How the Founder of Chinese Laundry Built an Unstoppable Shoe Brand and Embraced Change

Chinese Laundry Kristin Cavallari Bob Goldman
Brand partner Kristin Cavallari with Chinese Laundry founder Bob Goldman.
Shayan Asgharnia

Bob Goldman has weathered any number of market upheavals in his long career. Actually, he knows exactly how many.

The founder and CEO of Cels Enterprises (parent company to Chinese Laundry and its sister brands) estimates that the fashion industry undergoes a sea change every seven years, so his 40-plus-year-old footwear firm has been through about six major shifts.

But always, Goldman has faced them with an unflappable calm — and even a sense of excitement. “The reality is, change doesn’t faze me,” said Goldman. “The saying in the company is, ‘I don’t get angina. I give angina.’” (And yes, members of his team heartily confirmed that statement.)

During a recent visit to the company headquarters in Culver City, Calif., Goldman’s guru nature was on full display. At 75 years old, the soft-spoken shoe veteran exudes a relaxed confidence as he walks the halls, greeting employees and quizzing team members about their latest retail meetings.

He has recently begun transitioning some executive duties to his son, Stewart, Cels’ COO, but remains intimately involved in every detail of the organization.

“When my father and I meet, I’ll update him on what’s going on, and he listens and will give me some really good advice,” explained Stewart. “He tends to say, ‘It’s your call, but here is my opinion.’”

Additionally, Bob Goldman’s always-hectic travel schedule remains jam-packed — in recent weeks, he’s hopped planes to Italy, China and Las Vegas, as well as to his native city of New York.

Bob Goldman Chinese Laundry Bob Goldman Shayan Asgharnia

Early Years

Born and raised in the Bronx, Goldman attended James Monroe High School and later graduated from Hunter College, where he studied business and history.

His first foray into the shoe industry came at the age of 16, when, at the urging of his mother, he took a job as a stock boy at the Alexander’s department store in New York. “It was a very interesting experience,” recalled Goldman. “It was one of the first off-price stores. In those days, there was no Kmart, there was no Target. Alexander’s was one of the first.”

During college, he was hired as a manager at Gimbels, another department store, but was disappointed by the slower pace. “Compared to the discount business, the traditional department stores were asleep,” Goldman explained.

However, he spent two years learning the ins and outs of the business, and when a buyer position opened up, he jumped at it. “I was 22 at the time, and they told me I was too young to be a buyer. So I said, ‘I’m leaving,’ and I resigned,” he recalled, adding with a smile, “I was getting married the next week.”

With his wife, Carol, by his side, Goldman transitioned to the wholesale business, taking various positions at New England shoemaker George E. Keith, the Blue Star kids’ company (later to become Stride Rite) and Buskens.

At Buskens he encountered one of his most influential mentors: Mel Siegel, a buyer with department store Abraham & Strauss.

“He sat me down and told me it’s very simple to do business with him,” Goldman said. “He said, ‘You just have to make sure I’m profitable. The more profitable I am, the more I’m going to buy.’ That was a very important lesson because that’s all that retailers really want. They want to know you’re going to make money for them. Because otherwise, why not do business with somebody else?”

Bob Goldman Chinese Laundry Bob Goldman Shayan Asgharnia

Building Cels

In 1971, Goldman applied those lessons to a new type of venture. Carol, whose background was in interior design, had developed a self-selection fixture concept called Modumode, intended for retailers. Together they formed the company Cels Enterprises and installed the fixtures in Abraham & Strauss. “With Modumode, they sold out 90 percent of the inventory in one week,” said Goldman.

However, local unions refused to replenish the fixtures, so the Goldmans reworked the system for in-home use.

The products sold well, and in fall 1973, an order came from Sears for a million units. But fate intervened: “Three days later, the Arab-Israeli War broke out, and we couldn’t get the plastic and stainless steel we needed,” said Goldman. “So we closed the business.”

