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Management in Practice

The Man Is the Brand

The luxury shoe brand Stuart Weitzman is a now a corporate sibling to Coach, but it retains the DNA of its founder, the shoe designer and corporate leader of the same name. Yale Insights talked to Weitzman about the connection a brand can make with customers and the moment he turned the spotlight on shoes.

How could the luxury shoe company Stuart Weitzman, founded by the designer and corporate leader of the same name, be called anything else? The man is the key to the brand.

A few key points in Weitzman’s career to date: learning the trade from his shoe-designer father, Seymour; attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania; creating a pair of sandals adorned with 464 diamonds (worn by Laura Harring) for the 2002 Academy Awards; selling the company to Coach—now known as Tapestry—for $574 million in 2015 and staying on as chief designer.

How does a company balance the creativity of its founder and the strategic thinking of its CEO—when the two roles are held by the same person? How does a brand so closely identified with a single individual live on past his retirement?

To find out, Yale Insights did some shoe-leather reporting.

How does Stuart Weitzman, the brand, fit into the history of shoes?

I am pretty proud of my role in the shoe industry. There are several things that I did that hadn’t been done before. One of them is to make fabulous-looking bridal shoes. That’s how I started my business. Every brand looks for a niche. You’ve got a lot of people ahead of you, and it’s hard to knock them off their blocks, so you have to find your way, and I didn’t see wonderful bridal shoes. In fact, I believed—maybe not true, but it was in my mind—that the long gowns were made to hide those awful shoes that girls wore. They looked like acetate satin, you know? They glowed in the dark.

And I made a series of lace shoes, beautiful lace shoes, out of Swiss lace. It was actually a shoe that got me my first design award as accessory of the bridal industry. And that changed the face, or, I should say, the sole, of footwear for brides. Today, girls pay as much attention to the shoe as the dress.

So, that’s one of my marks. The other is what’s called the Shoe Cam. The little corner of the TV screen that focuses on the shoes, on the red carpet, particularly. I created a shoe called—it was nicknamed by the press, “the million-dollar sandal,” in 2002, as an attempt to get the press to pay attention to footwear. And that shoe sure did it. Joan Rivers grabbed the actress, Laura Harring, who was wearing it, and pulled her foot up to the camera and said, “Everybody wants to see Stuart Weitzman’s million-dollar sandal.” And from then on, all interviewers began to ask, not just about the hair and the jewelry and the dress, but, “Whose shoes are you wearing?”

How does today’s luxury market look from your perspective?

You have to think of luxury products for what they really are. They’re like a religion. There’s a passion about them. They are, by definition, and by experience, wonderfully made products, and that used to be all they needed to be. Today, it’s not all that they need to be. You have to create a desire for them, a scarcity for them. And their projections are much greater than the normal growth of the fashion industry.

I think that’s because people aspire to own them. And all these copies you see, sometimes, on street corners, especially in cities like New York, where you see the Vuitton bag copies, and Gucci bag copies, and others, the companies could close that down, but it’s free advertising. I mean, the girl who can’t afford a $2,000 bag and gets one for $150, wants the $2,000 bag, and hopefully enough of them, someday, will be able to afford it. Because there’s a faith factor. That’s why I said it’s like a religion, and I don’t see it going anywhere but up, at this moment. I’ve never predicted more than five to seven, eight years out, but I don’t have any negative thoughts on where luxury’s going for that period of time.

So your company’s not cracking down too hard on knockoff shoes?

If I weren’t copied I think I’d have a problem, you know? I look at it as a compliment. And then I protect my customers against it, so if a store that sells $30 shoes has a copy, or a store that sells $500 shoes have a copy, I don’t care about the $30 shoe store, but I may care about the $500 shoe store. So we pick and choose in that regard.

How important is customer loyalty to your business? Is the brand about a philosophy that you share with your customers?

