Sam Edelman, the designer behind several successful shoe lines, on Tuesday held court — legal court, that is.
The founder of his eponymous brand spoke to law students and fashion fans at the The Fashion, Art, Media & Entertainment Law (FAME) Center at Cardozo School of Law’s Portrait of a Designer event in New York. Here, he recounts his rise to global household name.
In a candid conversation with Barbara Kolsun, director of the FAME Center, Edelman also offered advice on achieving longevity in the industry and approaching the future with sustainability in mind. But first, he shared how an unexpected and seemingly unrelated passion helped him get his start.
“I really loved horses — I still love horses — but when I was young, I discovered a place called Fairfield County Hunt Club in Connecticut where everyone looked like today’s Ralph Lauren,” said Edelman. “My sister and I would sit in the bushes outside the club and watch what was happening and study the lifestyle.”
That’s how Edelman met Kelly Rector, now Kelly Rector Klein, ex-wife of Calvin Klein. Together, the two — along with the help of Edelman’s father, who was a retired leather tanner at the time — started their own take on the equestrian lifestyle in the form of shoes. They called it the Saddle Room and that’s where his career took off.
“The New York Post wrote a story about what we were doing and the president of Ralph Lauren contacted us and asked if we would do the shoes for his show. That’s how we met Ralph,” he recalled. “To be with Ralph Lauren and to see how he looked at the world, how he looked at fashion, how he looked at materials, it was a reinforcement of that Fairfield County lifestyle.”
Edelman went on to work with his friend and fellow shoe expert Kenneth — or as he called him, “Kenny” — Cole before moving to San Francisco with wife Libby to launch the shoe business at Esprit in the ’80s. A few years later, Edelman and his wife came up with the idea for their own brand, Sam & Libby. The two saw major success, especially with their bowed ballet flats, which sold 7 million pairs. They later sold the company to Maxwell Shoe Co. in 1996 and enjoyed the retired life for a bit until a crippling horseback riding injury reignited Sam’s spark for the shoe industry.
“I said to Libby, ‘If I can never walk again, I want to go back to the fashion business. I don’t think we finished it the right way,'” he shared.
He launched his namesake Sam Edelman brand in 2004 at the perfect time when the industry was craving fresh designs and styles at a price that wouldn’t break the bank; he grew it into an acclaimed line that was acquired by Caleres in 2010. Edelman continues to design at the label, which has grown into a $200 million global brand.
“I always tell people that if you want to be in the fashion business, do whatever you have to do to get into it. But to a young designer, the most important thing actually is to work for somebody [else] first,” said Edelman, speaking from his own experience. “What keeps me in the business is young people and watching them develop in the industry.”
With regard to the success of younger generations in the world of shoes and apparel, Edelman emphasized one key theme: “Sustainability is the greatest frontier right now for all of us to be exploring. To me, people who do [sustainability] as a trend or fashion will fail; I think you have to do it with total integrity and be consistent, as we’re just barely putting our toes in it.”
When asked for his final parting advice for aspiring shoe designers in the audience and around the world, Edelman sent a strong message regarding a last, the foot-shaped form used to create a shoe.
“You need to have a silver bullet. Everything in the shoe business is about a last. If you think about the shoe business, there’s 10, 20 great lasts in the whole world: Converse sneaker. Gucci loafer. Christian Louboutin pump, Christian Louboutin open toe. Manolo Blahnik …” he said. “If you get a great last, you have a business. So work really hard on fit, quality and integrity.”