CHRISTINA LESSA: What was it like growing up in your fathers shoe business, Mr. Seymour Shoes, during the 50’s and 60’s… Did his process inspire you?
STUART WEITZMAN: I would say rather than inspiring me, he guided me. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was only a year and a half out of college. I did have summers working with him and about a year and a half with him where he guided me. When I say he guided me, I mean, I was a young kid who wanted to go to California and sell shoes for the company. I told him I wanted to go out there and sell shoes in the stores, and he put a damper on that. He said, “What you’re going to do actually is you’re going to go to the factory and you’re going to work with our last pattern maker–a ‘last’ is the form used to make a shoe–and you’re going to learn everything about that and that is where we focus on the design and the comfort and the fit, and after you’ve mastered that, maybe I’ll let you run a factory.” I’ll tell you this, to this day, there is nothing I have learned in all my years in the shoe business that is more valuable than that. It serves me and other people who I have nurtured and guided and it is still a part of anything I do. I never would have grabbed on to that knowledge. Today’s shoe people don’t really grow up in factories, they might be great merchants or have wonderful design ability, but as far as the engineering and making and understanding of the use of technology for the making of the product, it is a rare person who has that experience and that was the guidance that I got from day one and boy has it paid off.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Legend has it that your father bronzed your first design after its release showed unusually strong sales….you’re a keen business person, and an artist.
STUART WEITZMAN: Well, shoe- making is an art. Of course it’s a business, but really, it’s a craft. It’s not much different from the products you see at craft fairs except of course we make more of them. We distribute them wider, but it is a craft–and someone has to do that craft.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What was your career choice originally?
STUART WEITZMAN: Actually, I didn’t plan to make this a career. Drawing, painting–that was a hobby. I was a financial kind of guy. I loved Wall Street. I loved business. I went to a very good business school in Pennsylvania, Wharton, and I was planning for business to be my career. But then my dad passed away, and his partner was my brother who was a lot older than me, and I was basically working for them when I got out of school. I was deciding if I wanted to go for a masters degree when he died, and my brother asked me to design some shoes because he knew I grew up painting. I decided to do it until he found somebody to replace my dad or be his designer. And I remember the thrill–I guess the first thrill that I experienced in this industry–seeing the shoes that I designed in a store that is today Bulgari on the corner of 57th and 5th Avenue, in those days it was called I. Miller. It was an amazing store, it would be like Bergdorf Goodman is today, and there they were: my shoes, right in the window. I said, “Oh my gosh!” I couldn’t believe it. I went into the store and asked to meet the manager and asked him how they were doing with those shoes and he said, “Oh, we just put in a re-order”, and I said, “Wow, that’s my shoe. I called up my brother and I said, I’d like to try this for a while,” and that was it.
CHRISTINA LESSSA: I heard a rumor that you secretly wanted to be a comedian.
STUART WEITZMAN: Oh that! Oh that was never a career. I always did that. I used to go to those clubs in Barcelona and Boston when I lived there and horse around with the other stand up comedians and you either had eggs thrown at you or applause thrown at you. That has served me well, because I had a lot of fun and I have had a lot of experiences and I like to turn situations into humor. I like that. And all the books say it’s healthy and helps you live longer so that’s good.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So you’re a true right and left brain operator with your combination of creativity and superb business acumen being a great part of your success.
STUART WEITZMAN: Well, it has worked for me, but look at all the companies where the designer is just the designer and the business is handled by others, you can go down the list of many successful companies and see that that doesn’t have to be the case. It doesn’t have to be one person, it just happened to work out for me.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Of course, I agree… I was alluding to the idea that imaginative people have a lot of empathy and that you seem to have a lot of empathy for women. This imagination that allows you to empathize..I believe that it’s the gateway to entrepreneurship.
STUART WEITZMAN: Well, if you came to our office and saw that out of 77 people, that 74 of them are women, I guess you’d get that message. Well, first of all, women are my inspiration. I’m always thinking about them when I’m designing shoes, all the different types of women, and how they are so vocal. Women have a lot of different personalities, and I design for all of them and try to represent each one as I build out my collection. I value their opinions and know that they have so much to offer. I trust their opinions. Since the beginning, I have sought out women to hire and work with me who would help me and make my company better. I’m in an industry where I’m making footwear for women, and in order to get the full aspect of what women want and need and what really drives them, I can’t do better than to work closely with them every day.
CHRISTINA LESSA: The economy is always changing, smart entrepreneurs change with it. What do you think today’s generation of creative entrepreneurs should be paying attention to now?
STUART WEITZMAN: Whatever field or marketplace they’re going after, they need to pay great attention to it. Generally speaking you are swimming upstream and you must try not to go too far against the grain and make things that are not practical–although gorgeous, are not comfortable. The marketplace tells us where the strength is, and I would say you have a greater chance for success and growth if you are deeply connected to that marketplace as opposed to outside it. Having said that, it is good to have your own niche, your own thing that makes you unique. You don’t want to copy the world, I’m not implying that. I’m saying you have to be aware of your field and know what’s going on and try to make a better mousetrap.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Who are your heroes today in America and in the art world, or anywhere where you see positive uses of creativity?
