“The most important thing in life is to find something that can make you happy and something you have a passion for. Whatever makes your heart beat, you’ve got to go after it,” Vince Camuto told FN in 2008.
The fashion legend — who built two footwear empires and revolutionized the industry he loved so much — discovered his calling at an early age, during his first job as a customer-complaint representative at I. Miller on Fifth Avenue in the late 1950s.
He spent the next five decades taking the shoe business by storm.
Camuto’s bold vision, incredible drive, unmistakable charm and, most of all, unwavering passion defined him throughout his life. Surrounded by his family, Camuto died last week at home at the age of 78. “He was the love of my life, and my life will never be the same,” his wife and business partner, Louise Camuto, said last week.
Top industry players, colleagues, friends and partners remembered Camuto as a singular voice who redefined the fashion business.“He was as talented a person as I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know,” said Blake Nordstrom, president of Nordstrom Inc. “Interestingly, as each year passed, he got more enthusiastic about the customer and the business.”
“Vince’s passion for the business was infectious. I admired that so much in him,” added Liz Rodbell, president of Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor. “He was an example of true determination, and he realized the American dream. His story of success is rooted in an eye for fashion, true leadership and great style. Vince was someone who really cared and treated people like they were a part of his extended family.”
From the beginning, Camuto was the ultimate people person. After his I. Miller gig, he worked in a variety of 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 exports.
“The minute I walked into those factories in Brazil, my eyes opened as wide as could be,” Camuto recalled a few years ago. “I couldn’t believe the size of these factories — and that they were empty. With some infrastructure and money, I knew there was so much potential.”
By 1977, the duo had formed Fisher Camuto, the precursor to Nine West.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the loss of a great designer who worked by my side for over 40 years,” said Fisher, co-founder of Nine West and Camuto’s longtime business partner. “I was proud that after the sale of Nine West, he accomplished his personal dreams. He will always remain in my heart.”
Camuto and Fisher — along with Wayne Weaver — grew the company, took it public in 1993 and snapped up larger rival U.S. Shoe Corp. in 1995. Nine West was sold to Jones Apparel Group in 1999 for $900 million. Giving up the venture he poured so much energy into was “very hard,” Camuto said in 2008. “I love Nine West. It really was my baby, and everyone else’s. But you move on.” By the time it was sold, Nine West had become a multibrand footwear powerhouse.
“When it came to fashion, Vince was somehow always right,” said Macy’s Inc. CEO Terry Lundgren. “I remember going to the Nine West showroom and seeing this sea of shoes from his five different brands. I would tell him I had only 20 minutes, so [I needed him to tell me the top 10 styles that would be the bestsellers]. The first couple of years I asked this question, he seemed unprepared … because he would never allow any of those shoes to appear in the line unless he thought they would all be bestsellers.”
Still, Camuto relished Lundgren’s challenge: “He said, with confidence, ‘These are going to be killer shoes — home runs — no doubt about it!’ I am telling you the truth when I say that of those 10 shoes he selected each season when I went to his showroom, seven or eight of them were the bestsellers in the entire company. That’s how good Vince Camuto was.”
An expert merchandiser, Camuto relished the opportunity to visit stores and meet with his customers, who quickly became obsessed with both the man and his shoes. “I can’t say enough about how important it is for young designers to be on the floor. I was always in the stores [when I was starting out],” Camuto said a few years ago.
“He was always asking questions about what was happening in the business and what was next,” recalled Debbie King, VP and DMM of women’s shoes at Bloomingdale’s. “He wasn’t afraid to buck the trend or take risks. He was high energy and possessed an intuitive sense of business opportunities.”
After he sold Nine West, Camuto stepped away from the industry to spend more time with his family and travel around the world. But he was never one to sit on the sidelines for long, so when Camuto’s friend, Alex Dillard, called for advice in 2001, Camuto and his wife, Louise, sprung into action. Shortly after, the execs inked a deal for private-label footwear, and the Camuto Group was born.
