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High Tech Meets High Heels for Engineering Alum

For Marcelle Durrenberger ’16, Fashion Footwear Really is Rocket Science at L.A. Startup

Marcelle Durrenberger holds a pair of Olympus One shoes Photo by Ed Brennen
Mechanical engineering alum Marcelle Durrenberger '16 is working to revolutionize fashion footwear with Thesis Couture in Los Angeles.

By Ed Brennen

As a 2016 graduate of the Francis College of Engineering, it’s no surprise that Marcelle Durrenberger is now working in California alongside an ex-NASA astronaut and former SpaceX rocket scientists.

What is surprising, though, is what they’re working on. It’s not rocket boosters or orbiters, but rather high-heel shoes — 4-inch stilettos, to be exact, that they hope will revolutionize the world of women’s footwear here on Earth.

“It’s a little surreal sometimes,” says Durrenberger, who has worked as a mechanical engineer at Thesis Couture, a small, Los Angeles-based “fashion-tech design house,” since last August. “I look at who I’m surrounded by here, and I’m grateful I’ve been picked to join them. It’s great to be part of something so unique.”

Founded in 2013 by Dolly Singh, a former talent acquisition executive with SpaceX and Oculus VR, Thesis Couture has brought together a cross-disciplinary team from the worlds of fashion and engineering to produce the “first high-performance stiletto,” the Olympus One.

At the company’s home office, located just minutes from the Pacific Ocean in a densely settled residential neighborhood of Marina Del Rey, Calif., Durrenberger explains the structural engineering and advanced materials that make the Olympus One so innovative. Instead of using a thin, metal shank traditionally found in high-heel shoes, Thesis Couture is building its shoes around a wider foundation made of high-grade polymers called Thesis LIFT (Load-balancing, Interlocking Footwear Technology).

Marcelle Durrenberger holds the Thesis LIFT Photo by Ed Brennen
Marcelle Durrenberger displays the "secret sauce" of the Olympus One stiletto, the Thesis LIFT that she is helping engineer.

“That’s the secret sauce,” Durrenberger says of the LIFT, which reduces the body weight put on the forefoot from 80 percent (the average for most high heels) to 60 percent. “The rest of the weight is shifted back to the heel, making it a lot more comfortable.”

Not only has Durrenberger collaborated with a biomechanics professor in London to analyze and confirm the company’s pressure analysis data, but she’s actually beta-tested the $925 shoes, which launched with a limited-edition run of 1,000 pairs in April.

“I’ve personally worn them to events,” says Durrenberger, who doesn’t own a pair of her own quite yet. “While other girls are complaining and shifting on their feet at the end of the night, unable to walk, I’m perfectly fine. You can’t eliminate all discomfort, but I’d say the pain level is a 3 or a 4 compared to an 8 or 9. It’s really significant.”

Getting Her Foot in the Door

How did Durrenberger, a native of Hudson, Mass., get her foot in the door at a high-tech high-heel startup 3,000 miles from home? Mostly through hard work and preparation, topped with a little bold ambition.

As a student, Durrenberger threw herself into the university’s Professional Co-op Program, starting with a six-month position with GE Appliances in Louisville, Ky., where she worked as a supply chain technical co-op in 2013. She followed that up with internships at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (nuclear engineering) and Pratt & Whitney (design engineering). She also managed to squeeze in a semester abroad in Glasgow, Scotland.

Marcelle Durrenberger works at the Thesis Couture home office Photo by Ed Brennen
With her UMass Lowell mug close at hand, Marcelle Durrenberger works at Thesis Couture's home office in Marina Del Rey, Calif.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without all that experience,” says Durrenberger, whose first foray into footwear came as a senior when she partnered with Vibram (makers of the “five-finger” outdoor shoes) on her yearlong design project. While speaking at a campus event for women engineers in late 2015, Durrenberger mentioned her interest in footwear. After her talk, an audience member told Durrenberger about an article she’d read on Thesis Couture. Durrenberger did some research and took a chance by emailing Singh.

“I was so amazed she actually responded. I couldn’t believe she thought I was worthy of her time,” says Durrenberger, who credits Co-op Education Director Rae Perry and her team for encouraging her throughout the process. “The worst you can hear is no. You have to go for it, or else you’ll never find out.”

Durrenberger quickly established an email dialogue with Singh throughout the spring. A few days after Commencement — where Durrenberger and her mother Jocelyne (a Ph.D. grad from the School of Nursing) both delivered student addresses — Marcelle accepted a job offer from the company.

“Young engineers have a limitless creativity because they haven't been made cynical. They can do the impossible because they don't know it's impossible,” Singh says when asked what convinced her to hire Durrenberger. “Marcelle has been able to take the bull by the horns and work successfully on projects ranging from hardware testing to logistics planning. She will continue to develop into an exemplary professional.”

One Step At a Time

Indeed, Durrenberger has already taken on several roles outside of mechanical engineering at Thesis Couture, including managing the company’s supply chain and distribution processes.

“We’re a very small team, but a very busy team. I’ve had to figure out what components need to be covered and then fill in the gaps,” says Durrenberger, who believes her mechanical engineering degree prepared her well for wearing different hats. “It’s really a four-year problem-solving degree. You learn how to go through a process, look at the problem, break it down into small components, figure out what your starting point is and what you need to get to.”

Durrenberger, who minored in theatre arts and was treasurer of the Ballroom Dance Club, is happy to have a job that combines her creative side with her love of engineering. She also appreciates working on a diverse team that is spread all over the world, from New York to Singapore (where the high-tech parts are made) to Italy (where the shoes are assembled).

Marcelle Durrenberger holds the LIFT and the Olympus One Photo by Ed Brennen
By taking a chance and emailing Thesis Couture CEO Dolly Singh, Marcelle Durrenberger got her foot in the door.

“It’s a great team. It’s a lot of fun because we learn from each other every day,” says Durrenberger, who enjoys the startup culture of the Marina Del Rey area, aka “Silicon Beach.” While she is slowly adapting to California’s laid-back lifestyle (“I’m an engineer and East Coaster who likes to get things done”), she is acclimating herself by taking ballroom dancing classes and participating in CrossFit competitions. 

Less than a year into her first job out of college, Durrenberger is taking her career one high-heeled step at a time.

“My journey is with the company. I want to see where it goes,” says Durrenberger, who wasn’t very interested in fashion growing up but now appreciates the work that goes into designing a better pair of shoes.

“Even though I’m not inventing a new medical device that’s going to save millions of lives, I am helping to invent a new shoe that will save millions of feet,” she says. “We are making a difference, in our own way.”