“We’ve already made all the mistakes you can make.”
Sam Edelman — who has built two hit labels with his wife and business partner, Libby Edelman — certainly understands the intricacies of the ever-changing shoe business.
After experiencing a smash success with Sam & Libby in the 1980s and returning decades later with the Sam Edelman label, the dynamic duo have cemented themselves as hard-to-beat players in the industry — a feat Edelman isn’t shy about today.
“It’s been a very exciting year for us,” said Sam. “In a time where the world is talking about a downturn in retail and the demise of brick-and-mortar versus internet, sometimes I feel very alone because our business is so good.”
Sam’s confidence may be bold, but not completely unfounded. Since being acquired by Caleres in 2010, the contemporary fast-fashion brand has grown to almost $200 million in sales, opened its 12th store (at New York City’s Westfield World Trade Center) and even entered the luxury market via partnerships with Net-a- Porter and other top retailers.
Nowhere is this success more apparent than at their estate in Sherman, Conn., where they were photographed for Footwear News this summer. In addition to its sprawling grounds, the property boasts its own stables that reflect Sam and Libby’s passion for horseback riding. “I used to ride competitively,” said Libby, who has been Sam’s partner for more than 30 years.
In their home — which often hosts their children Jesse, Callie and Max — many of the walls are adorned with Libby’s photography, an ongoing hobby of hers. Meanwhile, in the guest bathroom, hand towels are embroidered with the Sam Edelman brand logo — a detail that reflects Sam’s knack for personal branding.
But while the Connecticut setting is grand indeed, the Edelmans’ rise to the top hasn’t been without its challenges.
Sam Edelman began his career working at companies such as Ralph Lauren, Candies and Kenneth Cole Productions, which he co-founded. He experienced his first big success at Esprit, building it into one of the most well-known footwear brands of the 1980s.
In 1979, he met Libby, who was attending a preview of his and his father’s shoe brand, Lighthouse (she was an editor at Seventeen). Flash forward to 1987: The duo partnered to launch their first brand together, Sam & Libby. It became a smash hit, with their bowed ballet flats quickly emerging as a favorite, selling 7 million pairs.
“Sam and Libby have always had an appreciation of the universe of alternatives, and how they could best bring relevant product to the market that was appropriately differentiated and priced,” said Cole of the duo.
But in 1991, the momentum came to a halt. After taking the brand public, sales began to flag, and they eventually sold Sam & Libby to Maxwell Shoe Co. in 1996, choosing to focus on raising their family and pursuing other passions. Then in 2001, Sam suffered an injury after being thrown while horseback riding, and he spent time away for physical recovery.
“Libby and I have experienced some of the greatest highs and lows you can have,” said Edelman of their long career path. “We know not to fall victims to things we’ve fallen victim to before.”
In 2004, they were back, returning in full force to launch the now-booming Sam Edelman brand, recognizing a void in the marketplace for fashion-focused products at accessible price points.
Today they attribute much of their success to finding that right niche. “People are constantly telling us, ‘You’ll never be able to do that trend at that price,’” said Sam. “We find a way. We have innovative use of materials. We have relationships with incredible manufacturers, from New York to Italy and China. You just have to be a little more creative.”
“We remember how we started in business and what we were passionate about,” added Libby, “and we try to continue along on that journey.”
Retailers agree that consumers are attracted to the brand’s accessibility. “Our customer loves that the Sam Edelman shoe looks and feels great without paying a designer price,” said Candace Gaunt, contemporary fashion footwear buyer at Zappos. “They’re drawn to the line because of Sam’s attention to detail and pulse on trends.”
“If you know Sam and Libby, then you know that they love fashion, making shoes and dressing their girl,” added Erica Russo, Bloomingdale’s OVP and fashion director of accessories and beauty. “Women of varying ages love their shoes. The contemporary price points ensure that the customer won’t have to choose between her wallet and what she loves.”
In addition to tapping the mainstream market, Sam Edelman has also forayed into the high-end scene, partnering with luxury women’s e-tailer Net-a-porter.com to create exclusive trend-driven styles.
“Sam Edelman is our go-to for strong fashion styles and trends within a very competitive contemporary market,” said Lisa Aiken, Net-a-porter’s fashion director. “For fall, the team looked at velvet as a key texture on six core silhouettes. The sell-through rate has been remarkable, with nearly all the looks being close to sold out.”
While Sam uses his years of experience to tackle the business side of the brand, Libby serves as the main visionary during the design process.
Every season, she starts with a specific destination for inspiration. “We start our process traveling and soaking it all up — not just the fashion, but the culture, too,” she said. From there, she builds upon the references to choose the key materials and silhouettes for the season.
