When Amanda Parkes SM ’04, PhD ’09 was young, she was torn between learning about physics and reading an issue of Vogue cover to cover. Luckily Parkes has found a way to forge a career where science and technology meet fashion, revolutionizing both the fashion and tech industries.
Take stilettos. The women’s shoe has gone essentially unchanged since they debuted in the 1950s—despite their notoriously painful reputation. Parkes is partnering with Thesis Couture, a startup led by scientists, astronauts, and surgeons, to completely redesign the shoes. And that doesn’t mean just adding a more comfortable sole—they’re changing the shape and structure in a method more similar to designing the aerodynamics of a car.
“We started from a finite element analysis perspective and we look at the bodies of women,” says Parkes. “We look at all the statics and mechanics, dynamic loading of the structure, lateral stability. We also have an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in feet and looks at the damage of what is really happening in a standard Stiletto.”
High heels are currently built by assembling various materials around a central metal plate. Thesis Couture is using advanced polymers as the base of the structure, instead of metal, surrounded by thermoplastic polyurethane to cushion the foot.
Working with Thesis Couture to create their high-performance stiletto is just one of many partnerships that Parkes is involved in at Manufacture New York, a high-technology fashion and textiles research and development space where she serves as fashion technologist and CTO. The combined manufacturing innovation center, fashion incubator, and accelerator space brings together hundreds of innovators in both the fashion and technology industries—inspiring collaboration and creation, much like the Media Lab where Parkes spent more than six years earning her MIT degrees.
Parkes first developed an interest in the relationship between physical objects and connectivity during her time in the tangible media group in the Media Lab. “I was interested in how the technology of things like conductive thread and LEDs and textiles [can offer] a whole new range of expression and kind of interaction around the body,” says Parkes. “I’d always really loved fashion and I sew, so looking at wearable technology was something that was of interest to me even though it wasn’t my direct thesis.”
Parkes moved to New York and founded her own studio called Skinteractive in 2010 and has been acting as a fashion and technology consultant ever since. In one project, she worked with Logan Munro ’07 on the smart jewelry, Ringly. “I sort of became this translator between technology companies and technology processes and fashion companies,” says Parkes.
In the past 12 years, Parkes has seen huge changes in the industry. Today, while she does work on the more standard wearable electronics and devices, the products on the horizon include new and exciting things like washable flexible circuits, sustainable bio fabrics, and fiber batteries.
The best news, besides more comfortable footwear, is that Manufacture New York is about to expand. Thanks to recent funding via a grant through the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the group will be opening a 160-square-foot facility in Brooklyn. “We have this building filled with designers and technologists who want to come together to make amazing things to transform the way we live in relation to our technology and what we wear,” says Parkes. “There’s not enough communication between fashion and tech right now and if we can start to create exposure and create partnerships between these two worlds, we open a whole new angle on fashion manufacturing for the 21st century.”
Of course Parkes is not the first MIT graduate who took on the challenge of improving high heels. Read about the Insolia products created by Brian G.R. Hughes ’77 and Paul Rudovsky ’66.