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Salford start-up is taking on shoe manufacturing the world and aiming to change the way we buy shoes.

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Gaynor Thomasson founded Heelz and Toez (formerly It’s All About Shoes) in 2017 with the intention of inspiring change within the global footwear industry, focusing on fashion, comfort and sustainability.

Her patent for the world’s first modular designed shoe will make footwear more comfortable, customisable and better for the environment.

Gaynor talks to GM Business Growth Hub about how the Innovation Voucher Scheme has helped It’s Heelz and Toez to grow, taking on two new members of staff and generating £300k of income to pay for the costs of her patent.

It’s time to think differently about shoes

The statistics show that only 36% of shoes actually fit when tried on, which is incredibly low, so there’s clearly a problem with the way we’re making them, and the concept for It’s Heelz and Toez came to me in a few ways.

Firstly, I have three daughters and we used to spend our summers in Italy, so you can imagine how much excess luggage we needed in order to pack all of our shoes. They take up such a lot of space, so that started me thinking about how simple it should be to create shoes that you can adjust to change their fit and appearance, meaning you wouldn’t need to pack so many.

Another thing that got me thinking was when my goddaughter got married. She has a club foot and couldn’t find a pretty pair of shoes to fit her, which really upset me, because shouldn’t everyone be able to feel pretty on their wedding day? I went to Florence and learned how to make shoes so that I could give her a pretty pair of sandals that she could wear.

People would arrive from all over the world to have their feet measured and have shoes made for them, but it only took miniscule adjustments to get them to fit perfectly. It made me think, surely this can be done without having to travel halfway around the world?

My South African background also played a part. We’re brought up to care about our environment and to think about conservation, it’s a big part of our schooling, so a situation where 140 million shoes go into landfill every week is ridiculous and we need to fix it.

Our patent is for a modular base with a sliding mechanism that can be implemented into the sole of any shoe with straps that can be manoeuvred to give perfect comfort. Even better, when you’ve finished with the shoe you can take the straps off and that makes them a lot easier to recycle than most regular shoes.

It’s important to get help when you’re starting out

One of the first challenges for me was convincing people to get involved. The Italians have been doing this for so long and they weren’t interested in trying things a different way, and I don’t think they were keen on being told that their shoes didn’t fit either! They also hadn’t been forced to start thinking about sustainability yet, but I think that’s starting to change now.

Another of the things I struggled with at the start was growing the business without other people involved and it’s been a big help going on programmes and workshops that the Hub found for me. The sessions themselves are great but it’s meeting the people on them that has been so beneficial. It’s incredibly motivating when you’re having a tough time to be able to talk to other people in the same boat.

The Hub has transformed my business

I wouldn’t have been able to do this without Innovation advisor Karen Dudley from the Hub, and I can’t say that strongly enough! The cost of the patent was huge, and I was having to work two jobs just to pay the lawyer and support my family at the same time. Whenever I had enough money saved to move forward with the development, another legal bill would come in for the patent.

When I met Karen, I didn’t know what my next steps could be but she’s very proactive and really got me going again. She checks up on me to make sure I’m following up on what we’ve discussed! She found a plastics specialist for me and she’s put me on various courses from the Hub and the NatWest Accelerator Programme, which has been amazing.

Lockdown has brought opportunities

Before lockdown, I used to have to travel to Italy a lot for meetings at the factory, but now these have switched to Zoom calls, while our new designer has been able to do more of the coordinating at that end which has saved me from needing to fly over. This could have been a problem but has actually turned out to be a benefit.

Because the factories were shut down, all the designers and engineers were at home, so this became an incredibly productive time for us. They couldn’t be distracted by all the other parts of their jobs, so we actually made a lot of progress over Zoom. So there have been some positives for us.

The current restrictions and concerns around trying on shoes also has some benefits for our idea, because we’re making shoes that can be adjusted to fit perfectly, which saves all of the complications around trying on different pairs of shoes.

There are even more exciting times to come

We’ve also started a children’s shoe project with a really good manufacturer in Portugal that uses an algae-based plastic so we’re starting production with that soon, while aiming for a major launch for our shoes from Italy in February 2021. It’s been put back from October because of COVID-19 and the travel restrictions, but hopefully things will be easier in 2021 in that sense.

Something else I’m really hoping for in the future is to be able to make our shoes in Manchester and Salford, but so far we haven’t been able to convince anyone to take it on here. Both my parents were engineers that were qualified in Manchester and we’re so proud to be based here, so I would love to do it here instead of going abroad for everything.

It’s such a diverse project and we’ve got big plans so it would be great for it to be known as having come from Manchester.

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