Well, the reason we all try to build a brand is to separate ourselves from our competitors. We try to build barriers that separate us from them, and of course a strong brand is the best barrier you can build among others. That brand, we hope, gets into the minds of people who buy our shoes, and generally we keep our customer because one of the strongest elements of our DNA is the fit and the comfort of our footwear. Which has been a surprising characteristic for fashion shoes. Usually it was, “I’ll suffer a little bit,” you know? But women are different today. They think for themselves; no one’s strapping them into a girdle, or into garter belts or all the stuff that’s history, that men created but women really never wanted, and the same thing with footwear. Women want shoes that feel good. There are lots of them who love shoes that look great. Certainly when you see it on the shelf in a store, you don’t know how comfortable it is. You pick it up because it looks good. But then if it feels good, we have a customer, maybe for a long time.

She may not like what we’ve made that following season, but she’ll give us the first look because she’s a customer of ours, and it’s our job to make sure we know what she’ll like, and give her some of that.

You’ve gone though some transitions with ownership and expanding the company. How do you maintain your company’s values?

I’ve had some unusual circumstances in the final sale of the Stuart Weitzman company. First is, I have no family who was interested in continuing with it, so that made it obligatory to find a final home. The first one that I found decided that it was worth more selling off all its assets than continuing to run itself. That was the Jones Group. And actually, they did get more, per share, by liquidating, than they did by being valued by the public on the New York Stock Exchange. So after that sale, I found myself running a company that I hadn’t yet placed in its final home.

The Coach organization, which was re-named Tapestry, is the company that bought it, and that’s where it sits today. Now, I recognize that they bought Stuart Weitzman, the company, and the brand, both. And they saw a potential in it to be more than a shoe brand. And they recognized the golden goose is the shoes. So they insisted, and I did too, it was a mutual agreement in that regard, to stay on for two years, help hire the team that would replace me and a few other key people who would be retiring with me, and try to maintain the DNA of Stuart Weitzman. Its look, its freshness, its contemporary nature, its fit, its comfort, and its cool factor with the celebrities. All of those things that made us what we became. So by leaving them that kind of staff, and bringing in people who we saw could be that way, we’d give it the best shot to become a bigger and better business.

“When you’re in fashion, you have to be a student of what fashion has always been. You never know where the idea’s going to come from. And you never limit your thinking to what you did last year.”

Maybe they can add factors that I wasn’t interested in doing, like other products. And maybe they can add more retail because Coach, with their thousands of stores, has a clout that I wouldn’t have, in malls and other locations. Maybe all of those advantages that they carry on the corporate side melded with the ones on the entrepreneurial side, to make a better company. That’s our hope, and that’s our goal.

Do you have to put on a different pair of glasses as chief designer than as CEO?

I think I was a bit fortunate, because you don’t see much of this, being the business head of the company and the creative director head of the company. Usually the creative side is one aspect of the business, and then there’s a partner or director of the business side. I was both because I didn’t plan to be a shoe designer. I planned to go to Wall Street, and I studied business at the Wharton School with that in mind. But I ended up working at my hobby, so I brought the business mindset with me.

When I would create a shoe, I first thought of the aesthetics, but immediately the business side of that shoe came into play. Did I need to make it more commercial or more revolutionary? Depending on whether I thought it had real long legs. And that was an advantage, and I never needed a committee to decide upon that. Usually, in committees of that sort, the creative side fights the business side because they want purity of design—which I do, and did, whenever I would start a project with footwear, a series of shoes, for example—but in the end, the business side made the final choice, and there was never an argument.

And I know I made more money because I was able to do it that way, but I also know I made a better product because I was able to do it that way.

Do you think that the business environment has benefited from the conversation about work-life balance?

When I was at the Wharton School, there was one course that we had to take. None of us liked taking it, we couldn’t understand why we had to take this course on sociology, but the professor was eccentric, and, supposedly, incredibly interesting, and we went in with that in mind, not really expecting to get any more out of it than some good humor. His name was E. Digby Baltzell. I remember a lesson that he gave us in class, and I have thought about it so many times. I’ve even told it to students when I’ve spoken to them. He brought out a jug from under his desk one day, filled with golf balls. Almost filled with golf balls. And he called up a fellow from his seat, and he said, “Would you say this jug is full, or not full?” He said, “Well it’s not yet full.” And he brought a little bucket and he said, “Why don’t you fill it up? No, no. I mean really fill it up. Stuff them in there. And you’re going to have to put the top on, so get them in there!” And he filled the darn thing up, and he said, “You satisfied now?” And the class nodded, yeah.

