Milestone: Q&A With Donald Pliner

Even while marking the 20th anniversary of his eponymous firm, Donald Pliner will be the first to admit it’s been a rough road.

The comfort designer has had his share of ups, with the runaway success of his stretch shoes, namesake retail stores, a celebrity following and a $12 million home on Miami’s ultra-exclusive Star Island, where he has settled with his wife and daughter.

But he also has struggled with some significant lows as he has built his company, including near bankruptcy, a couple of messy legal battles and the recent closings of branded stores.

“The last couple of years … woke me up an awful lot,” Pliner told Footwear News recently at his Fifth Avenue showroom in New York, a sprawling space with a wraparound balcony offering a bird’s-eye view of Central Park and Manhattan. “We should have been a bigger business. I would like to be a bigger business.”

Pliner originally set his sights on building a pervasive brand not unlike Ralph Lauren or Armani. In the years after debuting his namesake collection of women’s footwear and handbags in 1989, he went on to add a men’s line, children’s shoes, leather clothing and pet accessories inspired by his ever-present canine sidekick, BabyDoll. Though some of the categories faltered and others, including furniture and denim, didn’t come to fruition, Pliner has never lost sight of where he wanted his business to go.

“I thought I had the talent to have more than just shoes,” he said. “I didn’t have the right connections or the right people, [but] the potential of this company is tremendous.”

Pliner made his name more than 40 years ago as the owner of the hip Los Angeles boutique Right Bank Clothing Co., before making the move into a design and wholesale role. Since then, one thing has been consistent: Pliner’s passion for the shoe business. He logs more than 225 days a year traveling, making public appearances to stay in touch with a faithful fan following and sitting down with factory workers in Italy, Spain and China. He also dedicates much of his personal funds to support his business projects and philanthropic ventures and oversees the five remaining Donald J Pliner shops.

Now, at 66, Pliner has started to think about the future. He has hired two young designers from Los Angeles, coaching them on his creative process. His wife, Lisa Pliner, works by his side and has also made a foray into the footwear world with the Lisa for Donald J Pliner line.

Still, Pliner said, he’s hardly thinking about retirement. He recognizes his successes over the years, but refuses to see those achievements as a stopping point. Instead, he remains focused on hitting the goals he set early on. “The days are [going] faster, the years are [going] faster,” he said. “I feel like I’m just starting, but you can’t do anything about time.”

FN: What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the last 20 years?

DP: Reality. Maybe I should have faced up to the reality of what [was and] was not possible. Because I lost [just about] everything three times in my life, I never believed in the word “no” and kept going forward. As I look back, [many of] my successes came because I didn’t believe in saying no, but I probably would have taken a different structure and looked for a [partner] to help me more with some of [the business operations]. I could have been much more structured and disciplined on business.

FN: With all of that said, you’ve had quite a few successes. What do you consider your greatest success over your career?

DP: That I’m here today — seriously. It’s amazing how much time has gone by and that I’m still here, considering the amount of competition.

FN: What have been some of the toughest challenges and how have you adapted?

DP: The biggest thing is the whole economic situation that has happened over the last year. I just closed my Beverly Hills, Calif., [and Orlando] stores, and that was probably the hardest thing to do. I was losing thousands of dollars over the last two years, and it was coming from just one pocket. I had to face reality. … We [also] have taken major steps to reduce additional overhead, eliminated about 20 percent [of the staff] and haven’t given bonuses or raises in the last two years.

FN: You’ve always managed to rise above the hard times and keep your business going. What do you attribute that to?

DP: It’s about passion. I love what I do, [but ultimately] it’s because I work so hard and I have enough people who believe in me. I’ve had some of these [employees] with me for a very long time. They respect me, and that’s why they stay. … Now I’m trying to organize myself and delegate [more]. I work 18 hours a day, seven days a week and now being in China and at it 225 days a year, I need people to help me. [So] I have hired two [young designers], and I have a board [with] an accountant and a lawyer.

FN: You’ve been a champion of Italian-made product for a long time. Why did you decide to move some production to China?

DP: For years I’ve been saying I’m not going to go to China, [but] I’ve been trying to stay competitive in the market. I believed in Italy, I believed in Spain, but the euro didn’t believe in me. I was taking small margins that were somewhat crippling the business. [Now] I believe in what China has done. It has forced Italy and Spain to be much more competitive. … We’ve been able to produce the shoes for less [and] were finally able to adjust the margins [to what they should have been]. But the reality is, the Italians are the Italians and they make things differently. I’ve built up Europe for 25 years, and [Chinese production] will never be the majority [of my business].

FN: Since Lisa has gotten involved in the company, how has your business strategy changed?

