Wednesday 18 September 2019

Renowned Cork designer reinvents the orthopaedic shoe

Tom Prendeville talks to the former high-flying London shoe designer who now spends all his energy helping people to walk tall once again

DESMOND KENNEDY: It really changes people’s lives to be able to walk without a limp
DESMOND KENNEDY: It really changes people’s lives to be able to walk without a limp

Tom Prendeville

At one stage there were 38 shoe factories in the country employing almost 20,000 people. In recent times the centuries-old industry has become extinct. However, Cork-based Desmond Kennedy was not so quick to throw in the towel.

The fashion footwear designer, who was one of London's most sought after designers during the 1970s and 1980s, was always horrified by the hideous-looking hospital-made orthopaedic and prosthetic shoes, complete with ugly callipers and braces, that people with limb problems had to wear. Not only were the specialist shoes stigma-inducing, but they were also uncomfortable to wear.

Rather than cast his eyes away, he decided to do something about it: namely to create beautiful footwear that was so well engineered that callipers, straps and club heels are now - thanks to his efforts - a thing of the past.

He creates shoes for people with a range of conditions, from Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, diabetes, arthritis to accident victims. He also manufactures insoles for a whole myriad of foot problems. Not surprisingly, Cork city-based Kennedy & Associates is now a thriving concern with an ever expanding order book.

As well as being a renowned designer, Kennedy is an orthopaedic footwear design engineer, which takes in specialities such as biomechanics. Kennedy takes up the story:

"The work is very labour intensive; it can take up to 180 hours to make one pair of shoes; but the value is in seeing people walking again without artificial aids. I work very closely with the medical profession, and the surgeons have at times been astonished at the results.

"The body needs to be able to stand and walk. People need to be able to stand on footwear that looks normal. We take a holistic approach and we make shoes for the body not the foot. We have a clinic in Cork and we make everything here.

"When people can walk properly there is a future. We have people with polio who are now wearing fashionable shoes with black patent crocodile toe caps. It gives them self-esteem."

In order to make a pair of specialist shoes, the design team work from X-rays and study the overall gait and walking ability of a person.

A prototype is then made and they meet the client for a series of fittings to allow for any last minute refinements. Then the shoes are hand-made in a workshop using the finest and most durable leather. The finished result is not just any old pair of shoes; but rather a pair that will last for many years.

Kennedy designed his first shoe in 1964 and later went on to become chief designer at Lee Footwear in Cork. He also worked as a designer with Birr-based Keelams and Dubarry in Ballnasloe.

He later worked as a consultant designer for many of London and the Continent's top shoe companies.

In more recent times, he made dancing shoes for the Riverdance and Lord of the Dance shows.

Kennedy takes great joy in being able to help people and recounts the experiences of several recent clients.

"We had a woman of 70 with a 27mm shortage in her leg - she was born that way. Her husband never saw her standing straight since they were dating and she had to lean on him to walk.

"She got boots made and for the first time in her life she walked straight and without a limp. It really changes people's lives to be able to walk into a room without anyone commenting."

Another gentleman called Jim lost half of his foot in an accident. After Kennedy made a mould of the remaining part of Jim's left foot, he was able to design a special shoe that allows Jim to walk unaided. He can now leave his prosthesis behind.

Another client was told that he would never be able to walk again.

"That was 12 years ago - he walked out of here leaving behind his crutches and has been walking unaided since.

"I am not God - every door is meant to be opened. We don't have a business here, we have a family and every patient has become a friend.

"It's not about money - and it never was - we've never advertised in our lives. Maybe I should be wearing a white collar?"

Kennedy & Associates recently doubled in size and have hired three new staff, including a graduate of footwear design from De Montfort University in Leicester, England, and specialists in engineering and a draftsman.

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