When Dr. Casey Kerrigan, who was working for one of the top three shoe manufacturing companies in the world, realized her employer wouldn’t be able to develop the biomechanically engineered shoe that she knew she needed to make, she quit her job and did it herself.
“I had to figure out how to do it if I wanted to do it right,” she says. “I came to the realization—and they did, too—that what I wanted to do was go back to zero. They could use some of the technology I had, but I really needed to change the actual shape of the shoe.”
Kerrigan is the chairman of OESH Shoes, the only company devoted to making footwear designed for women on principles of peer-reviewed medical science, which has disrupted the industry and established its own cult following since 2011. In fact, one OESHer—a title given to loyal customers—has just bought her 29th pair.
Perhaps you’ve heard Kerrigan’s name before. The Harvard M.D. is well known for her 20 years of research on human motion and forces during walking and running, and for being the woman who first discovered the link between wearing high heels and knee osteoarthritis in 1998, when she was invited to appear on ABC’s “20/20” and in the pages of the New York Times and Time magazine.
Kerrigan was recruited to be the chair of the UVA School of Medicine’s department of physical medicine and rehab in 2002, and she “published like crazy” until leaving that job to pursue one in the footwear industry in 2009.
Step by step
A row of 3-D printers lines the wall in Kerrigan’s small Dale Avenue factory, where countless research articles she’s written are tacked up on display next to a dozen of her footwear designs. Shoeboxes are stacked from floor to ceiling.
She pours a handful of rubber pellets—the same kind used to make bouncy balls—into the machine, turns it on and stands by as it begins to trace the outline of a pair of sandal soles. It’ll take about four and half hours to print these shoes, though the scientist says she’s developed a new auger that will cut that time down by at least two-thirds. Then a human will strap the shoes—everything from sandals and sneakers to clogs and an alpargata-style shoe—and they’ll be up for sale.
She explains that the OESH approach is all about the sole. Most athletic shoes are designed using toxic foam materials to cushion heel impact, and control foot movement with a one-size-fits-all approach, but Kerrigan says peak stresses and strains on the body don’t occur during heel impact and it’s not healthy to force all feet into the same generic form.
When an OESHer takes a step in Kerrigan’s perfectly flat footwear, the elastic spring compresses and releases energy that supports the natural movement from that step to the next.
Why just for women? “Frankly, women need these shoes the most,” she says, because females have twice as many foot, knee, hip and lower extremity issues than men. “There’s always some guy who asks, ‘When are you making men’s shoes?’” Kerrigan adds. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m taking care of women first.”
At OESH, every year has been a record year, and Kerrigan says the ability to scale up, on demand, “is just ridiculous.”
While she has another small facility in Waynesboro, the biomechanist says her company has outgrown it. She’s now working with a shoe factory in China where she could potentially replace outdated machinery with her cutting-edge technology and make “gobs of them.”
As for scaling up domestically, Kerrigan says OESH employees build the 3-D printers themselves and have all the equipment on-hand to build a new one in less than three hours. The shelves that hold her current machines are extendable, and she’s considering making a few dozen more to total 42 printers in just her Charlottesville workshop.
Because she’s also developing technology to increase the speed of manufacturing, Kerrigan says each printer will soon be able to make 20 pairs of shoes a day—which could soon have all the biggest footwear manufacturers shaking in their boots.
“Do the math,” she quips. “We are now rivaling any factory in China with just a wall of printers here in Charlottesville.”