When Aetrex Worldwide decided to pump up the fashion in its women’s footwear, it turned to industry veteran Susan Ryder. With her technical and style background, Ryder was a good fit for the Teaneck, N.J.-based company, which wanted to stay true to its roots as a therapeutic resource.
“I draw from both my skill sets: my biomechanical expertise in athletics and my fashion background,” said Ryder, who joined Aetrex 18 months ago following design stints at Nike, Reebok and Stride Rite.
As Aetrex’s first director of women’s product, Ryder oversees both the company’s core therapeutic line, as well as Essence, a series of everyday comfort looks. For her first challenge, Ryder revamped Essence for the spring ’09 collection.
While updating the styling of the line, which now includes everything from sophisticated sneakers to crocodile-print mocs, Ryder said she also aimed to incorporate Aetrex’s existing features, most notably its patented Mozaic Customization technology, which allows wearers to create their own one-of-kind insole. “I work closely with those [at Aetrex] who are entrenched in the science and technology behind the footwear,” Ryder said. “As a team, I believe we can bring that designer presence to the category, while delivering shoes that have added biomechanical benefits.”
Ryder also worked on the development of the Sandalista collection, Aetrex’s first sandal line. Introduced this past spring, the sandals feature a customizable removable footbed to appeal to today’s comfort customers.
To design footwear from the inside out, Ryder said she constantly taps into her performance know-how. “I’m not just sketching a shoe,” she said. “I bring a technical point of view to the picture.”
1. Who do you have in mind when you’re designing?
SR: The Aetrex consumer has great taste in footwear. Her preferences tilt toward classic, with a lively and unexpected quality. I don’t think of her as having any particular age, but she demands quality and refuses to suffer in uncomfortable shoes. She knows what’s out there and is picky about what she actually spends her money on. She only buys what she’s absolutely in love with. Really, I’m describing myself, my friends and my entire family.
2. What are the top three comfort features in the Essence line?
SR: Customization: Aetrex’s Mozaic Customization technology and our iStep technology allow you to instantly customize your shoes by removing pieces of the footbed where you have the most pressure. The relief is immediate. Also, cushioning: The Essence collection has polyurethane midsoles to ensure that our shoes will never “bottom out.” Polyurethane is the king of cushioning foams. And finally, fit: Aetrex has more than 30 certified pedorthists on staff, and for a pedorthist, fit is the most important aspect of the shoe. We know how a shoe should feel on your foot, and we never lose focus on that.
3. Essence has three sub collections: Spirit, Elegance and Living. How are they different?
SR: The Spirit collection is a fun, vibrant shoe for the active woman on the go. This is a great weekend shoe you’ll want to wear hanging out with friends, running errands or shopping. The Elegance collection is a timeless shoe for when you want to look your best. It’s great to wear to work, when traveling or anytime you want a more tailored look. The Living collection is a casual style that offers the ultimate in comfort and function. This is a great shoe for going on a walk or when you want extra cushioning.
4. Is the term “comfort” abused today?
SR: Comfort is relative, of course. There are claims that when a shoe doesn’t actually cause pain, it’s considered comfortable. That’s a pretty low bar. As a company known for medically oriented foot-care products, with a vision to keep people feeling good on their feet, the bar at Aetrex is as high as it gets.
5. How do you plan to put the cool factor in comfort?
SR: Cool is nice, but I’m really aiming for gorgeous and cool. My tools for doing that are flattering last shapes, elegant detailing and upgraded materials, in addition to functional and cool-looking technologies. I know I’ve succeeded if a woman picks up the shoe and responds on an emotional level. She is choosing a comfort shoe because she knows it’s good for her feet, but it’s also important to provide an element of delight.
6. If all shoes could be made equally comfortable, what would be your dream shoe?
SR: I try on hundreds of shoes a year and I only find one or two that make me fall in love. I look for shoes with great fit, craftsmanship and quality of materials. Of course, my dream shoe would make me look like a supermodel and feel like an athlete.
7. How do you tap into your athletic roots in building the collection?
SR: Working on athletic shoes, I’ve watched countless hours of high-speed films of people doing various athletic movements, including walking and running. I think about how the foot interacts with the shoe when designing lasts, components and selecting materials. Of course, the athletic tool box has foams and molded components and cool meshes. The new Aetrex collection has athletic-inspired TPU heel stabilizers and medial support pods to control the way your foot interacts with the ground. Applying these to the fashion comfort side of the business makes the shoes really fresh.
8. Who are your three favorite footwear designers?
SR: I love Prada, Christian Louboutin and Lanvin. They play with shapes and proportions in new ways and use innovative detailing and luxurious materials.
9. What can a female designer bring to a woman’s brand that a man can’t?
SR: Actually, I’ve spent most of my career arguing that a good designer can design for any gender. I’ve designed a lot of successful men’s cleated shoes, for instance. Having said that, I don’t know too many men who choose to go shoe shopping with their friends for fun, so women have the added benefit of greater interaction with retailers and shoppers. I have a personal stake in this. In the end, I get to wear my shoes and I am their biggest critic.
10. What celebrity would you choose to be an Essence spokesperson?
SR: The entire Essence collection is named after first ladies. We thought it made sense given our classic design point of view. So the obvious choice for a spokesperson would be the new first lady. [Michelle Obama] is on her feet a lot and would love us.