On a summer Friday afternoon in New York’s bustling Soho neighborhood, locals and tourists alike stroll along Broadway, many with multiple shopping bags in hand.
But one of them clearly stands out. Steve Madden, sporting jeans and a baseball cap, is walking purposefully. Planted right in the middle of the crowd, the designer stares at their feet.
“I always have to look at what people are wearing,” he says, moving quickly toward the door of his Manhattan flagship. “A lot of times, it’s Steve Madden. We’ve made so many shoes over the years.”
Inside the packed store, the top 40 tunes are blaring. A crowd of shoppers ranging from trendy tween girls to young moms with strollers check out the latest fall styles and summer looks on sale.
Madden surveys the scene, greets a few employees with a quick “what’s up” and inquires about the sales of a new bootie. A few seconds later, he darts behind the cash register to find a report detailing the day’s performance.
It isn’t easy to keep up with the designer today. Then again, he’s never been one to stand still.
In many ways, the 56-year-old resembles his younger self, the brash upstart who launched his eponymous business 23 years ago. He’s still super-high energy, product-obsessed and fiercely competitive.
Madden also continues to search for the true meaning of success, despite the fact that his company has grown into a multibranded industry powerhouse and shows no signs of slowing down.
A Wall Street darling, his $1.2 billion firm, Steven Madden Ltd., just turned in another impressive quarter in a difficult retail climate. As it continues to expand its flagship brand into new categories, the company also is finding success with the overhauled Betsey Johnson label, the Olsen twins-backed Superga and its Mad Love brand for Target. And Madden said he is on the hunt for more brands, particularly in the contempory space.
But the founder still worries about not moving fast enough. He stays awake at night “thinking about staying relevant, making sure I’m staying creative. I think about keeping the business strong financially. And I worry about retail, that’s the hardest thing.”
Those professional concerns aren’t the only things keeping him up these days. He’s now the father of three young children: Daughter Goldie was born in March; fraternal twins Jack and Stevie are 5.
“As you get older, there’s a lot more on your plate. Now I have children, karate lessons. It’s a lot to juggle,” he said.
It’s a dramatically different life than the one he was leading more than a decade ago, when he was sent to a Florida prison for stock fraud. Madden said that while he doesn’t mind talking about that experience, it was a long time ago now.
He gets philosophical when summing up his journey so far. “The moment where despair and grace intersect, that’s the moment where I am right now,” he said. “I’m very hopeful.”
Below are excerpts from two recent interviews with Madden, who sounded off on a range of topics, from dream collaborations and social media pitfalls to his upcoming big-screen moment.
How have you changed during the past few years?
SM: I haven’t changed enough. I wish I had more patience. It’s frustrating trying to keep up and win, trying to be the best, trying to keep the stores busy. It feels so bad when someone has better shoes than I do.
You’re now a dad of three. Has having a family made you a happier person?
SM: I have a good family, that’s for sure. I guess I’m happy. It’s sort of an existential moment for me. You get to a certain age, you have success and you try to keep it going. … One thinks when they get a certain amount of money, that’s going to get them a pass into the happy club. But it doesn’t, so that in itself is a little bit of a bummer. You have to search and find out what is it that makes you happy. You have to trigger new ways to motivate yourself. That’s sort of what I’m thinking about right now.
Has work become less important?
SM: No, it’s more important. First of all, it’s how I feed my family. I also have a responsibility to thousands of employees. I love it as much as ever. I still get such a huge thrill from seeing people walk down the street in my shoes.
What has been the biggest professional highlight of the last year?
SM: Seeing the fruits of the acquisitions we made. We’ve watched them all sort of blossom and work out on the financial front. I wouldn’t be able to do it without [CEO] Ed Rosenfeld. I am lucky to have someone who can executive my vision. He knows the numbers like I know the shoes.
What is the most pressing issue facing the industry today?
SM: The dearth of talent. There aren’t a lot of young people [on the executive side] who really know and understand the shoe business. And in terms of designing shoes at our prices, the young kids just don’t get it. Designing at our prices is a lot harder than designing $1,000 shoes.
Are you concerned about the shifting retail landscape?
SM: The market takes care of itself. It is what it is. There might be fewer stores, but I can’t worry about that. The dot-com giants have replaced the old independents. It might have been more fun to go sell to a store in Riverdale [in the Bronx], but it’s just different now.
How often are you in your own stores?
SM: Not as much as I would like to be. I wish I could put on a wig so no one would know who I am. I’ve started to introduce myself to my customers right away. I love watching their reaction. No one believes it’s me. I don’t look like a typical designer. People say I’m just a regular guy. I guess I would describe myself as Proust meets Tony Soprano.
For a while, you were using Twitter as a way to connect with your consumers, but you haven’t tweeted lately.
SM: I had to stop. I was getting too political and it wasn’t fair to [project] those beliefs online. I’m left-leaning and I don’t want to turn conservative consumers off. It wasn’t fair to my employees, either. At the end of the day, I’m just a cobbler.
Speaking of politics, do you think Hillary Clinton is going to run for president?
