When Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" made its debut in 2013, it inadvertently sparked the start of a documentary. On Friday, "Maddman: The Steve Madden Story" makes its digital debut, following the trajectory of Steve Madden and the billion-dollar shoe business he's built — a company with over 310 retail locations in over 75 countries worldwide. "Ever since 'The Wolf of Wall Street' I had been waiting to tell the Madden part of the story," Madden told Fashionista via email. "I wanted to get it out before I was too old, and could still remember all the facts." This film represents that effort.
With a running time of just 77 minutes, "Maddman" does not have the same gloss of a typical fashion documentary. It tells the story of Madden's rise, starting with his days of partying throughout college, which continued through his work at Jildor and LJ Simone while he learned the shoe business. The film takes viewers through Madden's entire journey, from doing quaaludes in the Village and walking around naked high on drugs, to founding the company with $1100 in the bank selling shoes from a garage, to the massive successes of the brand's styles like the Marilyn and the Marylou. Commentary from the likes of Madden employees, a former fashion editor of the now defunct Sassy and Mickey Boardman of Paper is spliced in the story as well. One even says: "Steve Madden was the first person to democratize on-trend shoes."
The film also delves into Madden's experience in prison as a result of the events that "The Wolf of Wall Street" dramatized. According to "Maddman," the fault should be chalked up to Madden's naivety and trust in a friend from childhood who was connected to Statton Oakmont. But while inside, the entrepreneur didn't leave his business sense behind; according to the film, he became a bit of a kingpin in the "mackerel economy" — where inmates used the fish as currency.
The film is both an examination of business (the company went public with only one store in Soho), ambition and success. Watching Madden reckon with how that success affected his home life (it caused the dissolution of his marriage) as well as how he built and sustained relationships with other inmates at times felt a more potent component of the story than the fashion business aspects. After serving time, Madden went on to work with former inmates through the Doe Fund, including one of the documentary's stars Vern Neely, who currently heads up the shoe magnate's South Florida operations.
"It's obviously a fashion film, but I kind of look at it more as a movie about a tycoon and it happens to be about shoes," director Ben Patterson said of the feature, which is his second. "As far as other projects, I'm fascinated in the biographies of people. My first movie was about a guy who was convinced by one of the Fugees to run for the presidency of Haiti. For me, I [want to know] what drives people to do what they do."
Here, we speak to Patterson about where the idea from the film originated, the gems of the work and why it looks the way it does. Read on for highlights of the conversation
Where did the idea for the film originate?
I have been working for a while in the capacity of a producer-director for the Steve Madden company dating back to 2009 for some marketing and advertising stuff. I didn't really know him that well, but over time I would see him around on set. I just thought he was a fascinating guy and consumers didn't know the man behind the brand. As I got to know him personally and "The Wolf of Wall Street" came out, I thought he was just a really interesting and dynamic character and he really encompassed some of the — for better or for worse — things Americans feel about entrepreneurship and about hustle and about success.
When "The Wolf of Wall Street" came out I put together a concept trailer reel where I went out and interviewed a bunch of people down in the street in Soho. I was just asking them if they knew who Steve Madden was, and actually a lot of them didn't. Those initial exploratory interviews made it into the beginning of the film.
How long did you actually work on the film?
We officially started in 2014 but I had filmed years prior to that. I had archival that I had shot myself. But we would start and then stop for a while and then get back to it — Steve is busy and has a big company to run. Keeping him committed to the film was a part of the challenge; he wanted to do it but we also wanted to make sure it was honest. So we wanted to get into some stuff that would be uncomfortable. At the end of the day, we felt that exposing the trials and tribulations of his life could actually help other people.
Was there an aspect in particular that was really important to include?
The honesty of it and the struggle of ambition and winning at all costs. But also what all of that ended up leading to. It was important to have the drugs in there because that was a really key part of his life. But also each one of his comebacks from his downfalls were the things that launched him into the success of himself as a businessman and a designer. The prison part was really important and honestly none of those stories had been told. So when we found out about the guys he was locked up with and the personal and business relationships he formed and is continuing to form with them, it was all really fascinating.
How did you actually find out about that?
It was pure discovery. There was no source material, there was no biography written. A lot of these things, he would just say out of the blue and I would be like 'Steve, that's an amazing story, why didn't you tell me that [on camera?]' A lot of it was like, once the cameras were off or he thought they were off, he would open up about other things and we would start to see further into the story. So that part was definitely an artifact of just a lot of conversations and investigating what the story was.
Does one of those conversations in particular stick out to you?
Yes, and some ways I think it goes to the emotional core of the movie. We were at his place and during the course of filming the movie Steve had dealt with a lot of personal things: the passing of his mother, the passing of his brother who he was very close to, and his marriage ending. And so we were talking and he said: 'I still feel like I'm a fraud. I'm always afraid of that moment when someone says you're shit, and I realize that I've failed.'
I think I realized at that moment that everybody, if they are really honest with themselves, kind of has that sense sometimes. And I think that a man who has built a billion-dollar shoe company, and is on top of the world in his business and doing so much, I was just surprised to hear that from him but really grateful that he opened up in that way. For me, that was what's fascinating about his story and about a tycoon from a psychological level. What is that drive?
I asked him one time about his hero who worked at the first shoe store he worked at. I said 'if he's so great, why wasn't he Steve Madden?' He said, 'I don't know, maybe he's not as insecure as I am' and I get that.
Can you talk a bit about the aesthetics of the film?
This isn't a movie about Manolo Blahnik, you know. Steve is a hustler, man. He's a businessman and in some ways he's raw. I always think it's funny because a lot of people, when they meet Steve, even though he has great charisma and a certain aura around him, he's not the guy you would expect to be Steve. Because he's so focused, sometimes he really doesn't give a shit what he's got on. I think he only owns two or three pairs of his own shoes.
It was inevitably going to be a more raw vibe because that's Steve and we weren't going to fake that. So that goes to how we treated the pictures and the archival. One of the big challenges we had was with the prison stuff, we had no assets at all. So I worked with my editor Jorge Flores and two collaborators that I had worked with on my first movie and we used this crudely drawn world to represent Coleman penitentiary. I wanted it to feel a bit like a hellish situation, especially in comparison to what he experienced with the guys from Statton Oakmont in "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Maddman: The Steve Madden Story is available to buy and rent on iTunes and Amazon beginning December 1.