After 20 years in the fashion industry, much of it in footwear, Nelli Kim suddenly found herself unable to wear most of her shoes. "I was battling ovarian cancer and surprised to find myself suffering from chemo-related foot pain," she says, explaining that because of the related neuropathy, her feet had become highly sensitive, as if "all the nerves were on overdrive." Unable to wear the many designer shoes she had amassed in her years working with brands like Anthropologie, Bergdorf Goodman, and Diane Von Furstenberg, and sick of sneakers and orthopedic shoes, she began conceptualizing REDEN, a "radically comfortable" shoe for the people who need it most. "I have so much empathy for those with foot pain because it is unrelenting and distracting," she explains. "There were times I couldn't concentrate at work because of the pain. I would wake up in the middle of the night with foot cramps from what I had worn all day long. I knew there had to be a better way."
REDEN, which launched this month on Kickstarter, became her labor of love, and she developed it in consultation with A. Holly Johnson, MD, an Orthopedic Surgeon at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) and team physician for USA Ice Hockey. Inspired by a volunteer mission trip to India in 2014, Kim decided to produce her shoes there and use the proceeds to help others. "I could see the struggle that charities face, and thought, 'What if I could build a company where generosity is built into the business model, and support my favorite charities along the way?'" Already exceeding its funding goal of $25,000, REDEN will donate 50 percent of its net profits to charity, launching with a focus on cancer-related groups.
Starting in the shoe world as VP / Divisional Merchandise Manager of women's footwear at Bergdorf Goodman, and later working on product development, Kim moved into roles overseeing design, production, and wholesale teams. "My job was to understand macro-consumer trends and make sure the collections we were developing would resonate a year into the future when the consumer would actually purchase the shoes," she says, explaining that these experiences led to an understanding of the full life-cycle of a shoe.
In REDEN, Kim has put a premium on high-end design: The unisex "Purpose Loafer," for example, is inspired by Japanese-American designer George Nakashima's woodworking. "He masterfully used butterfly joints to repair naturally occurring seams and cracks in wood, not just salvaging the wood but elevating it into collectible and functional art. The butterfly joint is such a perfect metaphor for life and the idea that we are more beautiful because of our scars, not less."
"I felt there was space in the market for truly comfortable and elegant shoes after first-hand experiences from my battle with cancer. But no matter what price tier you were looking at, this type of shoe just didn't exist," according to Kim, who notes that previously most "comfort shoes" were made with a wider toe box or additional cushion, which often led to clunky-looking designs. "That is not the approach we took at REDEN," she adds, explaining that she researched and worked with an array of foot and bio-mechanical experts before coming up with a solution that is both stylish and functional.
Later, Kim put together a panel of colleagues, collaborators, and family members with different foot shapes and specific foot needs to wear-test the shoes and insoles. "Most conventional wear-testing is done using a standard foot model with standard foot proportions. While that process is helpful to make an ideally-proportioned shoe, it doesn't help if regular people do not have that type of foot. We wanted to make sure we got feedback from different types of feet that we could then apply to future fit-rounds."
A kick above
The internal design process for REDEN began with an exhaustive study of existing comfort-shoes and technologies across over 20 variables, including arch support, cushioning, flexibility, weight, and outsole composition. "To simplify, there are three main shoe components in every shoe: the upper, the outsole, and the insole." The upper was predetermined by how the team wanted it to look, but the key innovation lay in the design of the insole and outsole. In conventional dress shoes, the insole is not removable, providing the shoe's essential structure and support before the outsole is attached. "If you're lucky, the insole has extra cushioning built into it, and the shoe has a wider toe box for added comfort, but no arch support. We decided to make our insole removable and have it incorporate the best elements from aftermarket orthotics, but tailored for our specific shoes." Each of REDEN's outsoles is made of a lightweight rubber compound, chosen after evaluating various materials for weight, flexibility, and durability. "With every detail of the shoe considered, down to the lining system we used, to the little sliver of memory foam inserted into the heel to avoid blisters, our goal is for the shoes to be comfortable right out of the box—no breaking in required."
After a complicated multi-year design and prototyping process, the team wore-tested the shoes for the first time last year with resounding positive feedback. "We know we are building a shoe that will help a lot of people. I can speak from personal experience that I stopped having foot cramps after wearing REDEN shoes. Even sneakers are not as comfortable to me as our shoes," Kim adds, thrilled to be able to donate part of the proceeds to cancer-fighting charities. "It truly feels like a full-circle moment to be able to give back to such an important cause, and one that helped inspire our product too!"