Steve Madden's Shoe Business Is Better Than Ever

What keeps the designer motivated after almost 25 years?
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Lauren Indvik
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What keeps the designer motivated after almost 25 years?

I was just entering Steve Madden's lavender-walled, purple-carpeted office in Long Island City when the designer, seated 10 feet away behind a large but modest wooden desk, identified the label of my slip-on sneakers. I told him I was impressed, taking note of the 100-odd shoes lined up across the floor, made just down the hall at Madden's sample factory. "That's my job," he said.

Indeed, the 56-year-old Queens native has built a very large business on his understanding of the shoe market, which famously got its start in 1990 out of the back of his car. More famous was the wildly successful initial public offering three years later, which was handled -- or rather, severely mishandled -- by the Long Island "pump and dump" brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, whose rise and fall has since been chronicled in Jordan Belfort's 2007 memoir The Wolf of Wall Street, and was released as a film of the same name, directed by Martin Scorsese, last year. Madden's involvement with Stratton Oakmont and the handling of his own shares in the company led to a series of SEC lawsuits and a 41-month prison sentence for stock manipulation and securities fraud, which Madden served between 2002 and 2005.

Madden, who relinquished the role of CEO during his time in prison, returned as the company's creative head shortly thereafter, and continues to churn out trendy, runway-inspired styles at a fraction of runway prices. (Compare Givenchy's black-and-white lace slip-on sneaker, $650, with a similar version from Steve Madden, currently on sale for $34.98.) At times, he has studied the competition too well -- Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen filed lawsuits against Madden for copying their shoe designs between 2007 and 2009 (both were settled in 2011), and Balenciaga filed a similar suit over its Motorocycle handbag design this May. (Madden admits that his 2007 imitation of Balenciaga's Lego shoe "was stupid," but also insists that "no one is copied more than Steve Madden.")

Despite considerable setbacks, Steve Madden the company is stronger than ever, with annual sales of $1.3 billion last year and shares worth six times what they were at the bottom of the market in March 2009. And Madden says he's as passionate about making great -- and commercially successful -- shoes as ever. We recently spoke with the designer about what keeps him motivated, how he felt about his portrayal in "The Wolf of Wall Street" and what he thinks will happen to the company once he himself is no longer there.

I just read your quarter one earnings report. Your wholesale business is doing well, but stores are not doing so well. How are you feeling about the business right now? What are you excited about?

Well, sneakers are doing better. So when you're a shoe company you always feel a little pinch when that happens. But we're doing well. We're as strong as ever, our corporation and our shoes. There's been a transformation to digital, so we're just trying to sort that out in our stores right now. We're feeling that our girl shops online and uses her phone, and so we're feeling a lack of traffic [in stores] right now. And that seems to be pretty consistent with the rest of our people in our mall. Like, J.Crew is feeling the same thing. So we think it's more that than any kind of style issue.

Does that mean you're planning to develop your e-commerce business or  you're going to develop online initiatives to get people into stores?

Those two things, yes. We're looking at making the experience in the store quicker, with phones. We're doing more promotions online to drive people back into stores. And we're increasing our online business. And we're thinking about maybe making Steve Madden even a little less available online with other people. We think there's a lot of business to capture directly, and some of the online guys are so promotional.

We've seen so many businesses, particularly in the luxury space, move into more of a direct retail model over the past few years. Is that where you want to go?

No, I'm a wholesaler, I love wholesaling. You just have to do more unique stuff for the stores. I'm just concerned about some of the big guys, they just mark stuff down so quick, they just go on algorithms or something.

When you think about who the Steve Madden girl is now, is she the same girl she was 10, 15 years ago? How would you describe her?

The world keeps turning and I think our girl is not the same girl. No she's older now, she's doing different stuff. She's more serious about her life. So we try to do Steven to deal with that. So many women have told me in their forties how they grew up with me. They don't wear Steve Madden as much. They wear comfort shoes, stuff like that. 

Do you still want them as customers?

Well, I want everybody to wear my shoes. I sometimes feel like when they get older, they maybe view us as a little too rock and roll for their lifestyle. I don't see a lot of 40-year-olds in my stores. The music's loud, the vibe is all young kids. Just sort of the way it is.

How do you feel about celebrity placements? They've been big since the '90s, but they've become especially important for shoe designers. I look at everything Stuart Weitzman has done this season, for example.

Everybody wears our shoes, pretty much, and yet they will be photographed and talk about Louboutin more than they will Steve Madden. It takes a rare, brave celebrity to say, "I'm wearing Steve Madden," when they all do, they all do, you know, because the shoes are easy. They're great prices, great styling, easy, and we get them all the time in their natural habitat, but we don't get them at the Oscars, you know what I mean? But I just bought Brian Atwood, who's king of the Oscars. So we'll see if Brian can pick up the baton.

What do you like about his work?

I like that he has a point of view with his shoes which is sort of bitchy, if that's the right word I would use. I hate those words. Sexy -- I hate that fucking word.

Brian Atwood uses that word all the time.

I hate it, it makes me sick. "My shoes are 'sexy'" -- what does that mean? But he does make those sort of shoes. But he's good at it. And they really love his shoes. I'd like him to get back to more of that actually.

It's clear Brian Atwood wants women who wear his shoes to feel sexy. When you think about women wearing your shoes, how do you want them to feel?

It's the same. For sure.

You just don't like the word.

No, I just don't like the word. I think it's silly. You've got to come up with a new word.

Have you ever wanted to do something very high end?

No. I want to do what I do and be good at it. I've tried it. I'm very sort of a democratic guy. I don't mean politically or party-wise, I mean democratic in the sense that I want everyone to wear the shoes. I mean it in the Greek sense.

