Allan Donnelly knows how to use the Web. “The main keyword on the Internet is ‘elevator shoes.’ I try to focus on that,” he says. Indeed, that’s how I found Donnelly, Googling around and finding surprisingly little on either the cultural history or the present manufacturing of height-increasing footwear. “From my research, I’ve seen people search for ‘shoe lifts’ and ‘Tom Cruise shoes,’” Donnelly adds. Apparently Cruise is the best-known and/or best-looking man ever to be outed as short.
Donnelly’s company, Don’s Footwear, dominates most searches for this kind of shoe. With his devoted use of Tumblr, Twitter (@elevatorshoes) and Pinterest, one might not guess he’s a young Scottish man running his business from Thailand. On the other hand, it’s the global nature of online marketing that enables him to live in the South Asian tropics while selling most of his products to North American men.
Donnelly makes his shoes by hand. He even makes his lasts—the foot-shaped mold around which shoes are formed—himself. “There is a saying in the shoe industry: ‘You cant make a good shoe on a bad last,” Donnelly tells me, “and so I like to spend time on making the perfect shapes.” The custom form accommodates the sizeable sole insert and the extra room that becomes necessary along the top once the foot is elevated a few inches above normal. “If I were to show my last to another shoemaker they would think it was to make boots.”
Donnelly got into the business not just to make footwear generally, but expressly to make height-increasing styles. Standing 5’8”, he’s only got one inch on Tom Cruise, and he’s been wearing lifts himself since age 22 (he’s now 34). You could say he has a human-centered approach to shoe design, in that he considers the emotional drivers and personal factors that motivate his customers to seek out his product. “Some say they just use them because it helps them fit in with the rest of the world; some guys just use them for their wedding, as their bride is wearing high heels and they want everything perfect for the photo. Some use it to get noticed at the bar. I think a lot of guys use them because it helps them further their career. For some, these shoes are an important part of their lives.”
Donnelly studied footwear patternmaking and last design in the Netherlands while working as a CNC machinist. He undertook an informal apprenticeship with a shoemaker for a year, then returned to Thailand to start his own brand. “I knew in my heart there was a gap in the market for a decent quality elevator shoe with a leather sole, full leather lining, and a higher grade of leather, all custom made by hand,” he says, “I knew I would get lost in the ocean if I tried to sell a normal brand on the web. I had to sell something that people were looking for.”
So while Internet surfers around the world secretively Google “Tom Cruise shoes” late at night (another elevator shoe company promises “All orders are treated in the strictest confidence. All products and communication are sent in plain unmarked packaging.”) and hope for some celebrity-level intervention to address their height problem, Allan Donnelly casts special molds and selects insole materials that will not collapse under the weight of the wearer. “I believe what sets me apart from others is that my insert is made from polyurethane rubber and will never squish down. Other manufacturers (90 percent of elevator shoes makers are based in China) use ethylene-vinyl acetate foam, which will squash down after a few days, making the shoes less comfortable and the wearer lose the height boost.”
Donnelly doesn’t seem like the kind of businessman who bandies the word “transparency” about in the course of his outreach, but his approach to marketing himself is heavily process-oriented and so, by default, somewhat transparent. He posts photo sets of his studio on Tumblr and videos of his collections in the making on YouTube. The short films offer a great glimpse of the many meticulous steps involved in constructing a leather shoe (though you won’t miss the soundtrack if you mute it). He also uses social media to address customer complaints and comment rage, posting them to Tumblr with a personal response. “Some people are impatient as it sometimes takes time to make the shoes.”
Amazingly, despite all this documentation and at least four different URLs that connect back to his company, Donnelly tells me he considers himself to be a poor marketer. I’d counter that he could teach workshops on search engine optimization. On Tuesday I mentioned “status shoes” in my interview and he responded that he’d only recently heard of the term. By Wednesday he’d published a new post on Tumblr entitled “Status Shoes: 2 New Styles,” and underneath: “I hope to raise our status somewhat.”