For Arthur Schwartz, nothing compares to the art of making a pair of shoes.
After nearly 70 years at the company his father founded, Schwartz’s favorite moments have been inside a factory, solving the unique problems that come with evolving designs and aesthetics.
“I love the challenge of manufacturing,” the Schwartz & Benjamin chairman said about his early days in the business.
Today, Schwartz describes his role as that of pinch hitter, watching from the sidelines as his son Danny Schwartz, CEO, and daughter-in-law Barbara Schwartz, director of product development, lead the company. And it’s a vantage point he enjoys, particularly because the game has changed.
“It’s so fast-paced [now]. I couldn’t imagine being involved [day-to-day],” he said.
However, according to Barbara, Arthur set the pace when it came to attracting design talent. “My father-in-law has always been forward-thinking,” she said. “He reached out to established, talented footwear designers to collaborate on our own brand, Customcraft, for many years. Some notable names are Arsho Baghsarian, Beth Levine, Evelyn Lipare, Mabel Julianelli, Margaret Clark Jerrold, Roland Jourdan and Sylvia Baldi. We continued footwear design collaborations for Anne Klein and Anne Klein II in the early years with Andrea Pfister, and then Manolo Blahnik, Patrick Cox, Franco Fieramosca and Reed Evins. Additionally, Bernard Figueroa was employed to collaborate on the Michael Kors collection.”
Despite the changing nature of the industry — and the trend toward consolidation — Schwartz said he is proud of his firm’s accomplishments and that it has managed to remain privately owned and family-run.
“The best part of being a family business is you call your own shots,” said the patriarch.
Here, Schwartz recalls the best business advice his father gave him and favorite moments in fashion over a long and profitable career.
What’s the most valuable lesson you learned from your father Benjamin Schwartz?
AS: Treat people decently. [For example], when [my father’s former partner], Benjamin Benjamin, decided to leave the company and go into business for himself, my father made samples for him. They loved each other.
What do you see as the company’s most innovative move in the industry?
AS: We were the first to tap into the fashion intelligence of the world’s best ready-to-wear designers, getting them involved in the shoe business in a serious way. We started with Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Anne Klein. The idea of collaborations with ready-to-wear houses started with us.
Who have been the most influential shoe designers you’ve worked with?
AS: Margaret Clark Jerrold, who was married to Jerry Miller of the I. Miller family. She was a revelation, designing from a sociological point of view. She was the first to make a low-heel, comfortable shoe to walk in. [They] were beautiful [and] exciting. She [briefly] designed for Schwartz & Benjamin when we were doing a special line for Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue called The American Collection. At that time in the 1960s, low-heel shoes were awful looking. She single-handedly [turned the look] around. It was great fun. [Another] exciting period was [our] association with Charles Jourdan. I went to France on a regular basis to work with Roland Jourdan to develop our collections.
Among the ready-to-wear designers who collaborated with Schwartz & Benjamin, who had the biggest impact?
AS: We worked for a long time with Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio. Donna was passionate about shoes. If Louis had put his mind to it, he could have been a shoe designer.
Which industry insider made the greatest impression on you?
AS: Burt Tansky of Neiman Marcus was very influential. A number of years ago, Danny and Barbara came up with the idea of [doing] a collaboration with Kate Spade. At the time, Neiman Marcus owned a good stake in its [existing] business. Burt had confidence in us and asked if we would take [it] over [in order] to rebuild it, which we did.
What tops your list of memorable events?
AS: The 50th anniversary of Neiman Marcus. We were invited to come down [to Texas]. A few of us flew down on the plane with Coco Chanel. Being fêted by Neiman for their anniversary was great fun.
Schwartz & Benjamin pioneered so many looks. Which has had the largest fashion impact?
AS: [The development] of the first stretch pump called the Cloud 7. We made tons of them. We did it on two heel heights. Outwardly, it looked like a nicely cut, plain pump. It had a quality of fit that couldn’t be challenged.
How has buying changed over the years?
AS: Early on, [retailers] would buy the same shoe season after season, changing [only] the colors. Every once in a while, they’d introduce a new style. [In the 1960s], the business became more [about] fashion. [Today], we have a much more fashionable [consumer]. She’s younger and more sophisticated.