Technological applications in our daily lives? Our feet don't readily come to mind. And yet. Engineer Katrien Herdewyn (34) puts the shoe collections she designs for her label Elegnano on a scientific footing. Elegance and nanotechnology: in her second home of Silicon Valley, Herdewyn is showing other companies how to successfully combine the two.
Today, Katrien Herdewyn sits down at the table with CEOs, but during her childhood she preferred to be under the table to look at the shoes of the grown-ups. “My dream was to sell shoes,” she says. “I built little shops in our garage, played with my parents’ old shoes, and once I even hid the fact that a small screw was sticking through the heel of a shoe because I didn't want to lose that pair. The childhood dream somewhat disappeared from the picture as years went on; you don't really learn anything about shoes in school and there aren't many books or museums on the topic either.”
But science did feature prominently in her youth. Her father is a – now emeritus – professor of medicinal chemistry at KU Leuven, her mother also holds a pharmacy degree, and there are a few engineers in the family, too. “When I had to choose my study programme and looked at the curriculum of engineering science, I recognised a lot of the courses that I had really liked in secondary school. Having the combination of various sciences in one study programme was what really spoke to me.”
Two hundred pairs
She knew from the start that the traditional sectors in which engineering scientists work were not her cup of tea. “For a long time I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I chose my major and minor based purely on my interests. That’s how I found nanoscience (field concerned with the study of materials and components at the nanoscale, an order of magnitude just above the dimensions of atoms and molecules – ed.). I really enjoyed nanochemistry, for instance: the structures of carbon and silicon appealed to my artistic side.”
It was this fascination, among others, that made her decide to pursue a doctoral degree at the former Laboratory of Solid-State Physics and Magnetism. The research topic: the metallisation of biomolecules. To put it more simply: using biological materials to make tiny wires and coat them in metal particles to make them conductive. However, she once again started to get itchy feet. “I wanted to do more with my passion for shoes – at that time, I had a collection of two hundred pairs myself. After looking around a bit, I ended up at the Municipal Academy of Fine Arts in Sint-Niklaas, where they have a programme in shoe design.
This is where science and shoe design came together for the first time: for her Nano Ft collection, Herdewyn took inspiration from the different appearances of chemical elements. “I incorporated the pretty structures I saw under the microscope in my designs,” she explains. For example, she translated the way electrons are arranged in the oxygen atom in water into ochre-coloured triangles in the lining of a boot. The boot also had a train at the back: a reference to nanothreads that fan out like the branches of a tree.
The collection was selected for the international Young Vision Award, a competition for accessory designers. “I didn't win, but I’m still in contact with some of the other finalists, who now have major international fashion labels. That nomination also proved to me that this could be an actual career.” To really find her feet, she followed a number of design and business programmes in, among other cities, Florence and London. She became increasingly convinced that shoes with a scientific basis had commercial potential. Nanotechnology would no longer serve as an inspiration for the design, but more as a way to improve the material.
The lotus effect in particular seemed promising. The petals of a lotus flower are smooth to the touch, but have tiny poles on their surface that ensure that water droplets are not absorbed but retain their droplet shape. In this way nature shows how to make surfaces water- and dirt-resistant. “Many applications of this already exist, in sprays for car windows, for example,” Herdewyn explains. “I found a company that could integrate the miniature poles into the leather for my shoes, so that it repels water and dirt and can still breathe.”
Herdewyn incorporated an extra reference to the lotus flower in the shell she included in the heel of the shoe, another example of engineering ingenuity: “I used a whole series of calculations to examine what stiffness and position high heels should have to give you as much stability as possible. This is precision work: if they’re only slightly off-centre you can start to wobble. My solution was to include a shell at the back of the shoe that ensures the heel is perfectly placed and that is reminiscent of the shape of a lotus flower.”
Annie and Antoine
When she was entirely convinced that her idea had a real chance of success, Herdewyn quit her doctoral programme to devote herself fully to her own company. She named it Elegnano: a combination of elegance and nanotechnology, just like the shoes themselves. Because she wanted the perfect manufacturer for each part of the shoe, the first collection of four models was quite a puzzle. Seeing it completed at the end of 2014 was very satisfying. “Having that lorry arrive in your driveway, filled with shoes that you designed, in all possible sizes ... that was a highlight for me.”