How do you stay excited about the shoe category? You've been doing it for so long, yet you're still clearly passionate about it.

Yeah. Well. There's a lot of responsibility to keep delivering this kind of stuff, delivering this trend stuff. There's a lot of people I'm responsible for, customers who rely on it, so I kind of take that pretty seriously, I guess. That's not a good answer. Is that a good answer? It's sort of the truth. Like it's not about me, it's a big responsibility here to deliver. It's very stressful.

You've said when you first started money really motivated you.

Yes, very much.

You presumably have all the money you could want now.

I do? It's not so much the actual money -- it's winning that motivates me. It's being better than my competition. But it is money in the sense that that's the language, that's the scorecard that we use. I guess you could say I have money, but I don't really have a lot of extravagances either. There's something about making a great shoe, having somebody wear it, and then getting paid. There's nothing better than creating something and getting paid.

So do you get more excited when you see sales numbers, or when you see a particular person wearing a shoe?

The thing that excites me the most is seeing the shoes being worn. Many times I've stopped people and said, "Where did you get that fucking shoe?" And they go, "Steve Madden." But so yeah, getting paid is a big deal. The whole idea. The Silicon Valley guys really get that. They're like these geeks -- they're very focused on their tech geeky shit and the stock market. These two very opposite sort of things. They're doing their thing and all that, but they're really focused on getting paid. I put the shoes first and the money second, but you have to have both, and you can't exist without profit, it's very important. Guys go into business and they do all this stuff and it's fabulous and crazy, but they don't make any money and they collapse eventually. Like Zac Posen is an example.

Brian Atwood wasn't doing too well when you acquired him, either.

Brian Atwood, great example. Betsey Johnson. Betsey did okay for a lot of years, she did fine. There's a lot of guys everybody think is great, they go crazy, but they don't make no money. You have to do both. And that's what Ralph [Lauren] does so well, and that's what Tommy [Hilfiger] does so well, and that's what Marc Jacobs does so well. They're brilliant, all three of those guys, just fucking brilliant. So I've always been sort of interested in art and commerce, you know, together.

That's good, because I feel like a lot of people in fashion just want to do the art part.

That's so boring to me. Either one is boring without the other, right? To me.

We haven't talked at all about trends. What are you excited about category-wise?

Sneakers. Look what you're wearing. All the guys in Europe are making the sneakers -- everybody, Céline, Chanel. So it's very challenging for me to make sneakers, by the way. Usually it involves more lead time, and technology, and it's hard for a shoe guy to do sneakers. I'm not even going to pretend to be in the league with Nike or those guys. So we'll do sneakers that will be built like shoes. It will be challenging because of the materials, and they require a lot of molds, but I see it.

Any other categories?

Things are a little dressier, for me, believe it or not. Because I think the sneakers are eating into some of the casual shoes, so I have to kind of look for voids sometimes, the market gets over-saturated. We always have our girls who want to wear high heels and look hot, and we want to do more of it. And for us we are going to try to figure out where our pump girl goes in the fall, and I think it's little booties.

How much do you depend on trend forecasting, or what sold last season?

We do everything. Context is so important in our business. A lot of shoe guys, they make a shoe that was good in 1994, they'll bring it back because it feels good, but if it's at the wrong time, it's no good. Timing is critical. We are very aware of the market, we study it, we shop it, we're all over the world. We're very conscious of certain areas of the country that we feel have some leadership in terms of trends, such as Williamsburg, Silver Lake, Los Feliz. All of it is important. Just to copy shoes? No. Just to design shoes without context? No. It's a whole thing.

You've fought lawsuits in the past concerning copying. How do you make sure, now, that you're aware of the trends and still doing something original?

We always try to do our own thing all the time. You know, you get shoes… Balenciaga had a lego shoe, one of our vendors brought it to us, it was stupid, that was one thing. But listen, I'm copied more than anybody in the shoe business. No one is copied more than Steve Madden. No one. If you go to the Chinese guys, SoCal with all the Chinese mafia, they live in my stores, they bring all the samples back. To be honest with you, I haven't had a lot of lawsuits. It's surprising if you think about it. The amount of business that I've done. There was Balenciaga, a thing with Adidas with the stripe. I haven't had a ton.

There is a growing group of retailers who are championing ethical and sustainable fashion over fast fashion. Is that something you're interested in?

I don't think about it as much as probably I should. I probably should be a better citizen. I think it's something to aspire to. But my job is to get the shoes out, so that's what I think about. You know, I think that global warming is a real thing.

How do you feel about your portrayal in "Wolf of Wall Street"?

You know, that was part of my life. It was a good movie. It wasn't very flattering to me. But it was -- my piece was fairly accurate. You know, I was completely taken advantage of by them, and I think it shows I was a little naïve in the movie. They captured the scene where I did this bit in front of all the guys. And that's true, I did, I was pitching them my company, and they were like throwing things at me. They were animals. It wasn't about the company, it was just a piece of paper. But you know they were my childhood friends, and stuff happens. It was a good movie. And I think all in all it was fun, and people are always bringing me movie posters to sign, and that's ok.

You're going to be here presumably for many more years, but how do you think about the brand when you're not here and its legacy?

It did occur to me recently that the brand will be around when I'm dead. It's crazy, I think. But I've got a long way to go. I'm healthy, 56, not that old. I think people start to fall apart around 75. 

Your story has been so quintessentially American, building a company, and then losing it a bit, and coming back.

Yeah, it has been really. You know when it happens to you it's not as remarkable. I suppose if I were to look at myself, I suppose it would be.

It definitely merits its own biography.

We're working on that now. We're doing a documentary.