip center is, the knee center, etc., and then they walk over these force plates, and from that we can assess how much impact there is at each of the joints.”

It turned out high heels boosted pressure on the knee joint by 26%. “Everyone knows that footwear designs,  high heeled shoes and women’s shoes in general, can be bad for the feet.  But this is the first time we showed that it’s bad for anything north of the feet,” Kerrigan said.

And it wasn’t just stilettos causing added strain on the joints.  Really, any heel increased pressure and Kerrigan said toe boxes were all wrong for women whose feet tend to be wider than a man’s on average. 

“You can trace your bare foot on a piece of paper," Kerrigan suggested.  "Now trace the shoe that you’re wearing, and you’ll see that your foot actually falls outside of the lines of the shoe.” Which means toes are being squeezed, increasing the risk of pain in the forefoot four fold. “Metatarsalgia and Morton’s neuroma – forefoot pain, really disabling, yes.”

Using the data she had gathered and a grant from the National Science Foundation she designed and began making athletic shoes and sandals that actually work for men as well as women.  She called her brand OESH.  “It’s the word shoe reinvented – the word shoe upside down and inside out," Kerrigan explained.

This new form of footwear follows a simple philosophy.  People who walk and run need a springy platform beneath their feet. “The material had to be a very springy, elastic material.  It can’t be foam, which is wonderful at cushioning but not good at providing spring, and we found that cushioning actually makes your joints work harder.”

The upper part of an OESH shoe is a stretchy fabric that breathes and gives, while the sole is made from a remarkably green material that feels a bit like hard rubber.

Credit Sandy Hausman/Radio IQ
The soles are created on 3-D printers.

“And this is completely recyclable, so we can take this sole, shred it up, and put it right back into those printers and print a whole new pair of sandals.  But it seems like a material that wouldn’t wear down all that easily.  No, they won’t.  We have one intern who hiked 4,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail in one pair.”

Maggie Rogers, who now helps design shoes for OESH, was an early adopter.  “After I’d been wearing OESH shoes for a while I put on my old hiking boots, and they just felt awful," Rogers remembered.  "I was like ‘How did I ever wear these?'”   

Since 2011, sales have doubled every year, and now Kerrigan is bracing for boom times with the launch of what looks like a ballet slipper.  Kerrigan calls it the dream shoe.  “Because this is a 20-year-old dream.  Ever since publishing our first paper showing that high heeled shoes increase impact on your knees, I’ve wanted to create this shoe that basically does no harm.  This is the first shoe that respects the woman’s body and her foot.  Finally! After 20 years!”

To launch the new line, she went to IndieGoGo – a crowdsourcing site – offering donors a substantial discount on the shoe.  She raised $30,000 in five days.

For more information visit  https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-dream-flat-by-oesh-shoes-women

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief