Protégé Steps Up Comfort in Fashion-Forward Heels

by RaeAnne Marsh

Protégé is founder Candace Chen’s contribution to women’s fashion — and, actually, health — through high heels designed for painless wearability and that enable women to present their best, confident selves. “Our patent-pending comfort tech enables unmatched stability, comfort and four times longer wear time,” says Chen.

“I founded Protégé because I believe women shouldn’t have to choose between beauty and pain,” she says, noting that, within the $41.4 billion heels industry, women’s comfort is still not a consideration for the majority of the heels market. Women usually have to choose between more practical footwear or being forced to be uncomfortable in their heels. And she points out that most high heel designers are male and don’t wear their own creations, and thus focus solely on the aesthetics of a shoe. “But women deserve to both look good and feel good.”

As an MIT graduate with 10 years of experience in product design, Chen never thought she would find herself in the world of fashion. But after an especially painful day in heels — when a networking event evolved into a dance party and she came home with blister-covered feet and forefoot numbness — she determined to take on the challenge of engineering painless high heels.

Chen took an eminently practical approach to research: She spent a lot of time in lounges and restaurants all over Scottsdale and observed the most popular styles. She also listened attentively to what the major pain points were. After having a reliable understanding of all the ways high heels can cause pain and injury, Chen went to a thrift store and bought more than 20 pairs of heels, which she tore apart to learn how they were constructed. “I realized how little effort was being put into research and development of comfort and stability, and how much room there was for improvement,” she says, adding, “In fact, most heels were made with just a thin layer of plastic or cardboard.”

She started researching shoe design in 2019, and, 67 prototypes later, held a launch party in April 2021 and launched online sales the following September.

Heuristics Lift High Heels

“’Everybody knows something you don’t’” is the most valuable piece of advice I’ve received,” Chen shares. “It is an important reminder to listen with an open mind, though it is equally important to think critically and filter the information that you take in.

“The world of business is constantly evolving, and companies must continually innovate to stay ahead of the competition. One way to do this is by applying heuristics from one field to another. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help us make decisions efficiently, and while they are often specific to a particular domain, they can be surprisingly transferable to other fields. By using heuristics from unrelated fields, businesses can gain new insights and find innovative solutions to complex problems.”

In this case, she notes the heuristic of rebound rate optimization in the field of sports technology can be used to engineer high heels with greater shock absorption — which improves wearability and helps prevent injuries.

Style Moves

Her first Protégé Painless Stiletto is designed to reflect the most timeless and popular style worn anywhere, from casual settings to fashion shows all over the world, and can also be dressed up or down as work heels, date-night heels, for tradeshows or weddings or brunch with the besties.

The major obstacle to launching with an entire collection of styles had to do with capital and minimum order quantity (MOQ). Factories require a certain MOQ of each design in order to place an order, which correspondingly requires a certain level of inventory capital. Despite this challenge, Chen reports, “Protege is growing its revenue and style offerings three to five times annually and is positioned to scale to eight figures in five years.”

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