Exclusive: Stuart Weitzman Talks to FN About Calling It Quits After 50 Years

For a man whose brand has appeared on the feet of nearly every big Hollywood star, who’s flipped his business several times for hundreds of millions of dollars, Stuart Weitzman still looks the part of a humble, everyday guy.  Take, for instance, a recent winter day, when the designer was riding the train home to Greenwich, Conn., from New York City. A young woman spotted the Stuart Weitzman shopping bag he was carrying. She asked if he worked for the company. Weitzman, a few months away from retirement, told her he did. The woman raved about the brand’s shoes, in particular the Highland boot style she hoped her parents would buy her as a gift. Weitzman gave her his phone number and said to call him when she received the boots — as the designer, he’d happily autograph them. “If we were in the train’s quiet car, we both would’ve been kicked off, she was so excited,” recalled Weitzman. “For me, 50 years after getting into this business, the thrill of someone wanting what you designed is the same. That feeling never changes.”

Weitzman got his first taste of exciting consumers in the early 1960s. He graduated from The Wharton School of business in 1963 and began working in his father’s factory in Haverhill, Mass. Soon after, his father died, so Weitzman and his brother decided that Stuart’s “sketching hobby” could be put to use in the family business.

Stuart Weitzman
Stuart Weitzman with his parents.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Stuart Weitzman

“I said to my brother I’d like to try designing for a year,” said Weitzman. “Maybe I’ll like it.” Like it he did.

Stuart Weitzman
Stuart Weitzman with his father, Seymour Weitzman.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Stuart Weitzman

With a tireless work ethic and unique aesthetics, Weitzman’s designs were soon on the shelves of famed New York retailer I. Miller and, over the decades, landed in top stores around the world, on the pages of fashion magazines and on famous faces.

Now, though, the 75-year-old, who helped orchestrate the sale of his company to Coach for $574 million in 2015, is preparing to exit the business in May. But his to-do list hardly resembles a traditional retirement schedule. Instead, Weitzman will power ahead with a series of new ventures. For starters, he is building a museum in Madrid dedicated to Spanish-Jewish history. (He regularly meets with potential donors, board members and scholars.)

Also in Spain, where Weitzman has produced his shoes for decades, the designer plans to help publicize and preserve artwork inside Cantabria’s La Garma caves. Back in the States, Weitzman expects to take a more active role with the U.S. Olympic Committee. And, of course, he has his own athletic aspirations, too.

stuart weitzman
At a Stuart Weitzman factory.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Stuart Weitzman

The well-known pingpong enthusiast will compete for a second time in the Masters event of the Maccabiah Games, held in Israel in July. After that, he plans to produce a Broadway musical with acclaimed director Sir Trevor Nunn about the life of renowned American artist Andy Warhol.

“I worked 16 hours a day, 350 days a year, for the last 40 years,” said Weitzman. “When I started thinking about retirement, I asked myself how I was going to fill up a day, 16 hours a day. I started making a list of things I’d love to do. And this list just happened.”

Weeks before he begins to tackle those new pursuits, Weitzman sat with Footwear News inside Coach’s sleek new Manhattan headquarters for a candid conversation about his life in shoes.

Tell us about your plan to exit the business.
SW: I orchestrated the sale of Stuart Weitzman to Coach almost two years ago. At the time, I told them what we needed to replace me. They recognized that and actually made it a part of the understanding of their purchase of Stuart Weitzman. Four to six people are going to do my job — or have started to do my job — but the key employee is the creative director. And that also allows the company to be bigger than it is in more product and lifestyle categories. [Creative director] Giovanni Morelli is coming from Loewe and joining us the first week in May. When he takes over then, I officially give up my creative director and executive chairman roles.

As you reflect on the past decades, what do you think is the best thing about the industry?
SW: Being able to create the product and seeing women love it. That’s what got me into this game. Early on, I couldn’t get over the idea that I made something and she wanted it. It’s been like that ever since. It never changes. The thrill for every designer is still there. When you make something that gets voted on with a “Yes, I’ll buy it,” that’s the best satisfaction.

Is that what’s motivated you all these years?
SW: I ended up in a hobby. There are no work hours. I’ve never thought of it as work. When you’re doing something that feels like a hobby, when it’s fun and inspiring, you keep doing it. I’ve always had a passion to make beautiful things. But I was also a businessman; I never had a business partner. Most designers handle just the design side. Somebody else handles the financial side. I ran both. There was never a moment I wasn’t involved. I couldn’t get bored with one or the other because the other was always there to focus on.

You’ve had lots of memorable shoes. Which ones stand out for you?
SW: One moment that stands out is when I saw my first shoe, a high-heeled pointed-toe pump called the Puff T, in I. Miller’s window. That made me fall in love with this business. It was a simple shoe, and they reordered it. That was 50 years ago, but, wow, what an impact it had on me. Of course, the Million-Dollar sandal in 2002 was a major tipping point for our company. Laura Harring, an unknown actress in “Mulholland Drive,” wore it to that year’s Academy Awards. She was photographed more than anybody on the red carpet. It was in hundreds of newspapers, landing us on the cover of USA Today. That made us a household name.

