When people think of ergonomic footwear, a.k.a. heels that don’t hurt, high fashion probably isn’t the first thing to come to mind. But Maija Benincasa’s line of luxury high heels breaks that stereotype by crossing Italian-made shoes with biomedical engineering.
Benincasa stumbled upon the idea for her company Benincasa Milano—literally. Kicking off her high heels to dance at a wedding, she stepped on a piece of glass and had to go to urgent care. Benincasa knew this couldn’t be the first time someone had an accident after taking off uncomfortable heels. That’s when she decided to come up with a solution.
While Benincasa is passionate about shoes, especially beautiful shoes, “I felt strongly about solving that problem,” she told Dallas Innovates.
Benincasa, a third generation entrepreneur who studied architecture as an undergrad, had to start from the beginning to do that. And she wanted to learn from the best. She quit her corporate job working in brand management at Campbell Soup company in Los Angeles and moved her life from California to Italy, where she studied the art of cobbling at the Arsutoria School in Milan.
Once Benincasa decided to come back to the U.S., she says she moved to Texas by accident, but “learned that Dallas is actually a great ecosystem for a startup.”
“It’s less expensive, the community is very supportive, especially within female entrepreneurs I found. And also, it’s a very big luxury market, one of the biggest in the country,” Benincasa says.
Not only was Dallas a great place to start a business, but Benincasa’s sister, Anne Benincasa Stockstill, was already based in the region. Along the way, Stockstill also became Benincasa’s business partner.
When creating her luxury shoe line Benincasa Milano, Benincasa’s goal was to bring tech into high heels to make them more wearable—without sacrificing quality and craftsmanship in the process. Her high heels are manufactured in the same factory that makes shoes for luxury brands such as Manolo Blahnik and Oscar de la Renta. Plus, all of the materials needed to create Benincasa Milano heels are sourced from Italian tanneries and suppliers, making this shoe line as luxurious as any other high fashion brand, but with the comfort to match.
“Our mission as a brand is to empower women to move more freely through life and feel like they don’t have to make trade-offs,” Benincasa says.
Biomedical engineering meets high fashion
Moving to Dallas led Benincasa to meet a biomedical engineer from UT Southwestern who has worked on radiology projects and 3D-printing pieces for cancer patients. Benincasa knew she needed an expert to help make her high heels more comfortable, so she decided to hire him as a private consultant.
“I felt strongly that there’s got to be a way to bring in some tech into fashion in a way that hasn’t been done before, especially in the luxury space,” Benincasa says.
The engineer helped her develop Benincasa Milano’s patent-pending gel insole, which drops the ball of the foot and pushes the pressure to the other toes. Because of this tech, Benincasa Milano high heels don’t have the burning feeling that typically comes with wearing heels for a long period of time, she says.
The high-tech insoles also provide temperature control and shock absorption to make the heels even more comfortable.
Pivoting her business model
In 2019, Benincasa decided to pivot her shoe company’s business model by taking all of the data from how her company previously worked, which was creating made-to-measure insoles for each customer, to make an off-the-shelf solution. This way, Benincasa Milano’s shoes are available to more women and the company’s retail prices were able to be reduced by $100.
“When you’re an entrepreneur, you wear a lot of hats,” said Benincasa, who has an MBA under her belt.
She says her business background is helpful, and because of that, “I approached fashion a little bit differently,” she says. “I didn’t plan on designing, but one thing kind of led to the next. … I had some art and design, but I went really hard into business and finance—just feeling like that’s what I was supposed to do. Now it’s nice to bring in the creative side that I kind of lost when I was younger.”
Benincasa Milano, which has been revenue-generating since 2017, is run out of a 2,000-square-foot loft in Dallas’ Deep Ellum district, which has an office space along with a showroom. For anyone looking to try on a pair of Benincasa Milano heels, the Deep Ellum showroom is by appointment to shop, but the shoes are also available online at benincasamilano.com.
“A lot of our business is from word of mouth,” Benincasa says. “It’s been a grassroots effort with a community of women customers that has supported the company both on the sales front and the investment front.” Benincasa is also part of a group called Collective Thirty One, an invitation-only platform that is a source of inspiration and “career intel” for Dallas-based female entrepreneurs.
Currently, around half of Benincasa Milano’s customers are Texas-based. While Benincasa wants her company to continue growing its Dallas presence, she’s also looking forward to expanding into new markets.
Benincasa’s early business model included a roster of trunk shows and events—“Not just in Dallas, but in Aspen, Palm Beach, and those types of markets.”
“The next big step is digital marketing and building our e-commerce business,” she says. Because of the nature of the company’s direct to consumer model, that’s something they can do with a lean team, Benincasa says.
The next product for Benincasa Milano is “femme-forward sneakers,” according to Benincasa, which she plans to launch this year. She feels that most sneakers are currently androgynous so she’s hoping to bring her own feminine touch to the casual shoe style.
“Through all our events, I found women are being more casual,” she says. “Part of our brand ethos is empowering women to feel great all the time. If you want to wear a dress with a pair of sneakers, that’s fabulous.”
Although she doesn’t see her luxury brand expanding to menswear, Benincasa would consider merging high fashion with new technologies in other ways, such as creating ergonomic handbags or shirts with wicking fabrics, in the future.
Quincy Preston contributed to this report.
A version of this story was originally published in Dallas Innovates 2020: The Magazine.
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