And it wouldn't be the last: one year after the launch of Elegnano, Herdewyn was chosen as Starter of the Year by UNIZO (Union of Self-Employed Entrepreneurs). She received praise for her solid business plan, the innovative approach and well-thought-out strategy. For instance, Herdewyn chose to sell via various channels: pop-up stores, a number of regular outlets and a web shop.
I name my shoes after family members and friends. When I look at the final design I can always relate it to someone.
If you browse through the website you will meet Els, Annie, Stephanie, Henri and Antoine, among others. “I name my shoes after family members and friends,” Herdewyn explains. “It's not that I think of specific people when drawing, but when I look at the final design I can always relate it to someone.” How would she describe the look of Annie, Antoine and the others? “Timeless, retro if you will, with a southern European feel because I use a lot of colour.”
Designing is done old school: pencil on paper. “I usually work in big sketch books, but I also have smaller versions because I travel a lot and always use public transport. Wherever I am, I will be drawing. I then have these sketches converted into computer drawings by a freelancer. I used to do this myself during the first years, but you have to be really precise with all the stitches and distances. It's very time consuming so I outsourced it.”
Bridge the gap
She explains it all in a video call from San Francisco. “I received a grant in 2017 from the Prince Albert Fund, which stimulates international entrepreneurship. You can choose where you go, as long as it’s outside of Europe. I was torn between Japan and the US for a long time, but in the end I decided to go to Silicon Valley. And I stayed because it’s such a stimulating environment. I normally divide my time between Belgium and the US, but with Covid around, I’ve now been here for six months already.”
Engineers often lack that feel for aesthetics, and designers are often a bit afraid of technology. I can help bridge the gap between these two worlds.
In the US, Elegnano gradually found an additional purpose: Herdewyn now also advises both tech companies who want to include more design in their product and fashion companies who want to work with technology. “Engineers often lack that feel for aesthetics, and designers are often a bit afraid of technology. Seeing as I have a knack for both, I can help bridge the gap between these two worlds.”
“I work with Kinestral, for instance, a company that makes smart electrochromic glass: a type of glass that can change colour. It’s a very technical product but you still have to be able to explain and sell it to architects and designers. I sit down with the executive team to discuss how they can present their product in an attractive way. Think of demo samples of the glass, for instance. When we get them from the engineers they often still have sharp edges or wires sticking out. The challenge here is to incorporate a bit more finesse into it.”
A hundred ideas
Herdewyn is a big fan of the entrepreneurial climate in the Valley. “People here always have a positive attitude, that's the main difference with Europe. In Belgium, entrepreneurs are respected, but you still often get the reaction: ‘That’s a very big risk you’re taking, I would never do that.’ Whilst everyone you meet here is walking around with a hundred ideas in their head. When I tell people about Elegnano they start imagining possibilities and making plans in my place.”
She would like to see more women in the board rooms. “Most companies I work with have no women in management positions, or one at most. I’m usually also one of the youngest people in meetings. Initially, I had a hard time dealing with that attitude of ‘Where is the person who’s really going to help us?’. But I’ve learned how to handle this scenario. Misplaced comments no longer faze me. I respond with humour to try and move on as quickly as possible. But being one of the few women is also an advantage: you stand out more. When you’re the only woman among fifty men at a networking event, they’ll remember you more easily: ‘I thought she was someone's plus one, but apparently she has her own company.’”
It’s not so much that I wake up in the morning and go: ‘I’m a role model’. But I do find it important to eliminate the stereotypes about women in science and the business world.
Trends magazine recently included Herdewyn in its Inspiring Fifty, a list of top female managers, scientists, tech entrepreneurs and influencers. Is she aware that she is an example to others? “It’s not so much that I wake up in the morning and go: ‘I’m a role model’. But I do find it important to eliminate the stereotypes about women in science and the business world. I also think I can help change the traditional view of the engineering sciences: you don’t necessarily end up on a construction site if you choose this field. That sector has some amazing jobs if that's what you want to do, but there are so many possible career paths.”
What advice does she have for students who dream of an entrepreneurial journey like hers? “If you have a good idea, explore it while you’re still studying. And if it turns out that being an entrepreneur isn't your thing after all, you still will have had that first experience. So don’t hesitate, just go for it!”