He unscrewed the top, put it on the table, took a pitcher of sand from under his desk, and he put sand in it. And obviously the sand went in between the openings of the round balls. And now it was finally full. We were unsure what his point was at that time, other than he was humoring us. Now we were sure it was full, but then he pulled out a pitcher of water. And he filled it up, finally, with the water. And he said to us, “Your golf balls are your work, and they’re going to fill up most of the time of your life, and the sand, that’s probably your friends and your hobbies, and your sports, and without that, your jug isn’t full. The water, though, is your family, and all your other relatives that are close to you, and even your best friends, and that’s what will make your life full.”

How do you keep reinventing the black pump year after year?

Well, first of all, I’ve never worn blinkers in my design career. A black pump is more than a black pump. Maybe this winter it’s a black boot. Maybe next summer it’s a black ballet flat. And maybe it’s a black two-inch heel, or three-inch heel pump.

I have always recognized the black pump as something that should be in a woman’s wardrobe, but it doesn’t always have to look like a low-cut shoe covering just the edges of your toes, and going back with nothing over the instep. When someone says to me, “My God, that gladiator sandal was so hot,” we would say, “What are we going to do to replace it?” And my two designers would start drawing new versions of the gladiator sandal, and I tore them up. I said “No, something will replace it, but it’s not going to be a gladiator sandal. Whatever that girl had to have in that gladiator, you’ve got to figure out what she’s got to have in something else. Maybe it’s a sneaker. “So you reinvent these things by looking outside of the box they were originally in.

How has traditional design influenced you?

Our collection is, let’s say, 70% evolutionary, and 30% revolutionary. And of course without the revolutionary designs you’re never in the fashion business. We draw upon history—a moccasin is a moccasin, but we can change it. Maybe this season silver is a hot color; we may make it in silver. We make it look modern, not like a retro shoe, but we draw upon the retro.

Last year in New York City, at the New York Historical Society Museum, there was a fabulous exhibit on more than 110 antique shoes that are part of my collection. And every shoe was collected with the idea of its history. Why was that shoe made that way? And years ago, shoes were made according to your social status. Who you were in the court, or in society. You couldn’t wear something if perhaps a royal person was wearing it, or if the royal person was a higher level than you on the scale of royalty. And these shoes tell that story, from the 1700s to the Roaring Twenties, let’s say. Including suffrage shoes, that high-button boot that women wore when they decided to raise their skirts off the ground, but they weren’t yet ready to show all their ankles, so that high-button shoe came into play. I draw upon that. In fact, the high-button shoe, remade in a modern way, was one of our best-selling shoes about 10 years ago. So those things are important. When you’re in fashion, you have to be a student of what fashion has always been. You never know where the idea’s going to come from. And you never limit your thinking to what you did last year.

What did you think about Susan Sarandon wearing your thigh-high red boots at a film premiere? They looked great, but some of the media thought they weren’t age-appropriate.

Let me tell you about the thigh-high boot. That is one of my great accomplishments, for me and for the shoe industry. Until we did it the right way, and publicized it, that boot was worn by the girls on the street corner. Think Pretty Woman. “Now, what girl,” I thought, “do I know is going to wear that boot?”

And it took me almost 15 years to figure out the changes to make in that boot so that Susan Sarandon would want to wear it. And every other girl on the planet, by the way. Why? I changed it into a piece of clothing. I made it stretchy, tight-fitting, hugging the leg like a pair of leggings. I took the pointed toe off and I put a round toe on. I took the stiletto heel off, and put a strong heel on. And then I put it on Kate Moss. That was it. It became the biggest boot in the shoe industry, and the most copied item for the last three or four years.

So, about Susan wearing it in red? I heard someone very close to me say, “I wish I could pull off that boot like Susan Sarandon did!” And I think that woman is older than Susan Sarandon. I think this shows that an idea about which one is passionate shouldn’t be abandoned because its development is not immediate or easy. If you believe in it, then it will be worth the effort and the wait.

Interview conducted and edited by Emily Gordon.