DP: She’s always been there as a second set of eyes and has a totally different attitude. She’s a female, 21 years younger than I am and out there a little bit more socially, so she sees things [differently], and she’s opened me up to a lot of things, like hiring these two new designers. I’ll ask Lisa for her opinions and will reevaluate. I’ve never had a partner, so it’s having someone to talk to — good or bad.

FN: How has that played out across the lines?

DP: [Launching the Lisa for Donald J Pliner line] made me realize I wasn’t merchandising and that I’ve been competing against myself with my other [lines] of shoes. When Lisa came out with her first line, she basically took my existing last and [designed from there]. Now, [we] realize that, for her to be successful, her line needs to be totally opposite and that each [of the lines] needs to be different.

FN: How has being a husband and a father changed you?

DP: I don’t have all that money people gave me [years ago]. It’s all my own money, and that’s my biggest fear. [If I lost everything] 10 or 20 years ago and needed to go get a job, I’d be fine. Today, it wouldn’t be so easy. But the biggest reality is that my daughter [Starr] is [growing up]. I can’t believe five years has gone by, and I’m not spending enough time with her. Now she wants to hold my hand and be with me all the time. It’s wonderful. When Starr is 19, I’m going to be 89. That’s a really stark reality, and I’m aware that I need to slow down and start appreciating [my family and myself]. I’m not 40 anymore. You forget how precious time is.

FN: Have you been working on a succession plan?

DP: I’m trying to hire different people. I’ve hired the two [designers] from Los Angeles to be my clones. [I recently sent] one to Italy for the leather show. I can’t be there, so I’ve told her how I think, what I want and what to do. … [Beyond that], Starr speaks four languages, including Chinese, and she loves it. [When I was] getting ready to go to China, she said to me, “Daddy, I’m going to tell you some words I want you to say when you get to China.” When I got there, [I’d call Starr] and she’d get on the phone and have a conversation with [people in Chinese]. So, talk about my succession!

FN: Would you ever consider selling all or a portion of your business? What would have to line up for that to happen?

DP: I know I need to be able to find the right match. I still think I’m in the embryo [stage] of my business. [There’s] tremendous potential with this business, based on how much we used to do. And of course we’ve dropped 25 percent or 30 percent like [a lot of other companies]. I need the right people who really understand not only the bottom line of today but the bottom line of the potential of this company. I’m not trying to sell the business and walk away. I’m trying to take it [forward] and take on people who have the skills to grow the [company] and the international business.

FN: Is this where you thought your business would be today?

DP: My wife and other people [see the success of the business]. … But I always wanted to do so much more. I wanted to be like a Ralph Lauren or an Armani. I thought I had the talent to design furniture, clothing and have the name out there in more than just shoes. That’s why I did leather clothing and dog [accessories]. I had the right [categories], but I didn’t have the right connections, people and managers. If you look at the really successful people, they always had partners. I never really had a partner, [and] I never had the [category] growth because of that.

FN: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry?

DP: Where you can make shoes. In the 1950s, the best place to make shoes was in America. But then the unions came and prices went up, so [the shoe companies] went to Italy. Then they moved into Spain and then Latin America, followed by China. Suddenly the whole world was a market. … Competition is changing, [too]. Now every little actress in the world has a line of shoes, and people are buying it. They don’t know what they are buying, but they go for it because of the name. The competition is tremendous.

FN: What do you think the biggest impact of this recession will be?

DP: Everybody learned to cut back on different things. The problem is that people are cutting back on the wrong things. … A lot of people are also going to get caught [if they focus too much] on the price. We can’t [make it all about] price, price, price. It’s got to be about the product and the quality. Sooner or later, we’re going to wake up to what real quality is and we’re not going to want [poorly] made things.

FN: What has been your greatest contribution to the industry?

DP: My personality, the service point of what we do, the creativity. [People] know the passion is there. How many people do presentations during a shoe show? [Customers] appreciate that I do that.

FN: You really became known for your stretch styles. Is that still a central part of your business?

DP: It became my specialty, [and] it’s still a core part of my collection, as are Western and women’s. Everything I do, I do technically. That’s the difference between Donald J Pliner and so many brands out there — the technology and fit. That’s my key.

FN: How do you keep your design fresh and evolve it over the years?

DP: I have a library that goes back for a long time, and I’ll go through it and pull out things. I look for what is missing and what I really need. Then I just start designing and how it comes together, I never quite figure out. I’ll be on a plane or something and I’ll see a color and boom, that’s the color I need. It [always] comes together, and every time I do a new [trade] show, it’s like being on Broadway and starting from scratch. I never think, “OK, I was successful this year, [I can rest].” Every season, it’s brand new. … My biggest problem, [though], is that too many people still have a fixed idea of what Donald J Pliner is about. [They think] we’re only elastics or mid-heels, or things like that.

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