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Fashion disruptor: Marion Parke

According to Marion Parke, the maxim “beauty is pain” definitely doesn’t need to apply to shoes. While studying to become a podiatric surgeon, Parke had an idea: “I was learning how to treat people who have naturally high arches, and it occurred to me that some of these problems—a tendency to walk on the outside edge of the foot (which leads to ankle fatigue, instability, and sprains), tight calf muscles, and focal pain in the heel and certain toes—were the same ones that women encounter in high heels.”

Close to a decade later, with a residency and a few years of surgical practice under her belt, Parke noticed that conversations with patients often turned to footwear. “So many people would say to me, ‘you should go on the news and tell people what to look for when shopping for shoes,’” she recalls. So, she revisited the kernel of an idea from years past, and Marion Parke, the shoe line, was born. Instead of marketing her brand as a “comfort” collection, she prioritizes “wearability” and high fashion.

Parke talked to Furthermore about navigating very different industries, creating chic, easy-to-wear shoes, and being empowered by her children (ages two and five, with a third on the way).

When did Marion Parke officially start?

I registered the LLC and patent application in 2014, went to Italy to select a factory for the first time in 2014, and delivered our first shipment in 2015 for the spring 2016 collection. When I started the company, I was still practicing as a surgeon, and that continued for about a year and a half.

How did you balance both jobs?

For me, the old ‘don’t quit your day job’ saying was very important, though I did get to the point where I saw tangible signs that the company was going to work and was the right thing to focus on. I found that in fashion, there’s a lot of travel involved. I would be doing surgery and then immediately have to fly to Italy. I think my partners were ready to kill me! Eventually I thought ‘I can’t keep doing this.’

How would you describe the similarities and differences of these two industries?

Obviously, neither one is a part-time job. Being a doctor is full-time, and you’re working holidays, weekends, and nights. Owning your own business is very similar—I’ll be sending emails out to my employees at 5 a.m. I loved surgery and I miss it a lot, but I feel like this job has been even more of a challenge. When you get trained surgically as a doctor, you learn step-wise systems for handling certain problems and diseases (although, of course, there are medical curveballs, too). As an entrepreneur, I’m learning a lot on the fly. One of the big differences in medicine is the intrinsic nature of altruism and everyone being there ‘for the right reasons.’ Transitioning into the business world, I’ve found people who are honest and easy to work with, but I know that’s not always the case. In the healthcare profession, people get held to a higher standard, I think.

What is the ethos behind the company?

Shoes are typically designed by men not women, but it’s women who have to think practically about functioning in them. The ethos of the brand is to empower women, so they can be their composed, confident selves without being distracted by an aching foot or an uncomfortable shoe. I grew frustrated with the shoes in my closet—I knew they were well-made and expensive, but I thought, ‘could I elevate these using what I know as a podiatric surgeon?’ A lot of companies both large and small have tried to marry these ideas of fashion and wearability, but I wanted to make a shoe that appeals to the woman who is shopping heritage brands, Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik—that level of designer. I avoid the phrase ‘comfort shoe’, because when you say that in the footwear space, people think ‘grandma.’ I like to use the word ‘wearable.’

How and where are the shoes made?

We produce right outside of Florence. When I first went, I brought sketches and a prototype I’d developed with the person who made orthotics for my patients. I didn’t know about patternmaking or technical execution, so that trip was a crash course in a lot of ways. I found out that the first step is using a three-dimensional shoe mold called a “last”, which dictates heel height, toe shape, and the volume of the toe box—the leather gets molded around this. Often, the reason a shoe won’t fit well is because the factory will cut corners and use an existing last that wasn’t intended for that kind of shoe. Also, I learned that the typical insole used in Italian factories is literally a flat piece of cardboard wrapped in leather. Because our insoles actually had contouring and sculpting for comfort and fit, we had to modify our molds and machinery. We start from the very beginning and dial everything down to the millimeter and where the shoe hits certain bones. All the leather we source from the same tanneries as other luxury brands.

Where do you get your design inspiration?

A lot of my inspiration comes from a void in my closet. I’ll look at a dress or a pair of pants and think ‘what shoe would I want to wear with this?’ I’m also a museum junkie and look at a lot of art and sculpture; for example, we had a collection a couple of years ago that was inspired by the artist Frank Stella. The tanneries really dictate color trends each season, too.

What are some of your favorite clothing brands?

Since starting my own business, I’ve been giving emerging designers even more of a chance. I really like Johanna Ortiz and Adam Lippes. I just bought my first pair of sunglasses from Krewe. Everybody gets copied in this industry, but to support newer brands who have a fresh perspective is great, especially because so many are designed by women.

What are your favorite styles from your line?

The ‘Bernadette’ sandal and the ‘Mitchell’ Mary Janes. They’ve been in the line from the very first collection and are our top-sellers, so it’s kind of hard not to love them. Mary Janes are just so classic, they look good on everyone. Both my 75-year-old mother and 19-year-old niece wear them.

What’s your fitness routine?

I really like barre classes. One thing I do every single morning without fail is stretch my calves. I’ve seen so many achilles tendon ruptures (which have such a long healing process) and I’ve had plantar fasciitis, so I think stretching your calves is really important.

What about your wellness routine?

I try to get a massage every couple of months. For skincare, because my skin is really sensitive right now with pregnancy, I’ve transitioned over to some milder brands without salicyclic acid, like Drunk Elephant. I try to eat with moderation and, since I have kids, I’m always trying to set a good example by eating lots of vegetables.

Who or what empowers you?

I had a fantastic female mentor in my residency who really helped me to feel empowered. When I was in my twenties, I remember male patients looking at me and saying ‘you’re my surgeon?’ I’d see her treating these tough-guy males in their 60s and that taught me confidence and composure. My husband also gives me the confidence that I can go out and try something and even if I fail, at least I tried. Having a family gives you a different perspective on things and makes you think about whether or not you’re spending your time wisely. I want to achieve and accomplish things for them and be a role model, especially for my daughter.

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