Stuart Weitzman
Stuart Weitzman with his Million-Dollar shoe.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Stuart Weitzman

You were early to embrace a red-carpet strategy. What was the value to you?
SW: I did that because it was a business strategy. I realized that giving a lower-priced shoe cachet, compared to designers selling shoes for $800, is not easy. Usually, the rich want to spend money and show off what they spent it on. By getting a celebrity to want our shoes, and by giving them to her quickly and when she wants them, we became the major go-to brand. And a woman who wouldn’t spend $800 but would spend $450 or $500 didn’t have to feel she was telling her friend she wasn’t buying the most expensive option. Celebrities helped them feel it was cool to wear Weitzman.

How has the power of celebrity changed?
SW: Social media changed it. Everybody knows about the shoes now. The pictures go around. The celebrities even comment and tweet about them. It’s a powerful thing. Anything that goes on social media, whether it’s from a celebrity or blogger, reaches so many people.

What’s your take on the other big shoe designers?
SW: I have always looked at objects of the world and other designers with the recognition that someone put a design effort into that: Zaha Hadid’s buildings or Frank Gehry’s museums. Or an unknown who made something better, like the leg of a table. For Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Sergio Rossi — who I think is the greatest of them all — I admire those people for their ability, talent and staying power, but maybe even more so for their conviction. Manolo has said often he will never make a platform; he thinks they are ugly. That’s a conviction of a man who believed that he didn’t want his women in something he didn’t think looked right, and he gave up business for it. That actually opened the door for Louboutin. Christian said his job isn’t to make them feel good, it was to make the foot look good. Those are the people who love what I do. You have to admire those who will stick to that conviction. We have never had a rock star like Louboutin in our industry. He is a rock star. And the media, the celebrities have made him a rock star. That is great for the industry. It brings attention to shoes.

Can you recall any particularly tough times and how you overcame them?
SW: This sounds crazy, but there was one year where our sales didn’t go up, in all the years I’ve been in business. It was 2008. It’s a small company. It’s a huge industry. If you work your tail off and get a little bit of the pie, it’s a lot. In fact, I spent more money on advertising when business went down that year. I did that because opportunity opened and shelf space opened and you received better rates from magazines. We opened three stores that year.

You’ve sold your business several times. How have the brand’s various owners impacted you?
SW: The Jones Group never got into it. They decided to close the company before any plan could get put in place. [Former CEO] Wayne Kulkin and I had the same roles as well as everybody else when Jones bought 55 percent of the company. A couple of years later, they were liquidating and getting their cash out. Then I realized, “OK, that was my plan, and my plan failed.” It wasn’t my fault. Well, maybe it was my fault because I picked the wrong people. I needed to find another company that would be long-standing, that had dynamic leadership, that would know our business. My first and almost only choice was Coach. Other companies wanted to buy us. But I orchestrated the sale to Coach. The CEO, Victor Luis, talked about his goals, which included expanding Coach with several brands. We fell into his plans as the first company to buy, and we made it happen. From Day One, the plan was that they would provide the funds necessary and advise us on finding people to replace Wayne, to replace me and to build up a team of other people. The company needed to be structured in a way that no one person would put it at risk. I put the company at risk, and I was lucky. I shot crap with God.

Did you ever think you’d be this successful?
SW: No. I still don’t think of it like that. It’s never been about that. If you do it right, the money comes and the enjoyment is there. It changes every week because it’s fashion. You never get bored. And it’s great to find a company like Coach that has a team and structure to scale things up and do more with it. I never went into the bag business, never went into the men’s shoe business. Retail was a natural. I did what I knew the best, what I could do perfectly.

What is your biggest piece of advice for young designers?
SW: This is one challenging industry because you are never a perennial success. Every collection is another test. Yes, there is loyalty and following. But the loyalty is to the product, to the look of it, to the feel and cachet of it. It never ends. You have to be relentless and you have to love it.

Will you continue to keep tabs on the brand once you exit?
SW: I’m chairman emeritus through 2018, so I’m around. I’ll be at a few meetings. I’m available for advice and guidance if asked.

What do you want to be remembered for in the shoe business?
SW: I know what I contributed. But you have to be realistic. I’m a very practical guy. I think about the great companies that existed when I first started: Herbert and Beth Levine. David Evins. The king of them all, Charles Jourdan. I don’t think there’s anyone in the shoe business today who could tell you they remember anything specific about any of them. All these people retired or sold to another big company that didn’t know what to do with them, and it was adios. And the industry didn’t miss them because it opened the door for others.

Will you miss all of this?
SW: I’m not going to miss it. I’m so excited about the future. I couldn’t have said that six months ago. But I can tell you today I am so excited about the seven things I have lined up. I can’t wait to get going.

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