For spring ’17, Libby envisioned an imaginary muse traveling to vibrant San Miguel de Allende, located in Mexico’s central highlands. The inspiration translated into a colorful collection, with touches such as hand-painted detailing on their signature flat Gigi sandals.
However, designing runway trends at lower prices comes with its controversies. One of the brand’s most popular styles, the Zoe boot, drew strong comparisons to Balenciaga’s fall ’06 Harness boot. Today, a few styles also continue to channel the vibe of current it-shoes.
Scrutiny aside, the Edelmans continue to defend the originality of their work and have made recent advancements, including hiring an in-house print designer.
“When I watch the runway shows, I often think, ‘Yeah, they’re great, but I’m never overwhelmed because I’m thinking the same thing those designers are thinking,’ ” said Sam. “My wife has an innate ability to create trend boards that are different. She doesn’t need to see Dolce & Gabbana to know the trend.”
“Just because [fashion] is out there so quickly doesn’t mean you can’t approach it from a different way or be a part of that,” added Libby.
The duo’s ability to tap the right trends is what drew Caleres to the brand. Diane Sullivan, Caleres’ CEO, president and chairman, saw potential in grabbing an under-serviced consumer.
“We knew Sam Edelman had a strong track record, and we believed in the team’s talent,” said Sullivan. “We sensed there was an incredible opportunity to grow the brand. They had also identified an untapped target audience that we knew would increasingly become important.”
Since the partnership, Caleres has grown the Sam Edelman brand from $15 million in sales to almost $200 million today. The duo said the ownership hasn’t stifled their creative control but instead has supported it. “Caleres gave us the foundation to be creative and grow the brand,” said Libby.
“We’re doing three times the business we were doing with Sam & Libby at our peak,” added Sam.
While the Sam Edelman brand is healthy, the couple’s offshoot brand, Circus by Sam Edelman, is still finding its footing.
Under the direction of their son Jesse, the Circus line has transitioned from a millennial-targeted collection filled with emoji-print shoes to a more streamlined offering that is slightly less expensive than the mainline.
“We adjusted to the market,” said Jesse, who serves as the national brand manager for Circus by Sam Edelman and Sam & Libby, which he revived as a Target exclusive. “We were going after one specific customer [with Circus] and then realized there wasn’t enough [of those people] there. The product became more commercial in the process. But we established ourselves as a fashion vendor that was going to be different from Sam Edelman.”
With Jesse following in his footsteps, Sam understands how to navigate the father-son dynamic. His father owned a leather tannery and worked closely with Sam during the Lighthouse years.
“My father worked for his father-in-law, and I worked for my father,” said Sam. “I try to never manage my son the same way that my father managed me. Even though I adore my father and he taught me a lot of great things, he managed me differently. I try to build my son up all the time, and allow him to make his own decisions and manage his own business.”
Considering the company’s employees consist of family, friends, former interns and even some neighbors, one could say the balance between professional and personal is constantly blurred. However, the Edelmans insist the close proximity is an asset, not a distraction.
“Sometimes we don’t ever see each other during the day,” said Libby. “We’ve tried to say, ‘Let’s not talk about work at night.’ But that’s crazy — sometimes that’s when you get your best idea.”
But that isn’t to say the occasional dispute occurs. “In a husband-wife relationship, the husband is always wrong and the wife is always right,” joked Sam. “If I like low heels, she likes high heels.”
As the business continues to grow, Sam and Libby also have their eye on expanding the label’s retail footprint. Next year, it will open its 13th store, in Houston at the Houston Galleria.
“We chose the locations as an aspirational luxury brand, thinking we wanted to be next to luxury,” said Sam. “But I don’t believe in luxury today the way I did two years ago. Luxury has changed. The new word for luxury today is experience.”
As a result, the stores aim to offer customers more than just shoes. In addition to an expanded product offering, such as handbags and sunglasses, many of the stores feature furniture and books straight from the duo’s homes. Much of the photography on the walls is also shot by Libby.
Moving forward, ready-to-wear is also on the couple’s agenda. (The Edelmans currently sell outerwear.) “We always think of the woman from top to bottom,” said Libby. “We’re only dressing part of her now, but soon we’ll be dressing all of her.”
Much of the couple’s success stems from the ability to constantly adapt and grow in a market that continues to get more challenging, with many brands shrinking or disappearing.
Whatever challenges arise in their future, though, Sam and Libby Edelman remain confident that they’re ready to tackle them head-on.
“We’re surrounded by negativity and uncertainty in so many ways,” said Libby. “It’s important for us to just keep our focus.”