Portrait of Haley Pavone, founder of Pashion Footwear, at Lincoln Park Steps in San Francisco, CA USA. Photo by Winni Wintermeyer for Financial Times.
Haley Pavone had the idea for Pashion when she was on a night out with friends while still an undergraduate © WINNI WINTERMEYER

When Haley Pavone, founder of Pashion footwear, pitches her innovative high-heeled shoe business to (overwhelmingly male) sneaker-wearing venture capitalists, she often suggests that they discuss the idea with their wives. Those who follow the 23-year-old’s advice tend to return less sceptical and more intrigued, she says. “It’s worked every time, it’s really funny.”

Pashion produces heels that turn into flats. The idea is simple: when a pair of stilettos is making the balls of your feet burn, you should be able to fix the problem without going barefoot, sitting down or changing shoes. Pashion allows women to take the heel off, but keep their shoes on.

Pashion’s shoes do not contain the metal rods that give stilettos their characteristic arch. They use flexible materials — similar to those used in trainers — that allow the sole to flatten out when the heel is unscrewed. The company also claims that its shoes are the “only heels on the market with a comfortable insole.”

Venture capitalists often don’t grasp the high-heel problem during Ms Pavone’s pitch. “I end up spending eight of my 10 [pitching] minutes explaining why women would want this, because they’re like, ‘Do heels really hurt that bad? My wife wears them all the time.’” This is why Ms Pavone suggests the VCs call their spouses.

Pashion has been three years in development and has raised $1.7m. It launched its first line in June. There is a team of 14, including four employees, plus the board and contractors. It is one of a wave of US female-led fashion start-ups making practical and comfortable products. Others include lingerie company ThirdLove, which offers half-cup bra sizing and a mobile app that lets women measure themselves at home, and True&Co, which fits bras remotely using a quiz.

Ms Pavone had the idea for Pashion when she was on a night out with friends while still an undergraduate in San Luis Obispo, California (where the company is still based). After removing her uncomfortable heels and going barefoot on the dance floor, another woman’s heel impaled her foot. The incident reminded Ms Pavone, who was majoring in entrepreneurship, that one of her professors at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business had said that the most profitable products “usually solve some kind of pain.” In the circumstances, this hit a nerve.

To Ms Pavone’s knowledge, no other company has tried to create heels that turn into flats, and she is unaware of any copycat products. She has patents pending in 30 countries.

Such innovation is not always an advantage. Some potential investors, she says, are concerned about such a simple idea’s potential precisely because no one has tried to do it before. Ms Pavone thinks this oversight is likely to have happened because leaders in the male-dominated fashion and footwear industries have perhaps been less aware of, or interested in, women’s pain. Then there is the cost: shoes with removable heels are complicated and expensive to make (Pashion’s start at $145).

Women still buy a lot of high heels. One study by Research Reports World estimated that the global heels market was worth $34bn in 2018. This is despite studies showing that wearing heels can cause long-term back and foot pain.

“Half the population deals with this on a pretty regular basis, and no one has really ever made an effort to solve it,” says Ms Pavone.

Being a young female founder trying to solve a women-focused problem in a male-dominated industry has other drawbacks. When pitching alongside men who are similar in age or even younger than Ms Pavone, she says that, “I’m the only one that’s asked about my age and experience.”

Research by the Axios news website found that in 2018 only 10 per cent of decision makers at US VC firms were women, while only about 2 per cent of US funding goes to female founders.

But being young also has its benefits. Starting the company as an undergraduate gave Ms Pavone access to student pitching competitions, university resources and expertise that she may not otherwise have had.

“Starting it as a student was a big asset because of how many opportunities are made available to students,” she says. “As hectic as it was to be in both full time, part time school and work, I think it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.” She raised $450,000 before graduating, and was able to file her patent with the help of an Orfalea College alumnus at a “pretty severe discount”.

Ms Pavone appears every bit the confident Californian founder, on top of problems and brimming with ideas. But she has already weathered a crisis. Nine months ago, Pashion nearly went under.

The company began running out of money in November, and by January Ms Pavone had 30 days to raise $1m to avoid going bankrupt. She was unable to pay her employees for a month, had to negotiate with suppliers and took out a personal loan. Then, on the final day, she secured $1.25m in a round led by angel investor Forrest Fleming and venture capitalists Entrada Ventures.

She is confident it won’t happen again. “Now we’re in a situation where the only time we’d be raising . . . is because we’re growing . . . I feel comfortable.” Ms Pavone says she expects to raise more funds next year. The company has not yet disclosed customer numbers or sales figures.

Ms Pavone says the next hurdles are working out how to make Pashion’s product better known, and reassuring customers that the shoes won’t break. It advertises on social media and if it stops posting for even a few days, website traffic “drops off”, she says.

I ask whether any women should be wearing heels given the health issues. Ms Pavone says research has shown that many women feel more “confident” and “powerful” in them. She tends to wear them for formal events. “It’s a psychological thing — although it’s probably the fashion industry giving me subliminal messages,” she says.

And in her view, Pashion’s shoes are “empowering”, precisely because they give women a choice. “Maybe I do only want to wear heels because it was a message given to me by men. But I’m 23 and if I’m going out I want to wear heels. But I don’t want to be in pain on my walk home at one in the morning.”

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