While some entrepreneurs might have been tempered by such a setback, Goldman persevered, returning to the industry he knew best: shoes. He began importing products from Argentina, Brazil and Italy, handling private-label manufacturing for clients.

One such client was Esprit, which in 1980 tapped Goldman to produce casual footwear under its label. The partnership was fruitful in multiple ways. First, financially: “Esprit became a $100 million business in footwear in those days,” said Goldman.

And as part of the union, he gained the mentorship of Esprit founders Susie and Doug Tompkins. As Goldman recalled: “Susie was a phenomenal designer, and Doug was an incredible marketer. He did things that are revolutionary today.”

At the same time, he met Sam Edelman, who was brought in to oversee Esprit Footwear and became a close, lifelong friend.

“I took him all my production problems in the beginning, anything I couldn’t get done,” said Edelman. “We started with a pointy-toe slingback called the Born to Run. I was having trouble splitting the front of it on the lasting machines in Brazil, but Bob figured out how to make it. It became one of the biggest shoes in history. We took on difficult challenges back then, and we found a way to do them together.”

Sam Libby Edelman Bob Goldman Sam and Libby Edelman with Bob Goldman in 2013 FN Archives

As Cels’ private-label business thrived, market demand for the latest trends was skyrocketing. So Goldman took two fateful steps that would forever shape his legacy.

In 1981, he launched the in-house label Chinese Laundry, a women’s fashion footwear brand that is now sold in more than 30 countries and has born numerous offshoot lines, including Dirty Laundry, CL by Laundry and Kristin Cavallari by Chinese Laundry.

Goldman credits the brand’s success to its ability to adapt: “We’ve evolved many times.”

His daughter Lauren, head of design for Dirty Laundry, agreed. “Young American girls, they don’t want to wait two years to get the new styles,” she said. “They want it now. Businesses have to change with the customer.”

This year, Chinese Laundry unveiled a rebrand intended to connect with today’s increasingly savvy customers.

Another major step for Cels was the decision, in 1982, to begin sourcing operations in mainland China. “We were one of the forerunners there and built our own sample factory,” said Lauren. “Over time, people knew we had these relationships in China, so they’d come to us to make their product.”

Cels’ sourcing and manufacturing operations now span the globe: The company has done business in Europe, South America, China and India, and Bob Goldman has developed a reputation for identifying the next opportunities.

“We look at production from a standpoint of: What’s the most efficient place to make something?” he said. “Because we are a manufacturing-based company, we have very strong technical capabilities and can supervise [to ensure success].”

Chinese Laundry Bob Goldman Kristin Cavallari Bob Goldman and Kristin Cavallari, photographed by FN on the set of Chinese Laundry’s fall campaign shoot in Culver City, Calif. Shayan Asgharnia

All Together

Throughout an ever-changing industry, one theme has remained consistent in Goldman’s business and career: a devotion to family.

It starts with the company name — Cels, an acronym for wife Carol and children Elise, Lauren and Stewart. And from its founding, the firm has been a family operation.

Until suffering a stroke 10 years ago, Carol Goldman was an integral force in the organization, overseeing all of its marketing.

“To the world she would seem to be behind the scenes and not very involved, but she was very involved,” said Stewart. “She was not a woman who kept her opinions to herself; she was a strong woman and still is.”

Similarly, the Goldman children have spent their lives immersed in the footwear business. Stewart, for instance, recalled crashing a forklift in the warehouse at age 8. “But officially I started working at the company at around 14 or 15,” he said, laughing.

And Lauren also caught the shoe bug as a teenager while on shopping trips to Europe and factory visits to China. “It was hysterical. I really wanted to work in footwear, but my dad was trying every way to get me to go the opposite way,” she said.

As Bob Goldman looks ahead to the future of his company, he recognizes the challenges facing the next generation of leaders.

“Every seven years we lose about 30 percent of our customers, because the industry loses them,” he said. “Look at what’s happening now with department stores and even internet businesses like NastyGal.”

The secret to survival, Goldman explained, is simple: “We have to constantly be changing — not walking away from customers, but changing.”

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