Lichfield shoe designer Shaherazad Umbreen has the answer to every girl’s shoe dilemma; gorgeous heels which are actually comfortable to wear. And her business is helping women worldwide on a much more in-depth level. Amy Norbury discovers more
It’s a problem faced by women the world over; the eternal struggle between your favourite pair of heels – you know, the ones which elongate your legs with their super slender and precariously high heel and make you feel like a million dollars despite the fact that you can barely walk ten paces in them – and the ones you can actually wear for more than a few minutes without feeling the pinch of squished toes and the burn of sore soles, but you just don’t love?
A stylish heel which feels as good as it looks is the holy grail of shoes, coveted by every footwear-loving fashionista.
The answer? Well, it’s all down to flamingos. It was these most elegant of birds, seen perching precariously on spindle-like legs with ease, which provided the inspiration for Lichfield businesswoman Shaherazad Umbreen’s revolutionary heels, which guarantee 18 hours of pain-free wear – enough to take you from the boardroom to the bar while looking seriously stylish in the process.
“Flamingos are able to stand for hours on end, often balanced on one leg, with grace and elegance,” says Shaherazad.
“I discovered that this is to do with balance and body weight distribution; flamingos are unique in how they stand, and I was inspired to capture their secret in a pair of shoes. It’s all about the maths, but no-one has applied that to shoes before.
“I’ve always loved shoes, and I’ve been guilty of buying so many pairs which I don’t wear. So I thought, what if you could buy less, but buy better? And if you’re going to buy less, how can one pair of shoes have a different style for different times of the day?”
And so, Shoes by Shaherazad was born. Skilfully hand-crafted using the finest leather right here in Britain and then “sealed with a machine kiss”, as Shaherazad puts it, to ensure durability, these shoes offer a real taste of luxury while achieving that all-important comfort.
With no experience in design, 40-year-old Shaherazad enrolled at the London College of Fashion, studying every weekend for months while working full time as head of marketing at the Co-op headquarters in Lichfield – all of which involved travelling cross-country on a weekly basis.
“I actually hand-crafted the first few pairs myself, to make sure I understood the process,” says Shaherazad.
“The very first one was a flat, which I made so I could learn how to mould the leather; I was so proud of it I was running around the Co-op office showing everyone!
“Then the first pair of heels I made broke – you couldn’t have stood on those! It takes practice, time and understanding to get it right. I went to look round the factory to see how it’s done; shoes aren’t hand-crafted very often any more, they’re made by robots, but because of the price point and the luxury element, and because I didn’t want to waste the beautiful leather, mine are hand-crafted.
“In the factory I was taught what I needed to do, and they used my design and my mathematics to come up with the eventual shoe and the eventual concept.”
And so, after much research and development, the 18 Hour Heel was born. A classic Mary Jane-style court shoe available in black, red and blush pink, it offers the perfect dynamic for comfort in terms of heel height and shape.
And it doesn’t stop there. Once customers have chosen their base shoe, they can add a range of gorgeous ‘shoellery’ – clip-on accessories which change the look of their heels in an instant, perfect for jazzing up your workday shoes ready for an evening on the tiles.
The embellishments are created by Barry Abbotts, a specialist metal worker in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, who brings Shaherazad’s innovative creations to life.
“The shoellery clips are a really exciting addition to the 18 hour heels,” says Shaherazad, who lives in Birmingham. “They are a completely new concept and mean you can wear your heels in the day and then add a new design created here in Birmingham to make them look like a different pair of heels for the evening.”
Shoes by Shaherazad launched online in April last year to critical acclaim from fashionistas and shoe lovers looking for a comfy heel. Shaherazad has swiftly built up a celebrity following too; British model and television presenter Alexa Chung, Coronation Street actress Jane Danson and acclaimed make-up artist Charlotte Tilbury have all been spotted in their 18 Hour Heels.
“We’ve had a lot of customers coming back for more too,” says Shaherazad. “Around 60 per cent of women who have bought a pair have then gone onto buy a second pair in a different colour. And people then buy extra shoellery, which is fantastic.”
But there’s so much more to Shoes by Shaherazad than just fashion; the business was set up with the empowerment of women firmly at the forefront. And not just by providing a pain-free heel.
Shaherazad says: “I wanted to bring together my passion for women’s rights, my love of shoes and my experience in business. The essence of it is very much to empower women; women who can afford to spend £200 or £250 on a pair of shoes can then empower other women who can’t afford to do that.
“Women have been held back throughout history; yes we’ve moved forwards but in the grand scheme of things it’s not been that long that women have had the vote, and in a lot of countries across the world women still can’t go to school. I wanted to find a way to change that.”
Every pair of shoes sold supports a woman or girl living in poverty. Shoes by Shaherazad has partnered with Global Giving, which is based in London, to source worthy causes to get directly involved with, rather than just donating to charity.
“At the moment we’ve got five projects which we support,” says Shaherazad. “One project in Kenya is a sewing room and a computer room so teenage girls, often who are pregnant and have been kicked out of their homes, can learn how to sew and can learn basic business skills. The money we gave funded the sewing machines and the school, and the girls go on to set up their own businesses which they can get a grant for.”
Other projects include an entrepreneur project in Kenya, which helps girls who have received some education to develop that into a career; a primary education project in Pakistan which funds costs associated with getting girls from poverty-stricken families to school, such as food and transport; and an entrepreneur project in Palestine which helps girls to learn business skills and computer skills.
Shaherazad’s latest involvement in Peru is a particularly poignant project.
“In Peru, a huge amount of the female population end up in domestic labour from the age of four years old,” says Shaherazad. “A family will have a young girl doing all the chores and all they get in return is a roof over their heads; a lot of them get beaten and abused, but because they grow up in that environment they don’t have the skills to challenge the situation or change their lives. We fund a skills Sunday school where girls can learn life skills to enable them to break out of that cycle.
“I gave 100 per cent of the profits last year and helped 700 women through our projects,” adds Shaherazad. “Ultimately, my aim is to give 10 per cent of the profits and invest everything else back into the business to ensure it is sustainable and we can keep helping more women.
“Eventually we want to work in every country where women and girls live in poverty or need educational support, including this one.”
Shaherazad refers to herself as a “philoshoepher”, someone who believes in good deeds and good shoes, which perfectly sums up her business.
“I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved and how many women we’ve helped already,” says Shaherazad. “We see the photos and know the names of all the girls we’ve worked with and get letters and emails, which makes it all feel more real than just donating money to charity.
“These shoes are made to bring happiness to the women who wear them; and it’s these women who will then go on and bring happiness to other women in the world.”
For more information visit www.shoesbyshaherazad.com or find 18 Hour Heels and Shoes by Shaherazad on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.