Can Comfort Shoes Be Chic? One Designer Explains How

ECCO's chief women's designer, Niki Tæstensen, discusses the balancing act between form and function.

Chic Comfort shoes
(Image credit: Marie Claire)

In fashion, comfort is oft considered a very uncomfortable word. Beauty is pain, and let's face it: Shoes are some of the most beautiful accessories a woman can wear. So when ECCO, a Scandinavian footwear company known for producing the world's leading "comfort shoes," invited me to come to their flagship in Copenhagen, Denmark, I was skeptical but hopeful. After all, as much as I love mile-high heels and towering wedges, strappy stilettos and powerful pumps, I can hardly walk a few steps in them without looking for an exit strategy.

I had the chance to meet some of the designers behind the line at ECCO's annual Walk in Style awards show (read our recap of it here!), a charity gala that kicks off Copenhagen Fashion Week and brings awareness to humanitarian issues facing women around the world. Before the main event, I chatted with ECCO's chief designer of women's shoes, Niki Tæstensen, about the balancing act between style and comfort.

What brought you to ECCO?

I have been working at ECCO for 18 years, so that's quite a long time. I was barely 16 when I began an apprenticeship at ECCO. I come from a family of shoemakers. My father made shoes, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandfather… So I've been in the shoe business since I was, oh, two years old.

It's a daunting task to take something like comfort shoes and attempt to add a fashion spin to it. Is it challenging?

Yes, of course. That's always a big challenge, but it's not impossible. Very often, people think it's a contradiction, which we don't necessarily say. Just because something is high doesn't mean it has to hurt. Just because it's comfortable doesn't mean it has to be ugly. Of course, it requires a bit more thinking. Your foot has a certain volume, it has a certain measurement and size, and then you need to design around that to make it as beautiful as you can, to make it light and elegant-looking. However, other brands, they look at only aesthetics, which is not easy but it's easier. And then they don't care if they fit or not.

And whereas other brands follow trends, do you steer clear of them? How important are seasonal trends to what you are creating?

We do have overall big trends, but they are more like a spice. When you're baking a cake, if it's a banana cake, you would not only put in bananas because then it's not tasty. You would need other spices. So, those very big trends are good for the fine things in the end. Showing you the colors, which give you the "feeling" about the product. But the general shape — if it's pointed, if it's a heel, the overall sculpturing of the shoe #&8212; is very much something that comes from other things. They're inspired by architecture or by art. We have a Sculptured line that we call "The Most Comfortable High Heel on Earth." So, we have the Sculptured 35, the Sculptured 65, and next season, in winter, we're launching the Sculptured 75, which is a 75-millimeter high heel, which we claim to be the most comfortable. That's a brand-new thing, and it's a real anchor product that mixes our whole DNA, our whole technology, our whole knowledge about vanity and preferences all into one product. It is very Scandinavian. Still very much about "more is less."

Chic comfort

(Image credit: Marie Claire)

As a designer, do you find that your goals conflict with the engineers who are more concerned with function than form?

No, not really. It's not something we talk too much about. It's like, if you go ten years back and you buy a car, their talk was very big on airbags. Now, they don't even mention it anymore because people just expect there's an airbag in there. That's ECCO. you don't need to talk so much about comfort any more because that's a given. So what we're working on now is looks and aesthetics. And of course they're comfortable. Everything is built on the foundation that they are made for comfort. I also don't see the point in creating something that is really beautiful but that you cannot wear.

Which is pretty much every other shoe I try on. Why are the painful ones so popular then?

Because it's easy. Designing a beautiful shoe for a woman is not difficult, especially if you do not have to think about how to cover the volume of the foot. That is the difficulty — in pushing the technology and the engineering to make them wearable all day long.

Do you see the fashion labels as your competition?

Fashionable is a word we don't like to use too much because we are not necessarily claiming that we're the most fashionable. We prefer the word style. In our mind, fashion is either super-expensive or has a tendency to be rather cheap. Fashion is also something that comes and goes very fast. You buy it and the next day, you throw it away. What we are trying to do is to much more sustainable. We're trying to embrace something that you like today and will also like tomorrow. It's a fine balance &$8212; the challenge of creating something that is simplistic and beautiful is that it cannot get boring. You always have to have that one twist that makes it attractive but not something that you get sick and tired of after awhile.

I often say when you listen to a song on the radio and you really like it and then you buy the album… We are all the other songs, not the hit. Because the hit is the one you can't stand any longer after awhile, and then you fall in love with all the other numbers. So, the more you listen to it, look at it, wear it, the more you love it. And then it's something you want to keep. We never want to be the one-hit wonder.