George Malkemus was a 27-year-old copy chief at Bergdorf Goodman in New York when he first met an up-and-coming shoe designer in the 1980s.
“[Former Bergdorf president and fashion director] Dawn Mello knocked on my door 37 years ago and said you should meet this guy Manolo Blahnik,” Malkemus recalled today, choking back tears. He acknowledged that “it’s very hard saying goodbye” after revealing his decision not to renew a licensing deal with the now-legendary design veteran.
Another memory that has been top of mind in the past few days? Meeting with [former Neiman Marcus CEO] Burt Tansky early on, and hearing the retail executive say that Blahnik could be as important as Ferragamo had been in the shoe world.
That certainly proved to be true.
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Malkemus and his partner — in business and in life — Anthony Yurgaitis will continue operating the U.S. business in their midtown Manhattan headquarters until the end of December. On Jan. 1, the parent company, led by the designer’s niece Kristina Blahnik, will officially take over.
Malkemus sat down with his stateside team yesterday to discuss the news and reached out to many of his contacts across the industry, including longtime factory partners. “The shoe business is a life. With the grace of God and Sarah Jessica Parker, I’m still going to be in,” Malkemus said, adding that he’s also open to new opportunities.
The executive has partnered with the actress-turned-designer on her shoe line since its inception in 2013. “We’re probably just scratching the surface of what SJP can be about. I’m forced to think about things in a different way,” Malkemus said. “I always wanted to do shoes that were not at the core luxury price point. It’s enormously gratifying to be able to introduce women to shoes made in Italy at an artisan factory that aren’t $1,000.”
Malkemus also noted that the high-end designer piece of the business continues to undergo seismic shifts and is suffering as a whole.
Speaking of Parker, Malkemus also recounted how Carrie Bradshaw and “Sex and the City” introduced Blahnik to a whole different audience. “I used to tease Manolo and say that before the show, women on 5th and Park Avenue knew us,” Malkemus said. “After it, we became a brand.”
Malkemus recalled busloads of women from the U.K. coming to the store on “Sex and the City” tours to buy pairs of shoes. Even taxi drivers got to know the address of the boutique, thanks to the show’s influence. “It was always fun. I have very few regrets,” Malkemus said.
As for his decision to end the partnership, Malkemus said it wasn’t based on financial terms. “[Kristina and I] have had different opinions about how to run the company for a long time,” he said. “The world is different than what it was, but there are certain things that can’t be changed when it comes to shoes.”
Malkemus said he hasn’t spoken to Mr. Blahnik — his close friend and longtime business partner — since Feb. 24, a day before Kristina Blahnik flew to New York to begin discussions about the license agreement terms. But Malkemus is confident the pair will eventually reconnect. “We’ll figure it out,” he said.