Fernando Peña and Julie Thompson are the Minnesota husband-and-wife doctor duo behind Julieta (he’s an orthopedic surgeon and she’s a hepatologist). Together, they developed the brand in response to a need for heels that are as comfortable as they are stylish. Here, Peña and Thompson share more about the inspiration behind the luxury brand, the importance of utilizing Spanish artisans to handcraft their shoes and more.
What was the inspiration behind Julieta?
Julie Thompson: Some years ago, Fernando and I were preparing for a mission trip to Ecuador. I knew we would be attending some events while traveling. I lamented to Fernando that I did not have any comfortable and stylish shoes that were suitable. Much to my surprise, he had no idea that women struggle to find comfortable, beautiful heels. He challenged me on this, convinced there must be something out there. After many searches and boxes of shoes delivered, unsurprisingly, he found none.
That is when we decided that with Fernando’s expertise in the foot and ankle we could solve this unmet need and create a shoe that’s both comfortable and high quality. It has been a long road with a few bumps along the way, tons of learning, challenging moments and adjustments. We have survived the pandemic and are still strong and excited for what Julieta has to offer in the next few months.
What sets your heels apart from other shoes?
Fernando Peña: How we are different: Our shoes are truly comfortable. And they are gorgeous, made with exquisite leather and designed by a practicing orthopedic surgeon (me) and physician wife (Jules). We created a shoe that solves a long-standing problem for professional women. Once I learned about the pain and difficulties women experience in finding comfort plus style, I wanted to come up with a solution. I was confident that my knowledge of foot and ankle mechanics would give me a unique approach.
When we made our first prototype, Jules wore them on a business trip. You know the scene — walking through the airport with its concrete floors, toting a bag, catching a flight, then navigating another airport. Full day of work the next day, followed by airport/flight/airport again. She wore the Madrid prototype for every part of that trip. No flats, no flip-flops, no sneakers. And her feet did not hurt! I knew after that trip that we were making a very special shoe. It took us several attempts to get it just right with many, many prototypes, but most good things are not easy to create.
How is your orthopedic knowledge critical in the design process?
FP: I have been an orthopedic surgeon specializing in foot and ankle problems for 20+ years and have acquired tremendous knowledge of foot biomechanics and how different scenarios change the demands on feet. I have a very good understanding of what the foot needs when it is in a heeled shoe. The foot mechanics change drastically when you wear a high-heeled shoe, and if the pressure points are not addressed, the shoe will become very painful to wear within an hour or so.
To achieve a comfortable heel, we started from the inside out. Once we covered the inside of the shoe and the biomechanical part of the design, it was time to focus on the exterior of the shoe. With Jules’s great sense of style and fashion, she picked the leathers, colors, and shapes of the shoes and heels. The overall product could have not been better — we have created shoes with the best of both worlds. We use the highest quality leathers, and our shoes still offer unprecedented comfort.
Your shoes are handcrafted by artisans in Barcelona, Spain. Why is this important?
JT: It is not enough to have the right design. The execution of the design is just as critical. We insist that our shoes are of the highest quality and made with the best possible materials. Sure, there are some comfortable shoes out there, but to us, they do not hold the quality and aesthetic standard we are aiming for. It is challenging to make a quality shoe with the best and softest leathers on the market while holding an insert that provides excellent support. For us to have a sustainably high level of quality, the shoes had to be produced in a place with a long history and tradition for leather manufacturing and an understanding of what we were aiming for. Spain has that history, and of course since Fernando is from Spain, that made it the logical choice.
How did you land on the two heel heights (2 and 3.5 inches)?
JT: A standard pump high-heel height is about 3.5 inches. Pumps are timeless and can be worn with anything: a business suit, a formal dress, jeans, a casual weekend look. Many women, including myself, rely on this timeless shoe as a wardrobe staple. We really set out to take the classic pump (which hasn’t changed for decades) and make it comfortable. We have confirmed that in fact women can wear a 3.5-inch heel and still be very comfortable for hours! The development of the 2-inch heel was by popular demand as many customers were asking us for a lower heeled option as well. Similarly, the block heel is a classic style that offers another great option.
Which styles are fan favorites?
JT: We’ve actually had a fairly even distribution in demand across the styles. If we had to pick one, we would probably say the Barcelona Clasico — the super versatile black pump that many women utilize as a go-to for various looks from day to evening.
Can you tell us more about your partnership with AdoptAClassroom?
FP: Jules and I are doctors, and we appreciate that there is no better investment in somebody’s life than education. Teachers and classrooms are of fundamental importance in building a foundation for kids. A solid education will stay with you and open opportunities for the rest of your life.
AdoptAClassroom was attractive to us for its transparency and the conduit to directly donate to and make an impact in multiple classrooms for a reasonable amount of money. It is aimed at providing resources for children’s education in the most vulnerable parts of Minneapolis. We have a campaign in which we contribute 100% of the profits to AdoptAClassroom. In the first few months of running the company, we donated more than $7,000 to the organization. We have communicated with some of the teachers who have received donations, and we are inspired by their passion and dedication to children’s education. We continue to donate to this organization. You can learn more on our blog.
What can fashionistas expect from Julieta in the future?
FP: We are constantly thinking about what else we could do next and how Julieta should look. We are debuting a line of leather accessories, which are also handcrafted and tailored to each customer. We have been fortunate enough to acquire in Barcelona a third generation leather goods production shop. We are energized by the creativity and expertise of these experienced artisans and the passion they have for leather and the products they create.