Exclusive: Steve Madden Reflects on His ‘Unbelievable, Unusual, Thrilling’ Career

On Dec. 3, Steve Madden will be inducted in the Hall of Fame at the FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 2 print issue about footwear’s fast-fashion mogul and his unpredictable journey to the top.

At 61, Steve Madden is still the brash, larger-than-life character who has built one of the footwear industry’s most wildly successful brands. In a wide-ranging conversation with FN in his Manhattan showroom last month, the entrepreneur boasted he’s in the best shape of his life physically and still focused on business with the same determination.

But he has also become a more introspective leader. As his billion-dollar company prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, Madden has been taking more time to reflect about the path that led him here.

Steve Madden wearing boxing gloves
Steve Madden.
CREDIT: Phil Walters

For instance, he starred in the 2017 documentary “Maddmen: The Steve Madden Story” and now the shoe mogul says he’s just finished an autobiography that traces his dramatic rise, devastating fall in 2002 when he was sentenced to 41 months in prison for stock fraud, and his return to the footwear stratosphere.

“It’s been such an extraordinary journey that I’ve been on,” he told FN. “It’s been unbelievable, unusual, thrilling and depressing. It’s been everything. It’s been
a real ride, and most people don’t experience that.”

Madden’s brand story began in 1990, when the Queens, N.Y., native famously began selling shoes out of his car funded by a mere $1,100 investment. From there, the trend-right label took off quickly, but the founder admitted to some early doubts. “I worked for a shoe company in my 20s and I did well, but I left and went on my own, more or less,” he recalled. “I remember one morning waking up with butterflies and thinking, ‘What the f**k did I do? What do I do now?’ And then I remember thinking: Just do things that you’re good at and everything else will fall in line.”

Steve Madden 1997 Footwear Flashback
Steve Madden talks with FN in 1997 about the “big-head girl” campaign.
CREDIT: Footwear News Archive

Though Madden radiates confidence, he’s also quick to acknowledge the people and circumstances that contributed to his success.

“Yes, I was hardworking and talented, but I was a lucky guy. And it may not have been enough if I didn’t have luck,” he said. “I also had a lot of mentors, so I’m very grateful for that. It’s really been about people for me: the ones who encouraged me — and discouraged me. They kept me from spinning out. Because that’s what happens to people like me who are a ball of fire and could go anywhere.”

Among his early mentors were footwear execs Jay Adoni and Lance Rubin of L.J. Simone, one of the top shoe brands of the 1980s. “Each was very different and strange, but I learned so much from them,” said Madden, who also cited the late Jack Bienenfeld, founder of Jildor Shoes, as the man who taught him how to run a retail store.

Those lessons have certainly paid off with Madden’s footwear empire. While other brands have suffered in the so-called retail apocalypse, his public company far exceeded Q3 expectations, with an 8.5% rise in revenue to $497.3 million for the period. Major successes this year have included the acquisitions of Greats footwear and BB Dakota apparel, bringing the company’s stable of owned brands to roughly a dozen.

There was also the launch of a capsule collection with supermodel Winnie Harlow. “It was a pleasure to work with Steve Madden and his whole team, from the office meetings to the huge workshop where I got to see my shoes come to life. I’ve been blessed to shoot many campaigns, but this is the first time I got to design the shoes.”

Steve Madden Winnie Harlow Nordstrom NYC
Steve Madden and Winnie Harlow at the opening of Nordstrom NYC in October 2019.
CREDIT: Kristin Callahan/Shutterstock

Retail partners also heaped praise on the brand founder: “Steve Madden is iconic. He is a household name and a fashion empire all in one,” said Angela Merson, senior buyer for women’s fashion footwear at Zappos.com. “His passion, determination and creativity are a true reflection of the brand’s ongoing success in the industry.”

As he mused about what comes next, Madden referenced the music world — one of his longtime passions — observing how many artists spend their later years rehashing old hits. “But that’s not true in design,” he said. “The product of Steve Madden is the most important thing. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re all about here. Perhaps we haven’t been as quick as others in technology, but ultimately we win because we have great products. Everything works because that’s where we’re coming from.”

The 33rd annual FNAA ceremony will be held at the IAC Building in New York. Sponsors for the event include Klarna, Geox, The Style Room Powered by Zappos, FDRA, Micam Milano and Buchanan’s Scotch Whisky.

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