Eli Footer, former co-chairman of Schwartz & Benjamin Inc., died on April 24 of heart failure. He was 94.
Footer joined the legendary family-owned footwear firm as a salesman in 1955 and retired in 2003 as co-chairman after holding that role since 1995. Over the decades, he tapped high-profile talent including Andrea Pfister and Manolo Blahnik to design for the firm, which was acquired by Steve Madden in 2017.
Despite Footer’s compact stature, he was a major industry presence, helping open doors for young talent. “I think Eli got more young people jobs in the business than you could ever imagine,” said former Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFANY) President Joe Moore, who met Footer while Moore was a sales associate at Bullock’s department store.
Among the young designers Footer helped promote were Reed Evins and his sister Melissa, co-owners of fashion brand Two City Kids.
“Eli set the mood for the whole company,” said Reed, who along with Melissa, was hired to design for the company’s Anne Klein collection, one of Schwartz & Benjamin’s licensed businesses. “He was a quiet man, but very strong in his presence.”
Danny Schwartz — former CEO of Schwartz & Benjamin, the company his grandfather founded in 1923 and where his father Arthur Schwartz served as president until 1993 — recalled Footer as a straight shooter when it came to working with clients. “He was the face of our company for many years and wasn’t afraid to tell people, no, when making unreasonable requests. They called him the Dr. No of the industry. It wasn’t a game he wanted to play,” Schwartz said.
Arthur Schwartz, the former company president who worked alongside Footer for decades, said: “He was a great merchant and able to maximize the salability and volume of something that was good,” he said. “He would anticipate the success of an [item], and he backed it up with stock. He was terrific and as integral part of the company and as important as an single person.”
Footer’s son Laurence agreed his father didn’t hold back any punches. “He was known for that in the industry,” said Footer. “He didn’t play games with people. He wouldn’t do markdowns or special deals. He could not be swayed or change course.”
Over the years, Footer was active in industry causes, serving as chairman of the Fashion Footwear Association of New York from 1987 to 1988. According to Jeannette Chang, former VP and publisher at Harper’s Bazaar, Footer was instrumental in helping her garner support for an early “FFANY Shoes on Sale” event.
“He knew everybody, all the vendors,” said Chang, whose job it was to tap companies for donations. “He showed me the ropes, giving me the names of all his competitors. They were like his pals.”
Schwartz & Benjamin provided Footer with more than a career opportunity. There he met his wife Phyllis, who joined the company in 1969. She was eventually named VP of product, retiring in 2007.
Before embarking on his footwear career, Footer served during World War II as a gunner, flying 25 missions over Japan. He later put himself through college under the G.I. Bill.
Footer is survived by his wife, sons Laurence and Andrew, and four grandchildren.