Power. By definition, it is the capacity to direct the behavior of others. Which is exactly what Sarah Jessica Parker has done over the course of her hotly influential and diverse career.
First, by inviting women to live vicariously through her glamorous characters (most notably Carrie Bradshaw), those dream shoes and all. And now, she continues to enable footwear fantasies with her eponymous SJP collection. But in characteristic fashion, Parker would much rather have others talk about how hard she works than belt out her own praises.
“I’m part of a generation that feels there’s a slightly unsightly thing about illustrating the reality of it all,” the mom of three said during an exclusive interview and cover shoot for Footwear News. “I want somebody else to say it for me.”
It’s not hard to find people who are willing to vouch for her. Three years ago, when she announced her footwear project (in partnership with Manolo Blahnik’s George
Malkemus), the industry was excited, but skeptical.
While she was long expected to do something with shoes — a natural fit, with the HBO series “Sex and the City” serving as a cultural zeitgeist for designer heels — no one anticipated the level of involvement she would bring to her brand.
“In her own persuasive way, she has taken power of her destiny,” said Malkemus from the plush SJP headquarters in New York City’s Flatiron District. “We have certain notions about big stars. That’s not her at all. She’s everything I ever hoped for in a friend, but nothing I ever dreamed of having in a partner.”
He also noted that while she may share a single-soled sensibility with Blahnik, there are marked differences between them: “Manolo is the greatest man to have ever had a relationship with shoes. But he is still a man. She brings a unique way of thinking that was new to me.”
Beauty mogul and longtime friend Laura Mercier, whom Parker counts as a mentor and business inspiration, agrees she has a lot to offer. “She succeeds in transitioning from one thing to another because she is passionate, extremely intelligent and cultured,” she said. “Plus, she loves people and always tries to be the best at what she does — that is her power.”
For Bloomingdale’s, one of SJP’s key retailers, Parker’s lack of airs and willingness to evolve was a welcome surprise. “She only wants to get better. I’m continually amazed that with her busy schedule, she is there for our buying appointments,” said fashion director Erica Russo, who also saluted Parker’s genuine desire to connect with shoppers and help them find that perfect pair of shoes — literally.
“She has you at such ease in the first few minutes that you almost forget Sarah Jessica Parker is putting a shoe on your foot.” In this case, that shoe is likely the best-selling Fawn pump or Tartt Mary Jane, two SJP styles the designer often wears.
For Parker, this hands-on approach spans métiers, including her new HBO series, “Divorce,” which debuts this year. “I love detail,” she said. “That’s what distinguishes you. [‘Sex and the City’ architect] Michael Patrick King always said there are two ways of producing television: You’re either in or you’re out. And if you’re in, you should be coming across the finish line bloody. That’s how you get the best roles and work. You gotta be a bitter ender.”
Here, Parker opens up on her approach to leadership, female mentorship and why she’s so much more than just a shoe lover.
Who are the women in your life who empower you?
SJP: I find my mother enormously inspiring for lots of reasons unrelated to being a businessperson: her resilience and perseverance. I’m one of eight kids. She would argue that she was a terrible mother — she screamed too much, there was chaos in our house and it was always messy. And those things are totally true, but one thing I learned from her was her unquenchable curiosity. She wanted a lot for us. [I also am inspired] by women I see on the subway, whose names I don’t know, who are working two or three jobs with little or no support or fanfare. I find it empowering because they survive. I take the subway as often as possible.
What does survival mean to you these days?
SJP: What we want in business is to survive. I’m not interested in dipping into something just to see what the flavor is like. I want a business that is viable and valuable in the outside world. That means making smart choices for our customers, thinking about the bottom line and something that will last — the quality and relevance of a shoe. To me, it’s all survival. I cite anonymous women because they make choices that are far more important than what I am faced with, and that’s incredibly inspiring to me.
What woman has been your greatest teacher in business?
SJP: Laura Mercier. She’s had longevity and made really smart choices. She had absolutely no marketing dollars for the majority of the life of her business, and I admire what she has done.
How do you apply this to your SJP business?
SJP: Every chance I get, I meet customers. I’ll show up relatively unannounced at Bloomingdale’s — not [personal appearances]. There’s no security; there’s no photographers. I talk to the customers; I get feedback. I also want to learn from the retail partners and sales associates. That is a blueprint from Laura Mercier. She spent her lifetime on the road, touching people, doing their makeup, showing them her products.
Let’s talk about SJP the boss. How would you describe your leadership style?
SJP: Look, I’m an atom splitter. I’m tireless. I want and expect everyone else to approach the work in the same way. I hope I have patience, listen and that ideas from other members of this team are felt as welcome as my own. I hope I am conveying that their contributions are really important. I’m exacting, but enormously appreciative of everything everyone does.
How do you approach criticism and feedback?
SJP: I don’t think it does anybody any good to lessen my standards. We should always reach far past mediocrity. We need to be accountable to
each other, the business and to the opportunities we’ve been given by retailers. Every single person who has offered up their hard-earned dollars for our shoes, we better be freaking deserving of it.
Is this similar to how you approach your work as an executive producer?
SJP: If we want to grow as a brand, we have to think of every unthought-of opportunity. For me, it’s the same [philosophy] as my world in television and film: There is so much content, so what makes us the reason to stop? We have to be arresting enough. It’s the same in the shoe category. There was no need for another shoe brand. Why are we necessary? We have to be following up with our retailers, answering every question and every single person on Instagram.
Do you notice differences between being a woman in Hollywood and a woman in fashion? Are there obstacles associated with either?
SJP: That’s interesting and something I hadn’t really thought about before. My experiences are my own, so it’s hard for me to talk about it. I have a small company at HBO, and we have been working on this show for four years with showrunner Paul Simms and lots of other women. I’ve found that day to day I don’t feel I’m having experiences based on my gender in which I’m being diminished. The funny thing is, I notice when I go out in the world and want to talk about business that people are not as . . .
Receptive? How do you think you are perceived?
SJP: I don’t know. They want to talk about the latest trend. I don’t think I’ve done a very good job talking about my role as a businessperson. I’ve been shy to reveal how much I have going on, how many businesses I have involvement in and the seriousness with which I take them. Sometimes I’ll be in an interview [and] they’ll just want to speak about something that feels very not important. I’m happy to talk about shoes, but I’m also happy to discuss about the business of shoes. Or the election cycle in the media. Or books and architecture. They’ll ask if my daughters are also taking after me and obsessed with shoes. Well, no, they are obsessed with reading and exploring the streets of New York.
What notion would you like to dispel about women in business?
SJP: For women, it’s often as though a reveal of ambition is not attractive. Which is wrong. When I meet with other women who are ambitious, I find it exciting and tell them so. I just met with this amazing woman the other day whose dad is my neighbor. She just graduated college. I told her “Listen, you: The world is your oyster.”
How do you persevere through the ups and downs?
SJP: Disappointment is a really important part of the process, and you should be completely torn up for two days. Allow yourself to feel lousy. But then what? You go back to those people six months later and you knock on their door again.