10 Questions for Charles Malka

Charles Malka has come full circle.

After 48 years in the shoe business, the Charles David president and CEO has a renewed faith in the viability of European manufacturing, while still maintaining an affordable price point.

This spring, the company put in motion a soft launch of Malka’s vision for the future: the Made in Italy collection of classic women’s styles, such as riding boots and oxfords in distressed leathers, priced at $230 to $500. The line has proved so successful that Malka has rolled out additional shoes ahead of the global launch this fall. And in the coming months, the company also will debut a 20-style men’s Made in Italy offering. “This is my way of bringing back the Italian craft to our customers,” Malka said.

The executive began his career in France at the age of 13 at the Bata shoe chain. He eventually moved to Canada, where he launched the Charles David line in 1967. Twenty years later, he relocated to Los Angeles, where the company is currently based.

Over his career, Malka has led Charles David through its forays into trendy sexy heels — still a focus for the brand — and helped it shift some of its manufacturing to China. In addition to being sold in 25 company-owned retail outlets, the label also is available in department stores such as Nordstrom and more than 500 boutiques.

Now, Malka — along with daughter and retail director Joelle, and son and overseas brand ambassador Alain — is preparing for the brand’s future by looking back at the designs that put it on the map and examining the enduring concept of affordable luxury.

1. What sparked your renewed interest in classic footwear styles?
It’s the way women are dressing. It is interesting to see women buying boots and closed-up shoes for the summer.

2. Have consumers moved past sky-high heels?
For sexy heels, that customer will never die. Heels have become very high and, of course, we are guilty of responding to that trend. But I see more modest heel heights and platforms, and the classic pump and kitten heels as the new trend. With the addition of our Made in Italy collection, we are adding more options for our existing customers [and hopefully] a new crop of customers.

3. Given the growing expertise among Chinese manufacturers, why are you focusing on Italy to make shoes?
The craftsmanship of the Italian design can’t be beat. Comparing Chinese manufacturing to Italian is like comparing apples to oranges. At the time we started working with factories in China, we were responding like all other brands to the exchange rate. But with that now in our favor, I am able to produce up to 85 percent of our collection in Italy for fall ’10. I have always produced shoes in Italy and will continue to do so. We have maintained an office in Italy for more than 40 years. That is where I started. My loyalty to the craft there will never diminish. At this time, we are working with almost 10 different Italian factories.

4. How has the footwear business changed since you started out?
The business never changed; fashion changed, and the competition for price point changed. When we arrived in Los Angeles, we did not have any competition; now there are many [competitors].

5. What keeps you excited about the shoe business?
I am excited that I have lasted for almost 50 years — 48 to be exact — in the business. This keeps me motivated and excited!

6. Where are your favorite places to shop?
Paris and Milan. These are my favorites because of the variety and the ability to buy fashion ahead of time. I bought myself two pair of shoes in Italy a couple weeks ago. I always buy all my shoes in Italy.

7. What designer or brand do you most admire?
[Christian] Louboutin for all his revolutionary styles and moving the women’s market in a different direction. YSL for its innovation and sexy styles. Of course, I also love these brands because they are made in Italy.

8. What’s your long-term vision for the Charles David brand?
To continue to grow in the market, and produce more styles out of Spain and, of course, Italy. Also, to maintain what I started and to have Charles David remain in the family.

9. What’s it like working with your family every day?
It is my best pleasure. I want each of my children to carry their own division, and [I want to know that] my hard work is passed to my grandkids. I don’t want to sell; I want my hard work to be my legacy, nurtured through my family.

10. If you weren’t running a shoe company, what else would you like to do?
I do not golf. My only hobby is shoes and always has been.

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