Source: Best Health magazine, October 2015
Standing at the head of a table in a French restaurant, Tanya Heath presides over a group of media with only one shoe on her foot. The other one is in her hand. The Ottawa-born, Paris-based entrepreneur is in Toronto to present her fall/winter collection for Tanya Heath Paris. The footwear company, launched in 2013, runs the gamut from irresistible fringe-embellished suede booties to the sleek almond-toe pumps in buttery leather that Heath is wearing. Looking effortlessly chic (think simple black dress, cropped hair, no discernible makeup save for a trace of inky eyeliner), she is partially shoeless for a reason. Heath is sharing the inspiration behind her brand and demonstrating the technology that defines it. ‘When I look at my childhood, growing up in the ’70s, the women who inspired me had very defined roles,’ she says, ‘Mommies were mommies and grandmas were grandmas, and they looked like grandmas. Now, grandmas are hot and mommies might go to work. Our society has changed in a fairly significant way, but our shoes haven’t.’
As Heath points out, the last major innovation in the history of high heels was an advance that also had setbacks. ‘When we started putting steel rods in heels with injection moulding, we were able to go beyond the five-centimetre height threshold,’ she says. ‘You could offer eight-, 10-, or 12-centimetre heels. Those 16-centimetre heels ‘ where a woman has to crawl and can’t actually walk ‘ are possible because of that technology. That happened in the ’50s, and nothing since.’
Until now. With the push of a button, Heath removes the high block heel from her pump and replaces it with a slim kitten heel, which slides on and clicks securely into place. Voila. You see, each of her elegantly designed shoes and boots, handcrafted in France, features adjustable heel technology that allows the wearer to change heels in seconds.
Highs and lows
‘What I really wanted to do was create a line of shoes that would allow women to still be women, not be harmful to them and allow them to transcend their days,’ she says. The impressive switchable factor is rivalled only by the heel options: Four heel types are available in everything from neutral leather to bright gloss, graphic prints to glitter. Heath’s starting point for her company was very personal, but the end result is a game changer that has the power to affect many. And it’s not even close to the path the ‘very Canadian’ woman envisioned her life taking.
‘If you had suggested to my 20-year-old self that I would be working in the French fashion industry, well, let’s just say it’s pretty random,’ she says with a laugh. ‘My younger self dreamed that I’d start at the ministry of foreign affairs, which I did, and that I would eventually move into politics or become an economist.’ But love intervened in the form of a French beau whom she met at an Ottawa bar. Impressed early on by his culinary expertise, complete with homemade baguettes, she recalls telling him they were going to be married sooner rather than later. ‘Any other guy would have zoomed out of his own house, but he just said ‘What will you wear?’ We were engaged after two weeks.’ And with that, Heath traded our country’s capital for the City of Light.
What may read like a fairy tale unfurled into a harsh reality. ‘I’m not someone who went to France because I didn’t love it here,’ she says. ‘It took me a long time to get over the heartbreak of not having a stereotypical Canadian life. I have a beautiful apartment in France, but I thought I’d have a house in Toronto.’ Fitting into a foreign culture while navigating an ambitious career also proved challenging. ‘I moved and had a nervous breakdown because I went to Trinity College at the University of Toronto and the only university in Canada that exists in Paris is McGill. And I couldn’t speak French. I didn’t know what to do, so I completed an MBA in strategy and finance so I could learn the language and get a French school in my roster.’
Her plan worked. On her first day at a strategy consulting firm, Heath made the faux pas of changing out of ballerina flats into high heels at the office. ‘Someone took me aside and said ‘That is so New York to Parisians,” she says. ‘I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I was just trying to fit in, so I started only wearing high heels.’ Her sartorial dedication eventually led to a serious foot injury during pregnancy: a broken metatarsus. ‘Finally, I couldn’t walk in high heels anymore,’ she explains. ‘My doctor told me we’re going to have to realign everything and I just thought there must be another way.’ From there, the idea of a multi-height shoe started to take shape in her mind, blossoming into a minor obsession.
While working in private equity in the midst of the financial crisis, Heath attended a conference and met a renowned British female entrepreneur with fashion experience. Heath decided to float the multi-height concept to her. ‘She said ‘Do you have any idea how difficult that is?’ I replied no. Then she said it would ‘take insane levels of money and genius, but you’re in private equity, so why don’t you do it?” Fast-forward a few months and Heath’s husband gave her the push she needed. ‘He said ‘You’ve been talking about this shoe and I think it’s a brilliant idea. I’m 100 percent behind you, and I’m giving you a million dollars and three years.”
With no formal training in fashion design, Heath started shopping around her idea to crack multi-height heels. She claims her only skill set was convincing a bunch of highly rational people to do something that they inherently didn’t believe would work. Heath’s success is a prime example of how essential perseverance is to bring an idea to life ‘ especially when uncharted territory is involved. ‘I’ll never forget the engineer who finally took it on and basically told me I was a spoiled, relentless woman and that he was going to do it just because he wanted to take my money and get rid of me. He called three months later and said ‘We can’t say it’s not working,’ which is very French.’
On following your heart
Today, boutiques bearing Heath’s name can be found in Paris, Portugal, Toronto and Los Angeles, and her footwear is also carried in stores around the world.
Still, she is cautious to avoid painting the ubiquitous happy-go-lucky image of entrepreneurship. ‘You need to fail,’ she says. ‘I failed so much. If I didn’t go out of my way to project a human image, I know I’d look like a machine and give a false impression that it was easy, but it wasn’t. [The media] won’t put in the loneliness, the agony and the failure.’
Heath also refuses to sugar-coat the challenges of being a female entrepreneur. ‘It’s incredibly difficult,’ she says. ‘You have to be about 50 times better. It’s truly crap. The only positive is that I have three wonderful children, so when I get home, I get to focus on them ‘ it gives me a mental break.’ Heath’s children ‘ two girls and a boy who range in age from 10 to 15 years old ‘ are her first line of support. ‘I’m having the best time ever now,’ she says. ‘We can talk about things, and sometimes they just blow my mind. They help me sustain a sense of wonder and are my largest nourishment.’
It was Heath’s son who inspired her to rediscover another fulfilling aspect of her life: her athletic side. Last summer, he beat her in a friendly race and she was floored. ‘I lay there thinking, ‘What have I become?’ You’re talking to an ex-athlete ‘ I was on three varsity teams!’ Encouraged to lace up, she was running 30 to 40K a week by Christmas.
‘It was working wonders for my health and stress, and I was really happy, getting back my old vibe from when I was in university,’ she says. Unfortunately, she ended up with another foot injury that forced her to take a break. ‘I was devastated,’ she says. ‘It was the first sign I had made to myself that I deserved free time and that my health was important. Previously, I was quite obsessed with the kids and I’d never done anything for me.’ Then Heath did something she calls insane. ‘I hate ballet and all of that pink tutu culture, but I started doing micro ballet moves while I was in convalescence,’ she says. ‘That’s been amazing for me.’ And when stress reaches an all-time high for the woman who works 70-plus hours a week, she turns to meditation. ‘It’s very contrary to the way I’m wired, but I think it’s beneficial to do things like that,’ she says. ‘I only do it when it really gets bad. It’s my way of catching myself before I fall.’
However she may falter, it’s safe to say that Heath will land firmly on her own two feet ‘ and in stylish yet comfortable heels, of course. ‘I would like to continue innovating, using technology in a way that can help women reconcile comfort with aesthetics,’ she says. ‘And I’d like to build something that goes beyond me, that lasts.’