Brand of the Year: Sam Edelman

Call them the comeback kids.

Five years after reemerging from early retirement, Sam Edelman is again a prominent player in women’s footwear.

In what has been a very tough year for most fashion names, the Edelmans have been the exception. The shoe veterans have seen business increase three times over since 2008, and now they are laying the foundation for a lifestyle push and major international expansion.

“You need to look for an opening in everything you do,” said Sam Edelman, who along with his wife and business partner, Libby, has already nabbed two Footwear News awards — Company of the Year in 1989 and People of the Year in 1991. “A great jockey looks for a place to put the horse in the race, and a baseball player tries to hit the ball where it can’t be caught. We did the same thing.”

But a return to footwear, however triumphant, was not part of the agenda after the Edelmans stepped away from the juniors’ market in 1996 with the sale of their Sam & Libby business. “We were formally retired,” recalled Edelman, who was seriously injured in a 2002 horseback riding accident. “I didn’t think I’d ever walk again and realized, in the midst of this traumatic incident, that my real love was the fashion business.”

After two years and seven surgeries, Edelman was back on his feet and debuted Sam Edelman. In the years since, the husband and wife have found success by creating fashion-forward and moderately priced footwear. That formula, combined with backing from Brown Shoe Co. (the St. Louis-based firm bought a minority stake in the brand in 2007), has helped propel the Sam Edelman name and boost its presence to more than 1,000 doors worldwide.

“It’s one thing to be a one-shot wonder. It’s another to build something sustainable,” said Brown Shoe President Diane Sullivan. “It’s clear Sam has hit a nerve with women. [He and Libby] eat, breathe and live their brand 24/7 and are engaged at every single level. Their brand is a manifestation of them as people.”

Kitson owner Fraser Ross has been carrying Sam Edelman since its debut and said the line, particularly its signature gladiator sandals, ranks as one of the store’s hottest brands. “A woman who is carrying an [Hermès] Birkin bag will also wear a Sam Edelman shoe,” he said. “[Sam is] right on the mark when it comes to trend, and he’s at a contemporary price point that women are looking for today. His shoes have value for money.”

Over the last year, the Edelmans also have focused on growing their offering, debuting the Libby Edelman footwear line for spring ’09 as the first Sam Edelman brand extension. Targeted to fashionable moms on the go, the collection retails for $49 to $99 at Famous Footwear stores and on HSN, and is being followed by Libby Edelman jewelry and handbags.

“We really thought it was going to be just Sam Edelman,” Libby Edelman said, recalling how Sullivan suggested she bring a line of her own to the mix. “She really put it into our heads, and it was a great idea. I went to work on it the next day.”

While the Libby Edelman line is the first to branch out into other categories, both labels are in talks to license swimwear, jewelry, sunglasses and handbags and have long-term plans to expand into apparel, fragrance, men’s footwear and branded retail.

“That’s the strength Libby and I bring to the party,” said Edelman, whose eponymous footwear collection is typically priced between $100 and $250. “We bring strength in design, styling, marketing and the ability to build a brand.”

Nordstrom EVP and GMM of shoes Jack Minuk has known the Edelmans for 25 years and picked up the Sam Edelman collection in its inaugural season.

“[Sam is] a great student of fashion,” Minuk said. “He has a knack for blending what he sees in his travels, architecture and jewelry and applying it to his footwear. … He’s uniquely Sam, and he doesn’t look like anything else.”

The Edelmans spent the latter half of the year overhauling the company’s marketing plan to include a spring ’10 Website relaunch and a new national ad campaign. Making its debut on billboards, online and in magazines across the country in February and March, the campaign brings with it a new face: 22-year-old model and singer Charlotte Kemp Muhl.

Along with an aggressive marketing strategy, the husband and wife are on track to boost Sam Edelman’s presence overseas. Though it is already in 32 countries, a partnership with a major European distributor could dramatically boost the brand’s international sales and up its door count to more than 450. Lane Crawford, Harrods and Galeries Lafayette have already picked up the collection, with Matches offering the brand for the first time in spring ’10.

“It’s really going to bring a bit of glitz,” said Matches buyer Georgina Gainza. “It’s affordable glamour, and [Sam] really has all the areas covered. I expect it to do really well.”

Still, Edelman said, he is not about to get


“You have to earn it every day with your performance,” he said. “You can’t be yesterday’s news. You have to be tomorrow’s.”

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