After landing an entry-level job as a customer complaint representative at I. Miller on Fifth Avenue, a young Camuto bonded with female customers who came in to bemoan fit issues and defective styles. “I started to learn the technical aspects and how to fix some of the problems,” Camuto recalled.
Then on a busy Saturday afternoon, he was asked to pitch in on the sales floor and a career was born. “It was nonstop. I ended up being [one of the top sellers] and eventually worked my way up to assistant manager. I was full of ideas and it was an exciting period.”
The I. Miller gig was so satisfying that Camuto decided to give up his childhood dream of becoming an actor. “I was going into the acting business, but I wanted to eat,” he quipped. “[Being in footwear] still allowed me to be creative.”
Over the next decade, Camuto worked in a variety of industry jobs that helped him gain experience in both manufacturing and retail. Along the way, he met Jack Fisher on an airplane, and in 1968 the two teamed up with Sumitomo Corp., a major Japanese shoe importer, to develop Brazilian shoe exports. By 1977, Fisher and Camuto had formed Fisher Camuto, the precursor to Nine West. Over the next two decades, the business partners — along with Wayne Weaver — grew the company, took it public in 1993 and snapped up larger rival U.S. Shoe Corp. in 1995. By the time Nine West was sold to Jones Apparel Group in 1999 for $1.4 billion, the company had become a multibranded footwear powerhouse.
Giving up the firm he poured so much energy into was “very hard,” Camuto said. “I love Nine West. It was really my baby, and everyone else’s. But you move on.”
Moving on meant stepping away from the industry to spend time with his family and travel around the world. Though Camuto wasn’t thinking about his next professional move, he didn’t sit on the sidelines for long. The energetic exec, now 72, sprung into action when his friend, Alex Dillard, called for advice in 2001. Shortly after, the pair inked a deal for private-label footwear, and The Camuto Group was formed.
Seven years later, the company is firing on all cylinders. Camuto has put together a collection of big names, including Jessica Simpson, Tory Burch and BCBG. The Dillard’s partnership continues to flourish, and the company is ramping up its relationship with Macy’s through a new deal to produce INC private-label footwear. Camuto also entered the retail arena in 2007 via its purchase of The Shoe Box Inc. with NexCen Brands Inc., and it has expanded into apparel through deals with emerging ready-to-wear brands Development by Erica Davies and Sanctuary. “It’s a new platform,” said Camuto. “It’s a mixture of talent. We don’t rely on one person.”
While Camuto declined to discuss any future deals, it’s clear he doesn’t plan to slow down. “The company is young and passionate,” he said. “We continue to look at opportunities that make sense for us.”
The CEO recently sat down with Footwear News at his Greenwich, Conn., office for a rare, in-depth interview about lessons learned during more than four decades in the business, the highlights of his Nine West days and his second big act.
FN: Did you always intend to return to footwear after you sold Nine West?
VC: No. We wrote our own two-year noncompete as part of the deal with Jones. I traveled and spent more time with the kids. It was a very important time. And then I [came back] and started slow with [the Dillard’s] brands in 2001, the same year I got the Footwear News Hall of Fame award.
FN: What are the advantages of being a private company?
VC: It’s really nice to be private. When you get big, you have to be flexible, and sometimes a public company can’t do that. You have restrictions because you’ve got to follow the bottom line all the time. Today, we’re able to give the most value to consumers [without worrying about that].
FN: Would you ever consider going public again?
VC: I don’t know. You never know. There are more creative ways to do things, such as partnering with another company that has the same kind of ideology. But we have a long way to go before we have to think about anything like that.
FN: Are you worried about the U.S. economic climate?
VC: The feeling in America right now is not very good. The government can’t make any decisions. It’s like one big public company — no one can agree. But is America going to fall apart? No. Maybe it will take a year or two, but housing will straighten out. The U.S. dollar will probably get stronger over the next five years. People will realize America was undervalued and maybe that Europe was overvalued. We’re at a low point, but there’s plenty of opportunity out there. The thing about America is that there’s a lot of talent. There are a lot of entrepreneurs coming up with new ideas. They’re going to stimulate the economy by themselves.