SM: She will run if her health is OK. It would be great to have our first female president. I enjoy working with women more than I do with men. Women are smarter than men. They have less ego.
You’ve been spending a lot of time on your Steve Madden Music venture that supports emerging talent. Do you want to dive deeper into the music business?
SM: We’re looking to get involved in festivals. We want to create our own or buy one, something like CMJ [Music Marathon] or South by Southwest. I like the festival atmosphere — everyone wants to play there, like Coachella and Bonnaroo and all those places. But they get hip and then someone like Paul McCartney wants to be there because he wants credibility among the young hipsters. Then everyone decides it’s too cool. But it’s an interesting space. It would be fun.
Is it harder to make it in music or footwear?
SM: It’s hard to make it in anything, but music might be the toughest of all. Only a small group of people sell records. If you sell 50,000 records today, it’s a big deal. We’ve had [some of the most successful artists] for Steve Madden Music — Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, who’s going to be as big as Elvis. So many kids dream of being in the music business, but it’s so hard. But being a success in anything takes a singularness of purpose. It takes a little meanness and toughness. Take someone like Tiger Woods, for example. People say how mean Tiger is, but he just wants to be the best. He practices harder than anyone else, and he is a little mean. Nothing is going to get in his way of succeeding.
Do you think you’re mean and tough?
SM: I feel like I’m a softie. I’m a little too soft.
How do you feel about being portrayed on the big screen in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” due out in November?
SM: I was hoping to have a Jamie Foxx/Ray Charles or Robert De Niro/Jake LaMotta type of moment with Jake Hoffman, [the actor who portrays Madden in the story about the rise and fall of stock broker Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio], but we never did because Martin Scorsese would not let Jake meet me. I think he thought it would color his performance. He didn’t want him to be biased by me. So I don’t know what it will be like. It will be strange. I wish it never happened, but it’s part of my life. We made friends with Scorsese’s team and let them use our store [for the filming].
Do you get tired of talking about past missteps and your stint in prison?
SM: I don’t mind talking about it. We’re only as sick as our secrets. Obviously, I had a poor choice of friends [at one time]. I think I’ve been a better picker since then. I’ve been pretty lucky.
Would you ever sell the company?
SM: I used to want to because it sounded like so much money, more money than I could imagine. I don’t want to now, but one has to be opportunistic. There’s been [a lot of interest].
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
SM: At a little league game with my son. I’m really interested to see how my twins develop. I want them to hurry up and grow up already. I like where they’re at, but they show promise in a lot of things, and I want to see where things go.
Can you keep up this frenetic professional pace?
SM: I don’t know. I already noticed a change between 45 and 55, but I hope I have the energy to work as hard as I am now.
What makes Madden so unique? His key partners sound off.
“Steve thinks differently than most people. He’s not bound by conventional wisdom and he comes up with creative solutions. Steve makes sure the company stays nimble, scrappy and entrepreneurial so we never lose our edge. … He knows more about the shoe business than I ever will.”
— Ed Rosenfeld, CEO, Steven Madden Ltd.
“Steve is a visionary both in terms of the trends and designs. He has the pulse of what the consumer wants and is able to predict what’s next. He always stays close to the performance of his products and his customers, and moves quickly. At the end of the day, great product is contagious. Steve has a competitive spirit in his company that drives them to be a phenomenal team working to achieve the best results. The company also has a competitive advantage in their market: The speed-to-market and their short production cycle is best in class.”
— Liz Rodbell, EVP & chief merchant, Hudson’s Bay Co.
“Steve’s passion for shoes is unparalleled. When we see him, he checks out our shoes before making eye contact. He’s obsessed. Steve has great energy and it’s always fun collaborating.”
— Mary-Kate Olsen, designer & Madden partner
“Mary-Kate and I always meet with Steve to review our Elizabeth & James and Olsenboye collections before market. He has an amazing commercial eye and we value his insight.”
— Ashley Olsen, designer & Madden partner
“I could have been out of business, and it’s all because of Steve that I’m not. I call him Stevie Wonder. We get each other and respect one another. There’s no one who knows more about shoes. I like his vibe, his speed, his constant flow of ideas, but we never talk about business.”
— Betsey Johnson, designer
Steve On …
His dream clients:
“Jesus. And Mary Magdalene. I would love to make pumps for her. It would be interesting to collaborate with some of those pioneering rock ’n’ roll women like Janis Joplin, who was somewhat of a tragic figure. She didn’t know how iconic she was when she died, but she inspired so many people.”
“I always liked the idea of being a detective like Kojak. What I really would have liked to do is go into politics, but my two-and-a-half years in prison precludes me from that. Well, maybe not anymore.”
His daughter, Stevie’s, favorite brand right now:
“Skechers. She loves their sneakers. [I don’t like it], but try going into a shoe store with a child and telling them they can’t have something.”
Other people and businesses he admires:
“I’m in awe of Vince Camuto. He never stops. I compare him to a 50-year-old starting for the Yankees. I admire Mickey Drexler. He really understands his consumer. He’s successful in whatever he does. Zara is a great retailer. They do fantastic things for women.”
“I’m a big fan. I’m proud of what he’s done as president and done for our country. He’s underrated.”