“The fashion industry has lost an icon,” Dillard, president of Dillard’s Inc., said last week. “Vince’s passion for the footwear business and his vision for style meeting function were unmatched. Camuto was not only a valued business partner; he was also my best friend, and he will truly be missed.”
The savvy entrepreneur quickly built Camuto Group into a formidable business, inking footwear deals with Max Azria, Tory Burch and Jessica Simpson, among many others — as well as bowing his namesake brand.
He eventually rounded out the portfolio with Lucky Brand, Louise et Cie and VC Signature, and by taking a major stake in apparel company Chaus Inc. In the past few years, Camuto Group embarked on aggressive retail expansion, opening an impressive flagship on Madison Avenue in New York for the VC Signature label.
Camuto’s partners remember him not only for his incredible business prowess, but also for his uncanny ability to connect with anyone he met.
“I loved the way he made everyone around him feel like family,” said Simpson, who credits her “mentor” with “changing her life.” She added:
“His passion for everyone to succeed was palpable. He never looked down on you and always found ways to help build you up.”
Her mother, Tina Simpson, said: “I was so blessed with the opportunity to learn and grow a brand with Vince Camuto. He forever changed my life and Jessica’s life. And he will forever be in our hearts.”
Tory Burch remembers Camuto as an amazing sounding board when she faced challenges or needed advice. “He was always so present and relevant. His take on things was so incredibly modern … and he made our business what it is today. It’s rare to see someone who has the passion he had. It’s something I really admired.”
Camuto — who always believed in the power of people — built a dedicated and loyal team, many of whom worked with him for decades.
“What made Vince amazing was his passion, his integrity and the way he cared for people,” said Alex DelCielo, president and COO of Camuto Group. “For a man to accomplish what he did and not have an ego has always been absolutely incredible to me. Vince touched people around the world and had the ability to make everyone feel important. His legacy will be not the companies he built but the people he built. I will miss my friend, my teacher and my inspiration.”
Camuto told FN in 2013: “If you look at the successes of the best companies in America, [the key] was the culture that was built and that remained long after the principals weren’t there. It’s never about one person. It’s the teams you put in place. Without the right people, you’re nowhere.”
His impact extended far beyond his own business, and he was hugely respected by the entire industry — even by major competitors.
“Maybe he’s the greatest shoe man who ever lived,” said Steve Madden, the founder of his namesake company. “Vince always had his eye out for young talent. He was an early supporter and believer in what I was doing, and that really meant a lot. He was the giant of the shoe industry, along with Jack Fisher. Those two guys were like the [John] Lennon and [Paul] McCartney of the shoe business. [Vince and I] always had a very friendly rivalry. He was just amazing.”
Camuto received countless FN Achievement Awards, first appearing on stage in 1991, when Fisher Camuto Group won Company of the Year. Nine West received Retailer of the Year in 1994. He was inducted into FN’s Hall of Fame in 2001.
After debuting his namesake brand, Camuto received Launch of the Year in 2005 and Brand of the Year in 2011. The most memorable of all of them was his Lifetime Achievement Award, which he received in 2013, with Jessica Simpson presenting the honor.
His wife, Louise, and all five of his children were in the audience that night as he reminisced about his long and illustrious career and his love for his family.
“Our dad’s dedication and passion were what made him a titan in the industry. To us, he was a great dad and an inspiration to each one of us individually and collectively,” his children told FN in a joint statement last week. “His boundless energy in every aspect of his life made us grateful to call him our dad. The outpouring of love we have received in response to our father’s passing shows how many people he touched. His positive energy and passion knew no limits and drove every aspect of his life. He was a great inspiration and will live on through each of us.”
In his Lifetime Achievement Award remarks, Camuto talked about what his mother taught him. “[She] always said, ‘You can do anything,’” he remembered about his life’s mantra.
In the footwear business, Vince Camuto did everything.