STUART WEITZMAN: Well, we have moved into a new world for industries in the internet world. The guys who are building that world are the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts of this age. There is no doubt that they are the creative business leaders of today. Where there were creative manufacturers 80 years ago, now we have this new backbone for our economy from a creative business standpoint. You know we have some great clothing designers. Some of the greatest designers in the world are here in New York: Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Tom Ford, these are all Americans. We have the talent here and they are the ones moving the creative front forward…but generally speaking, I see the smaller start ups with the most creative innovation and their talent is obvious. I think that the Council of Fashion Designers (CFDA) is doing a tremendous job in counseling and moving those people along through awards that inspire them to keep going and helps them find backers.
You know, once you get established so much of your business is about establishing and maintaining continuity, and the smaller you are the more risks you can take. It’s a fascinating thing about art, fashion, music: no one really knows the creator, they know the product and their loyalty is to the product they love. Over time the consistency of that creator gets recognized and they earn a following, but we are in the most democratic of all industries–this creative world–whether it be footwear, accessories, fashion, or music and art: the consumer, the audience decides.
CHRISTINA LESSA: After 5 decades of design, where do you look for the next inspiration in your work?
STUART WEITZMAN: I’ll tell you something I learned a long time ago and I’ve never let go of it, and I think it is as valid today as it was then: Every product that we touch had been designed by somebody. From a fork and knife, to the shape of the bread that we are served in a restaurant–someone thought to make it that way. Some are built in a way that we like, and some make us wonder why someone would make something like that, but effort is always put into it. The eye has to recognize what is different and beautiful about each one. I draw inspiration from that realization that we live in a world of design and it inspires me to try new things. I have made leathers from things that the leather industry would never have thought of. I’ve made heels in shapes that in no way resemble any heels that came before it, but instead resemble other objects that are in the world around us. For example, the first or second shoe that earned me recognition was a shoe I wanted to make that would capture the imagination of every girl, and that was the Cinderella shoe. I made this transparent shoe, and I went to the furniture industry to a company whose products are made with plexiglass and I said I want to make a heel out of this. Once they understood I was serious, they gave me the material and I made this transparent Cinderella heel that went with the transparent upper and really made a true Cinderella pump. Now I had to figure out how to put it on, I didn’t want to screw it on, that would take away from the beauty of it, so I had to go find out about the lamination and adhesive industry. I found people there who came up with a glue for me that would make this shoe work even though we were combining leather with plexiglass. That’s a good example because I made a lot of that shoe and I put it together from products that are outside of my industry.
But the shoe that won me the first award I ever received, which was over 30 years ago. It was a bridal shoe. I saw these ugly shoes that women wore with their wedding gowns that looked like they would glow in the dark. They would spend $1000 and they were so ugly, but they were hidden under the dress so I guess people figured who cares. But I knew that women love shoes as much as any other accessory and that didn’t sit right with me, so I made a bridal shoe that a woman might want to even shorten her gown to show off. I went to the Swiss lace industry to make a beautiful lace material that would be strong enough to put a foot in and be able to be worn on a continual basis. You know lace is usually very soft and non-functional–certainly not as strong as conventional shoe materials like leather. So, you know I often look outside my own industry for inspiration, and that’s a big part of my creativity. And I encourage my team to think that way. You have to ask, will a woman really wear this shoe? There’s a lot that goes into getting to what we want to accomplish.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Can we speak a bit about your celebrity show auction and the philanthropic effort behind that?
STUART WEITZMAN: You know, Americans in general are the most generous people on the planet. We’re born into that and shown how to be charitable by our parents. Our peers teach us that, and our schools and other institutions teach us that. We are a country that would rather rely on ourselves than have Uncle Sam take care of us in every aspect of our lives. On the other hand, Europe is a very socialist market where the government takes care of you as best it can, when they’re not in chaos, from cradle to grave. I think we have the benefit of all the cultures coming together here in America, and as each generation arrives, they find a way to find work and give the fruits of their success forward to the next group of people who come here.
What we did with the celebrity auction is think, who’s our customer? And of course it’s women. So we thought, what causes matter to women? After my wife’vs mother died of breast cancer, and my sister struggled with her own cancer, we had a personal attachment to that issue obviously and we wanted to help the people who share that struggle. So I’m working with celebrities and I’m making shoes and I thought why not ask them to help us, and I didn’t have to beg anyone. The celebrities loved being a part of it. They were proud to lend a hand and make a difference through their efforts. Jerry Seinfeld’s wife is one of the forces behind something special we worked on. We created a baby buggy shoe collection and a baby buggy charity organization in NY and L.A.. We started there, working with these very creative characters, and we created these super cool East Coast boots with an urban attitude that absolutely everyone wanted to wear; we are doing a celebrity event with them in about a month. We’re always trying to find new ways to fund research and support those causes. Do you know what’s nice about this? We’ve inspired a whole industry, and as an industry, we’ve raised millions of dollars for these kinds of charities. You know this industry is personal for me, it’s my business and I try to get the most from both aspects of it, the creative and the economic…in the end, you get what you give.