She was using her mechanical engineering degree at a high-end golf equipment company, designing shipping boxes that efficiently used space while ensuring the valuable contents arrived at their destinations in pristine condition.
So when faced with the challenge of creating a comfortable and stylish stiletto that required cleverly squeezing as much padding and pressure-relieving foam into as few inches as possible, this was perfectly in Protégé founder Candace Chen’s wheelhouse.
The fact that she is a woman designing and building shoes for women is the icing on the cake. Historically, women's shoes have been designed by men. And because engineering remains a male-dominated field, it’s common for shoe companies, even those with women owners and designers, to hire an engineer—who’s almost always a man—to bring their visions to life.
In either case, Chen explains that most women's shoes, especially those from high-profile fashion houses, are designed or made by men who’ll never know what it’s like to wear them.
“Being a woman and mechanical engineer, I’m the best one to tackle this problem because of this unique combination,” Chen says.
The result is Chen’s line of gorgeous dress shoes that aesthetically hold their own next to the luxe labels on the market, but without the agony.
Since selling her first stilettos in 2021, positive feedback has not only sustained Protégé, but also sparked new styles that Chen is rolling out, each based on customers’ wish lists. This includes a dressy block heel with a cute detachable bow, a closed-toed slingback, and a bridal heel featuring a wear-it-how-you-want bow.
Growing up in the fashion-forward city of Los Angeles, one may assume that owning a luxury shoe line was a natural evolution in Chen’s career. However, as a kid, she would be more likely to be found dismantling and building rather than obsessing over each page in Vogue or Elle.
“I was playing around with Legos, building stuff out of cardboard, anything I could find. I loved working with my hands and making things and was obsessed with a woodshop class I took when I was 12 years old,” Chen recalls. “Clothing and fashion were not what I thought I would be doing.”
And that may have been the case for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate if not for a daytime networking event that extended to a happy hour-turned-dancing the night away in Old Town Scottsdale.
After 10 hours in pretty but painful heels, Chen suffered the numbness, chafing, and blisters that most women are all too familiar with.
“There’s no reason women should have to suffer this pain. Why haven’t high heels been designed to be comfortable, especially with all the technology that currently exists?” Chen questioned at the time.
But instead of accepting this fate, Chen tapped into her childhood passion. She purchased 20 pairs of heels from a thrift store, brought them home, and took them apart to see their materials and understand how they were constructed. She used a heat gun, a rotary cutting tool, pliers, and a few other tools that allowed her to grind into each shoe.
Chen discovered that most were cheaply made, with little consideration for comfort. Thin cardboard, hard plastic, and steel, often which drove through the surfaces where the foot sits, was what she found.
Equipped with this insight, Chen went to work. At the time, she was the design engineer at a Scottsdale-based golf equipment company. She designed golf accessories and custom shippers.
Here, Chen’s design checked many boxes: Hold as many as 14 clubs, keep them secure and separated so the heads wouldn’t get scratched during transport, elegantly accommodate placement of marketing materials, and take up as little space as possible to keep shipping costs low.
So when she decided to make her flagship shoe a stiletto—considered the most uncomfortable style by nature because of its pencil-thin heel; barely-there straps; and thin, non-supportive soles—solving this puzzle was right up her alley.
The sleek shape meant Chen had much less room than if she were working with a chunky heel or wedge.
“I was playing around with it, trying to make it thinner and thinner without compromising comfort,” she says.
After taking a shoemaking class in London, Chen created her first shoe with arch support and a stabilizing heel cup. Shock-absorbing foam, memory foam, and shock-absorbing gel are incorporated to address different issues while standing or walking. Chen sewed the fabric and added a piece of internal thermoplastic in the back of the heel to hold the shape.
Eighteen months and 67 prototypes later, Chen finally had a shoe she was happy with. After testing it out on family and friends, Chen was excited and nervous when she held her first three pre-launch events in 2020 and 2021. She had enough pre-order sales to fund her first round of shoes for customers.
Today, Chen’s shoes are sought after by professionals who must present impeccably and spend much more time walking or standing than sitting. Lawyers, doctors, realtors, and high-powered salespeople represent the majority of her clientele.
And each one is living and walking proof that her mission is successful and appreciated.
“When customers tell me, ‘I really love the shoes; they’ve been a real game-changer for me,’ it’s rewarding to experience,” Chen says.