FN: How can retailers attract consumers back into their stores?
VC: The stores are tired. We have to ask: How can we make [shopping] more like theater? How can we make it more fun? You have all these foreign stores such as Zara and H&M eating up a lot of American soil. They are doing a great job. [Look at] Abercrombie & Fitch on Fifth Avenue. It’s really exciting. Consumers are spending there because it’s an experience and they get good perceived value.
FN: You ventured into retail with your Shoe Box deal. Are you planning any stores under your other nameplates?
VC: Yes, but we would have to find the right partner. You need an infrastructure. We’ve got a lot of concepts if we find the right people.
FN: How challenging is it to work with such big personalities as Jessica Simpson and Tory Burch?
VC: It’s not. Jessica is a friend — she’s a doll. Tory is also a friend. She’s great and we admire her and what we’re doing [together]. It’s great to be part of a group that is unstoppable right now.
FN: You’ve said that Jessica Simpson could be a billion-dollar brand. Do you have a timetable?
VC: No, there’s not a timetable. America’s ready for it, but it’s about how fast we can do it. Globally, there’s a great opportunity, as well. We think of it as more than a celebrity brand — it’s a lifestyle brand.
FN: Why do you think Tory Burch has been so successful in footwear?
VC: It’s unbelievable. It’s like a freight train. She’s a very talented woman. The press loves her, and she’s got good style. People really feel like she came at the right time. How many women in New York can buy Christian Louboutin? We have the sourcing capability to produce great quality at affordable prices. The [Reva] flat is $200. Now, the boots are big, and we’re going to keep expanding into new categories.
FN: There is a lot of great female design talent in our industry. Why are there so few women in top executive positions?
VC: It’s mentality. It’s still a boys’ club. It’s hard for a lot of these companies to change. A lot of them have been in the business for so long. I remember when women wouldn’t be able to sit in meetings — and that was in the late 1980s. I had to change that. I put more women in the business than anybody at Nine West. Almost all the people in [leadership roles] were women. I wanted to make it a women’s club, not a guys’ club.
FN: Do you consider Nine West one of your competitors?
VC: Everybody who sells shoes [is a competitor], but we don’t look at what Nine West is doing. We look at what we’re doing. I think our shoes are very different.
FN: Who do you admire in the fashion business?
VC: I really respect what Phil Knight has accomplished with his business strategy. I admire Christian Louboutin for his designs and public relations, and Ralph Lauren for his creative genius and how he has developed a consistent brand image that he has propelled globally — Millard Drexler has done it twice with Gap and J.Crew. I also admire the newcomer, Tory Burch, for her design integrity and [her ability] to create a total lifestyle brand with a strong point of view.
FN: What’s your typical week like?
VC: I spend a lot of time in the design studios talking about new ideas and working with product. We just finished up all the new collections [for spring ’09]. And I spend about 20 percent of my time on human resources. I want to build the company with the best people. We’re a growing company and we need quality designers and young people who have an incredible taste level. People are my passion. I love to watch them grow. You can talk about all the shoes you make, but at the end of the day, it’s about the people.
FN: Are you excited that several family members are involved in the business?
VC: It’s great. [My wife] Louise is the president of marketing and communications. My [19-year-old] son John just started here this summer. He has the bug. He’s very artistic. He hasn’t even gone to school formally for design, but he’s designed some beautiful shoes. They’re both very passionate about the business.
FN: Looking ahead, do you plan to be as acquisitive as you’ve been in the past three years?
VC: We continue to look at opportunities that make sense for us. The company is young and passionate. Our people like to do new things. They can take the company wherever they want to.
FN: Do you ever see yourself retiring?
VC: No. I have a lot to do. This is my pastime. I love it.