Milestone: Master Class

Milestone: Master Class
Upper Echelon’s Seth Campbell and Steve Madden.

“I used to be the youngest guy in the shoe business, and now I’m usually the oldest guy in the room,” Steve Madden quipped recently.

At 52, the design veteran insisted that he feels the same as when he first started out. “[But] you have to be careful,” he admitted, “because you realize there are some things that are unique to your generation.”

That’s why Madden is adamant about surrounding himself with young talent. The designer’s latest find is Seth Campbell, the founder of Upper Echelon Shoes, which partnered with the company last month.

“I’m just here to be supportive and show how it can be done and then get out of the way,” Madden said of his relationship with the young shoemaker.

For his part, Campbell said joining the firm has given him a new perspective on the industry.

“I’m learning to sell shoes. There is no better salesman than my father, [Bob Campbell, CEO of BBC International], but learning from Steve and Rob Schmertz is just incredible. I find myself following and watching them to see how they work.”

Here, the two designers, 28 years apart, talk about what inspires them and how they can learn from each other.

FN: What are today’s design challenges?

Steve Madden: The biggest frustration is that [the design team] doesn’t want to take risks. In fairness to them, the stakes are so high because this is a big company and there is a lot to lose. But when you don’t take risks, things get boring and tired. It’s a catch 22.

Seth Campbell: My biggest challenge is the exact opposite: I’m taking too much of a risk. Here I am putting chains and jewelry on shoes and [targeting] department stores. I’m happy with where I am, though, and that I can take those risks. Seeing the product is the biggest reward.

SM: For me, the biggest reward is being in an elevator and seeing a girl with the shoes on, or riding around the city and seeing so many people wearing our shoes on their feet. That’s fun. And, of course, there’s the money.

SC: I’m still waiting for both of those things!

SM: I’ve said this before and nobody likes this, but I make shoes for money. It’s my craft. I do it in the same way that a plumber or a taxi driver goes to work. Yes, there is art and inspiration, but what drives me is the rent.

FN: What can you learn from each other?

SC: I have a lot more to learn from him than he does from me.

SM: That’s not true. You never stop learning. Seth’s a one-man band, and I have so much help.

SC: I don’t feel like I’m doing it alone, though. Working with each department here is really helpful. I learn bits and pieces of things from everyone. I’ll learn how to balance designing shoes for aesthetic pleasure and fashion, but also for business and for the stores.

SM: But Seth sees things through the prism of his generation. And actually, so do I. The good thing about a company like ours is there are a lot of young people. I work with girls who range from 20 to 40, and they bring all their experiences to the table. We can see someone like Seth doing his thing, and that inspires us.

FN: Which fashion icons do you admire?

SC: I’ve always said Kate Moss. I like Rihanna’s style, too. She was the first person to wear those acid-washed jean jackets with the sleeves cut off. She always looks great.

SM: Lisa Lisa. She was one of my favorites. I like Susanna Hoffs a lot, too. I like faded, washed-up women rock stars.

FN: How do you stay on the pulse of fashion?

SM: I should read fashion blogs, shouldn’t I? I don’t read any. I read political blogs, like The Daily Cause and The Huffington Post.

SC: I read The New York Post’s sports section.

FN: If you both had to start all over, would you choose this business knowing what you know now?

SM: [After a long pause] I would do it all over again. In terms of breaking into the business, it never changes in that regard. Someone with new ideas and a strong work ethic can always break in. There are always pros and cons. But if you have good ideas and keep showing up, you can do it.

SC: Well [hearing that] means a lot. This is a tough business, and anybody who says they would do it over again — given the challenges — that means a lot.

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